I have had many patients with the known risk factors for heart disease: high cholesterol, obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure. But I suspected that many of them also had other, less obvious risk factors—what I call hidden risk factors—that made them vulnerable to heart disease.
As a trained psychotherapist, I realized that these hidden risk factors were emotional and psychological. I learned that suppressed anger, rage, and hostility can literally injure the heart (something we’ve learned from "type-A" coronary-prone people).
But as I explored the emotional causes of heart disease, I realized that not just anger, but the loss of love or "heartbreak", a lack of intimacy with other people, and emotional isolation all contribute to heart disease as strongly as smoking, a high fat diet, and lack of exercise.
I discovered that the heart is indeed much more than a pump. We all know the sayings "you touched my heart," "you stole my heart," "my heart is broken." The heart is the only organ in the body that carries such emotionally charged meaning and, at one point, I was jolted to realize that these are not just beautiful images: they can describe real, physical, medical events in the heart. The "heavy heart" that comes with sadness can actually lead to chest pain (angina), and a "broken heart" that goes unhealed can be a primary cause of heart disease.
Heartbreak Literally Broke His Heart
I saw this in "Lorenzo," a 55-year-old man who first came to see me several years ago. He noticed the portrait of my great grandfather that hangs in my office, and told me the picture resembled his own father. As we talked about this, Lorenzo began to feel very sad, and started to share his life story with me.
He had been born in Hungary and had never seen his father after he was three years old. His father had been drafted into Hitler's army and stationed far from home during World War II, captured by the Russians, and died in Siberia. Throughout his childhood and his entire adult life, Lorenzo had suffered a deep, unfulfilled longing for his father.
When Lorenzo developed heart disease in his late 40s and needed a triple coronary bypass by age 50, he was shocked because he had none of the risk factors for heart disease. But he didn't realize that a deep longing for an unavailable loved one can damage the health of your heart. For more than 40 years, Lorenzo had painfully longed for his absent father.
This is a form of heartbreak. Even though Lorenzo had pushed this emotional pain away so he could no longer feel it, the physical components of this emotional injury were damaging his body.
Over the decades, Lorenzo’s body had responded to the emotional pain of his heartbreak by distorting its musculature, circulation, and breathing. This gave him a posture in which his chest was rigid and held unnaturally high and over-inflated, and his breathing was minimal, mechanical, and shallow.
Breaking Through the "Armor"
Lorenzo's chest muscles made it appear as if he was wearing a heavily armored breast plate. This "armor" was physically and symbolically protecting the vulnerable heart of the lonely three year old he once was, against the agonizing pain of losing his beloved father. Over 45 years, this physical defense born out of emotional pain had chronically constricted Lorenzo's breathing, chest circulation, and feelings, and had created chronic muscular tension.
As Lorenzo grew up, his body continued adding to these muscular tensions. The end result was his heart disease. What Lorenzo's body had done to protect the little boy from heartbreak, ultimately could have killed him as an adult.
My first and most important step was to make Lorenzo aware that this heartbreak and his rigid chest were contributing factors in his heart disease. He readily accepted this, and this was very good for him. This kind of awareness is critical to healing, and some patients have trouble accepting it.
Next, I encouraged him to breathe more deeply in order to free up his chest and reduce its rigidity, and I taught him exercises to help him do this.
I also asked Lorenzo to talk more with me about his feelings of sadness. I validated his willingness to cry and "gave him permission" to cry. I also told him that if he had difficulty dealing with his sadness, I would recommend a counselor who could help him. I told him that every time he expresses and ventilates his feelings, it helps heal his heart.
It can help heal yours as well.
Not finding what you need? Check my A-to-Z article index.