It hit Jim suddenly, when he least expected it—a stabbing pain that left him clutching his chest and gasping for air. He dropped the tin cup of beef broth he was holding, collapsing under an olive tree in a foreign land. A lifetime of thoughts flashed like enemy fire around him—the faces of loved ones gathered in his mind, helping crowd out the pain. In that same moment, his identical twin John felt the white-hot pain of a bullet rip through his chest.
It was World War II. Both brothers were stationed in France. Jim was safe, stationed far from enemy territory; his brother John was on the front line. But, as it turned out, they were really only a heartbeat apart.
Both Jim and John survived their experiences, but they were forever changed. They would never again take the bond of brotherhood that they shared for granted.
Jim, a patient of that I worked with, related this powerful, personal and poignant story to both of us. As it turned out, Jim was not having a heart attack that day, though he did go on to develop cardiovascular problems in later life. Rather, he experienced an intense pain that was as "real" as the bullet wound his twin brother John had sustained, even though they were miles apart.
The Emotional Stress of a Broken Connection
An increasing number of cardiologists and psychoneuroimmunologists—specialists who examine the ”conversations” going on among the nervous, endocrine and the immune systems—study what happens to the body when a vital connection to another is broken. While the emotional stress of "heartbreak" is yet to be listed as a cause of death on any medical record, there is a growing sense among these specialists that loss of love or a vital connection can contribute to cardiovascular problems. And physicians and nurses who attend to people going through heart attacks, and hear their personal stories, have no doubt at all.
I have witnessed firsthand how the emotional stress of the loss of a loved one can lead to disease and even death. Acute heartbreak can trigger chest pain that’s impossible to distinguish from the discomfort of blocked coronary blood vessels.
The pain of longing for a lost loved one is both literally and metaphorically heartbreaking; and it certainly is, as in the case of the identical twins, Jim and John, very "real." But how do we explain the mechanism that translates loss into physical pain? Does something really break? The answer is yes.
Emotional Stress and Physical Health
What breaks is the very real connection that ties two hearts together. Although this connection cannot readily be described in concrete medical terminology, we do know that the emotional stress of heartbreak, just like love, affects the whole person.
Think of your heart not as an independent organ but as orchestrating your entire being. When you feel love, your heart acts like the conductor of an orchestra—uniting your body, mind and spirit.
When we love someone, we feel not only for, but with that person. We need not be mystical to know that love is a bridge between two people with a heartfelt connection with one another, like two tuning forks vibrating to the same frequency.
Reports like Jim and John's suggest that this sensitivity to emotional stress can operate over long distances and is, in some individuals, highly developed—one person can sense a life-altering event that is affecting a loved one far removed. From what I have learned, the heartstrings between twins can oftentimes be this strong.
February is National Heart Month, a time to be more aware of what jeopardizes—and what heals—your heart. May it be a time of honoring, or maybe even renewing, the heartfelt connections you have in your own life.