A Broken Heart Can Cause Physical Pain

Having a lump in the throat or a broken heart are expressions that we generally use in a figurative sense. However, emotional pain can actually have physical manifestations.
A Broken Heart Can Cause Physical Pain
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

When you go through periods of great emotional suffering, you might say that your heart is broken. This phrase, halfway between the poetic and the literal, helps you to express the magnitude of the sorrow you’re experiencing. Nonetheless, a metaphorical broken heart does often bring with it various physical ailments.

The physical and psychic spheres are completely connected. Therefore, almost invariably, problems in one dimension have manifestations in the other as well. Furthermore, some scientific studies conclude that emotional pain can really be felt in the flesh.

Your heart is broken

There are many kinds of situations that can lead you to believe that your heart is broken. For instance, the death of a loved one, a breakup of a relationship, being betrayed by a friend, or being let down by someone you really trusted.

When you say your heart is broken, you’re expressing an overwhelming sadness, a nostalgia of great magnitude, and a pain that paralyzes you. With these words, you’re trying to capture the emotional suffering that you’re going through. A pain that’s so intense it seems to have become tangible.

You feel confused, lost, vulnerable, and devastated. You lose interest in everything around you and you seem to have no energy. In fact, the present becomes unbearable and the future unimaginable. You feel weak, fragile, and unable to face the adversity that you’re facing.

Woman with physical and emotional pain

A pain that’s felt on a physical level

Several scientific studies have discovered that the same brain region that functions as a physical pain processor is also responsible for processing emotional pain. Therefore, just as there are physical injuries that lead to chronic pain, there are also emotional wounds that many people fail to recover from.

The physical manifestations of emotional discomfort are diverse and known to all. For example, when you feel sad or anxious, you often experience a lump in your throat. Or, when you’re exceptionally troubled, your stomach feels like it’s tied up in knots.

As a matter of fact, you’ve experienced psychosomatic disorders since you were a child. They reveal, at an organic level, the emotional burden that you’re not capable of handling. For instance, many infants experience frequent headaches or digestive problems for which no physiological cause can be found. That’s because they’re caused by psychological discomfort.

As an adult, you can also suffer from muscle pain, headaches, heartburn, indigestion, skin irritations, and endless physical symptoms due to emotional causes. Nevertheless, without a doubt, the most surprising manifestation of this phenomenon is the so-called broken heart syndrome.

Woman with hands on her face feeling emotional pain

Broken heart syndrome

This disease, called Takotsubo cardiomyopathy (TCM), doesn’t literally break the heart, but it does damage it. That’s because, in a situation of high emotional stress in the body, there’s a sudden release of large doses of catecholamines.

The increase in this substance causes the heart rate to skyrocket, generating physical and real damage to the heart. It’s a tangible process that’s easily seen in diagnostic tests. The person suffering from it experiences symptoms similar to those of a heart attack. For instance, chest pain and shortness of breath.

There are treatments for this disease and it doesn’t generate permanent sequelae. Even so, the phenomenon is important enough to invite reflection.

Developing resilience to avoid a broken heart

Stressful experiences that can lead to broken heart syndrome are relatively common. On the other hand, many people will go through them without ever experiencing this syndrome. That’s because not everyone possesses the same predisposition to manifest somatic symptoms when facing emotional adversity.

The difference lies in the varying levels of resilience of each individual. In other words, the capacities and personal resources that you possess to deal with negative, unexpected, or stressful situations. These coping strategies make a difference to the degree to which you’re affected by such experiences.

Fortunately, resilience can be developed. Indeed, it’s never too late to acquire new resources and more appropriate strategies. To this end, you should try and work on yourself and your personal development. This will prevent your body from screaming due to the pain you’re unable to express.

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  • Jiménez, S. R., & Valle, J. S. L. (2012). Cardiomiopatía de Takotsubo, el gran imitador del infarto agudo del miocardio. Revista CES Medicina26(1), 107-120.
  • Cyrulnik, B., Manciaux, M., Sánchez, E., Colmenares, M. E., Balegno, L., & Olaya, M. (2002). La resiliencia. Desvictimizar la víctima. Cali: Casa editorial Rafue. CEIC.

The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.