A broken heart (or heartbreak) is a common metaphor used to describe the intense emotional pain or suffering one feels after losing a loved one, through death, divorce, breakup, moving, being rejected, or other means.
Heartbreak is usually associated with losing a spouse or loved one, though losing a parent, child, pet, or close friend can also “break one’s heart”. The phrase refers to the physical pain one may feel in the chest as a result of the loss. Although “heartbreak” is usually a metaphor, there is a condition – appropriately known as “broken heart syndrome” – where a traumatizing incident triggers the brain to distribute chemicals that weaken heart tissue.
Some elephants in Africa have been known to die from Broken Heart Syndrome.
For many people having a broken heart is something that may not be recognized at first, as it takes time for an emotional or physical loss to be fully acknowledged. As Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson states:
Human beings are not always aware of what they are feeling. Like animals, they may not be able to put their feelings into words. This does not mean they have no feelings.
Sigmund Freud once speculated that a man could be in love with a woman for six years and not know it until many years later. Such a man, with all the goodwill in the world, could not have verbalized what he did not know. He had the feelings, but he did not know about them. As Freud put it in his 1915 article The Unconscious: “It is surely of the essence of an emotion that we should be aware of it. Yet it is beyond question that we can ‘have’ feelings that we do not know about.”
Regarding the sadness of loss and heartbreak, the Buddha had the following admonition:
O, monks! Why should every female, male, layperson, or priest always consider that all things they love would one day go away from them? What is the advantage of taking the said matter into consideration? Hearken, monks! All fondness and love existing in the beings lead them to perform physical, verbal or mental bad deeds. Upon having always taken such matter into consideration, the being will be able to leave or lighten such fondness and love. O, monks! That is the advantage that every female, male, layperson, or priest should always consider that all things they love would one day go away from them.
The symptoms of a “broken heart” can manifest themselves through psychological pain but for many the effect is physical. Although the experience is regarded commonly as indescribable, the following is a list of common symptoms that occur:
A perceived tightness of the chest, similar to an anxiety attack
Stomachache and/or loss of appetite
Partial or complete insomnia
Apathy (loss of interest)
Feelings of loneliness
Feelings of hopelessness and despair
Loss of self-respect and/or self-esteem
Medical or psychological illness (for example depression)
Suicidal thoughts (in extreme cases)
The thousand-yard stare
Constant or frequent crying
A feeling of complete emptiness
In extreme cases, death