Apparently mistaking me for "The Love Goddess" columnist, the editors of BW have asked me to discuss the physical effects of heartbreak for this Valentine's Day issue. I can only assume the request indicates a concern for those of you who read the paper this far back into the classifieds. The idea, I believe, is to save you from turning one more page—to the phone sex ads.
Heartbreak (or "Prom," as it's known in high school) is a common result of rejection, loss or the ending of a relationship via divorce, physical separation or some schmuck's unilateral decision. Whatever the cause, a broken heart may, indeed, cause the physical symptoms associated with anxiety, sleeplessness and loss of appetite. And though the emotional ramifications are even more pronounced, both pale in comparison to the creative ones: For every Shakespeare that produces a tortured Romeo and Juliet, we unfortunately get a Good Luck Chuck, an American Pie: Band Camp and several mini-series on Lifetime, Television for Women.
The heart, of course, has long been considered the seat of our emotions and the home of the soul. Over time, the organ has also become the iconic symbol of romantic love. Along with fat, flying babies wielding weapons, little hearts mark the corners of every pink Hallmark card papering the aisles of Rite Aid. And, given the physical consequences of Cupid's arrow being ripped from your chest, their location in a drugstore may be strangely appropriate.
A few years ago, researchers published a study in the New England Journal of Medicine identifying a pattern of symptoms occurring in those having experienced a sudden emotional stress such as unexpected breakup, abrupt revelation or severe grief. Calling it Broken Heart Syndrome, they described a condition that mimics a heart attack, but occurs in a generally healthy person with few or no cardiac risk factors. The flood of emotion appears to cause an equivalent flood of adrenaline—a stress hormone that, at high levels, can be toxic to heart tissue. Technically a "stress cardiomyopathy," BHS affects women primarily, but both sexes can quickly die from the stun to the heart.
If identified quickly and treated appropriately, BHS can resolve in a few days and leave the patient with no lasting physical damage. Emotionally, though, the stress of a breakup, death or shock may linger. Various studies over the last couple of decades have shown that those surviving the death of a spouse have an understandably high rate of depression, alcohol use and accidental death. But they also have more cancer and heart disease. One explanation for this curious finding may be that stress itself suppresses immune function and slows disease recovery. This link between stress and illness almost certainly translates over to the unfortunate casualties of love.
Conventional treatment for a broken heart does not exist, unless you count getting cornball platitudes from Dr. Phil. Short periods of self-pity, anger or isolation are perfectly normal. But if these last weeks or months, a visit to a psychologist or trained counselor may be appropriate. Early on, established coping methods, such as exercise, may offer considerable help. Exercise increases production of endorphins, the naturally occurring feel-good chemicals that elevate mood. A secondary benefit of strenuous activity is an improved quality of sleep—especially important for any physical or psychological recuperation. And not to be overlooked is the feeling of accomplishment and control that exercise provides—a helpful boost for diminished self-esteem. Other pearls of wisdom are spread generously through women's magazines (my Redbook subscription is now tax-deductible): Never try to remain friends, pack away those concert ticket stubs for future reminiscing, and—should you wear down your friends—a call to the heartbreak help line can allow you to tell your sob story to someone who has volunteered to hear it. (Note to self for future column: Analyze link between help-line volunteers and ownership of an inordinate number of cats.)
A broken heart never heals in a linear fashion; be prepared to retrace your steps many times along the way. An important thing to remember is that you wouldn't feel so awful if you weren't equally capable of feeling the joy of being in love. You may just have to trust that another flying baby will eventually target your heart again (i.e. Brad Pitt, post-Jennifer Anniston). But, if my own cornball platitudes don't convince you, I suppose there are always those ads two pages over. Be warned, however, those kittens over in Adopt-A-Pet are tough to get past.