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Heartbroken? Science says you should take a sick leave

Maria Isabel Garcia
We have to acknowledge that we are not machines – that we break, and when we do, they strike a blow to our organs too, such as our hearts

You break, therefore you are. 

Nothing sears the truth of being alive than joy and heartbreak. They are two sides of the same life. We all aim for joy but we also find that in the many journeys required to feel it, the paths are strewn with heartbreaks. You break up with someone, you lose someone, someone you love betrays you, you lose a place that cradles your most important memories – all of these bring you to a churning descent into an internal quicksand that, if you do not escape, could swallow you permanently. But what does a heartbreak look like?

It looks like a vase. Really. Specifically, a takotsubo – a Japanese pot used to trap octopus that’s wide at the base and narrow at the neck. The “wide base” is the left ventricle of your heart which swells when you experience a heartbreak. That is why the “broken heart syndrome” is also called the “takotsubo myopathy” because a Japanese researcher first described it as such in 1991 in a journal, when he saw the images of a heart that has been acutely stressed by emotional upheavals. It took a while before Western medicine acknowledged that indeed, our emotional signatures are seen in our hearts just like how we can tell the stories of a tree’s life based on its growth rings.

The recent TED Talk by cardiologist Sandeep Jauhar revealed that Western medicine, a tradition that he has been part of, has given way to a revision of what they thought the heart was. He said that while the ancients were mistaken in assigning feelings as emanating from the heart, the organ, there is no mistaking now in modern medicine that what happens in our emotional lives definitely registers in our hearts, and that broken hearts have the distinct signature-shape of an octopus-trapping vase. 

Jauhar and other cardiologists have observed that takotsubo myopathy resolves itself within a few weeks but if it doesn’t, it can result in life-threatening heart conditions and even death. And this is why he said that to mend broken hearts, it is blind to only reach out for cholesterol-reducing drugs, pacemakers, stents, or heart surgery. We have to acknowledge that we are not machines – that we break, and when we do, they strike a blow to our organs too, such as our hearts, and this is real. 

Two years ago, I wrote a column on why a broken heart is a scientific reason for a leave. This was based on research that found that the brain reacts the same way to both physical and social pain. Our brains are scarred by pain, regardless of the kind. It also brings about inflammation, which reveals how emotional pain can affect our immune system. Now, we know that our hearts are acutely affected by the breakups and breakdowns that we also have. We have to create our own emotional survival kit to mend our own broken hearts.

Another Ted Talk by psychologist and author Guy Winch gave us one of the ways out of the drowning effects of a heartbreak. In sum, he said you should stop idealizing that love that did not work out by first accepting that it is over. Next, he suggested listing down on your phone (for easy retrieval) all the things that you will happily no longer have to bear because she or he is out of your life. It is a kind of flipside approach which would probably work for some but not for all. 

But one thing all companies should do is acknowledge a heartbreak as deserving of a break – an official leave. A very recent Esquire article on Third Domingo, a young CEO of an ad agency who has had a deep and wide range of experience growing up, revealed Domingo’s own company policy without having seen images of a heart with takotsubo myopathy: allowing leaves for employees who just went through a breakup. He said they will not function at work anyway while in that state. This is also an acknowledgement that the same creative beings that make your company grow are complex beings and not machines. 

“More die of heartbreak than radiation” is a line in a book called More Die of Heartbreak by Nobel Laureate novelist Saul Bellow. When I first got the book almost 3 decades ago, I was more struck by the title than by the fact that it was Saul Bellow’s. Now, it could be the title of a study in a Cardiology journal. 

We break, therefore we are. We have to allow employees to take a break after they break. Because we will mend, therefore, we will be whole again – or some version we can manage for ourselves after picking up the pieces. –

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, “Science Solitaire” and “Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire.” You can reach her at

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