A couple years ago I met best-selling author Sebastian Junger while we were both randomly on the set of the TV show The Affair.
He was guest-starring as himself (a war journalist, Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker, special correspondent for ABC news, Peabody Award recipient, and overall super masculine and thoughtful guy). I had been hired as a yoga consultant for some scenes in a retreat center. Part of my job was to make Junger–who favors running and boxing for fitness–look like a seasoned yogi.
During lunch we wound up in a conversation about trauma. As a therapeutic yoga teacher, I specialize in trauma resolution. Much of Junger’s career focuses on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in soldiers and war veterans. So we had plenty to discuss.
At that time, Junger was also experiencing increasing issues with his heart. After a lifetime of robust health, his heart was on the fritz with a quivering, irregular heartbeat. He had atrial fibrillation (also called AFib) and was in the process of deciding whether he would get a procedure called a catheter ablation to fix the arrhythmia. In his early 50’s, he was, for the first time, confronted with the vulnerability of his physical form.
As I got to know Junger better, I learned that he had also recently suffered three painful losses.
“I went through a tough point, a tough few years,” he disclosed. “I was in a lot of combat as a journalist, then my colleague I was out there with was killed, my father died, and my marriage ended all in a couple years. After that I noticed when I went running I would get incredibly exhausted. I couldn’t even finish my run. I couldn’t even run three miles. I didn’t recognize my body–it didn’t work. Something was very, very wrong.”
Which brings us to the topic of this post: heartbreak.
With a series of losses like this, one can’t help but wonder, can emotional pain cause physical breakdown? Can a “broken heart” lead to the breakdown of the heart?
Junger was kind enough to sit down with me for a personal conversation on the topic of heartbreak. What he shared sort of blew my mind, as he can track the beginnings of the heart issue way back to his teenage emotional coping mechanisms. Read on to hear Junger’s path through healing his heart, and how this journey has transformed what he deems most important in life.
Becoming a Teenage Athlete to Combat an Emotionally Distant Home
“I grew up in a family that wasn’t very close–emotionally close,” shared Junger. “One of the things I did with the sort of vacuum that leaves in a person is I became a very intense athlete–it was a kind of self-soothing process. I was a distance runner. I ran 100 miles a week. I was quite good. I won a lot of races and it gave me a sense of satisfaction. It did all the things that make you able to not feel how you’re feeling.
“But the irony is that running 100 miles a week, when you’re that young, for as intensely and as long as I did, changes your heart. My heart got enlarged, as a lot of athletes’ are, and it’s correlated with atrial fibrillation. So people who are really intense athletes when they are really young have a higher instance of AFib–which is arrhythmia.
“All I knew [at that time] was I had a really low pulse, it was in the high 40s, and if I sat and concentrated I could think it down to 40. My buddy and I would have competitions–we’d have heart-rate monitors on, we’d sit staring at each other, and see who could think their heart lower.”
I stopped Junger here. Wait a minute, you and your friend created a heart regulation practice for fun? I had to know what his teenage heart-slowing strategy was…
“I’d just try to have everything sink through the floor: my breath, heartbeat, thoughts… everything. I just went into a kind of hibernation state and it worked! At least to the tune of ten heartbeats a minute.”
So Junger had already been living with arrhythmia from his lifetime of intense athleticism. But his enlarged heart wasn’t an issue that interfered with daily life until after he was hit with that series of emotional losses.
How it Feels to Only Get “Half a Heart Full of Blood”
Were you short of breath? I asked Junger about his struggles to run just a few miles after the AFib worsened later in life.
“No, I wasn’t short of breath. My heart was malfunctioning. I had plenty of oxygen, but unless the heart is pumping blood through the system you can’t use the oxygen that’s coming into the lungs. Atrial fibrillation is where the heart is beating irregularly and basically it contracts before it’s full of blood. So every time it beats, it’s only sending half a heart full of blood out.
“Your heart is never filling with blood fully and emptying itself–it’s just always kind of half full–you’re not moving a lot of blood so your blood pressure goes down. It’s a terrible, terrible feeling. Basically it’s completely incapacitating but there’s nothing really wrong with you. It’s not heart disease.”
Junger wasn’t just trying to run with AFib, he was also continuing his other favorite sport, boxing.
“I was sparring with AFib. And I’d go into full-blown episodes where my heartbeat was 200 BPM, so my heart was fluttering and I could barely stand, I could barely see–which doesn’t help if you’re sparring someone. I didn’t know what was going on.”
Junger was finally diagnosed and underwent a procedure called a cardiac ablation. This is a nonsurgical procedure that brings a catheter into the heart to cauterize the tissues with overactive electrical impulses that are causing the arrhythmia.
“There’s a piece of tissue in your atrium that’s misfiring,” described Junger, “and they burn around it which creates scar tissue and the electrical impulses can’t jump the scar tissue–it’s dead.
“And that completely cured me,” he said of the procedure. “But my point is, I’m not convinced… I mean, my father is a physicist and I believe in material physical explanations for things, right? But I’m not convinced that the emotional troubles I went through weren’t what finally precipitated this breakdown of my heart. I can’t prove that it was, but of course it affected me.”
The Bonds That Keep Our Hearts Healthy
The intersection between emotional and physical health is a point of fascination for many (like myself) in body-based wellness professions. Clients often come to us with symptoms that “coincidentally” began just after getting laid off, or having a terrible argument with their spouse, or losing a loved one.
According the the book A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, M.D. (and others) understanding the physiology of attachment bonds can lend insight into this topic.
“There is ample research that suggests that our mammalian bonds are a fundamental aspect of our physical health and hormonal regulation,” says Lewis. “Attachment bonds are a reflection of the limbic architecture mammals share. Short separations provoke an acute response known as protest, while prolonged separations yield the physiologic state of despair.” (Lewis et al., 76)
In the state of protest body temperature and heart rate rise, along with hormones related to alertness, vigilance and action. The spike in cortisol (in some mammals this stress hormone rises sixfold after half an hour of separation) “tells us that relationship rupture is a severe bodily strain.”
Furthermore, continues Lewis, “A number of somatic parameters go haywire in despair. Because separation deranges the body, losing relationships can cause physical illness… cardiovascular function, hormone levels, and immune processes are disturbed in adults subjected to prolonged separation. And so medical illness or death often follows the end of a marriage or the loss of a spouse.” (Lewis et al., 80)
These bonds we share that help keep us stable and healthy have been dubbed “limbic regulation.”
Self-Soothing With Booze and Cigarettes Works… Until It Doesn’t
I asked Junger if those severed attachment bonds with his father, longtime work partner and wife might have compromised his nervous system and thwarted his heart’s ability to manage its own symptoms.
“Absolutely,” he replied. “I also was self-soothing with cigarettes and alcohol quite a lot. I mean, if your best friend gets killed in combat and your marriage is ending–if that’s not a time to drink and smoke, I don’t know what is. And it made me feel good. I did it because it worked. It got me through a tough time, but then I got to a point where I had to stop and I did. Now I don’t drink at all, and I really enjoy not drinking.”
Letting go of self-destructive coping mechanisms isn’t so easy for many people who have been through painful losses. How did you quit drinking? I asked Junger.
“I don’t think I was ever an alcoholic, but I got to the point where I could drink 10 or 15 whiskeys and walk home. I mean, I could function, and that to me was a bad sign. I was just in a lot of pain and that’s what I was doing with it. And I’m a really happy drunk. I have a few drinks and I really enjoy myself.
“But when I first saw a doctor about my heart he said, ‘you know, alcohol can sometimes trigger these AFib episodes.’ I wanted to avoid having an ablation–it seemed scary to have them up inside your heart with cattle prods or whatever they are. So I tried not drinking and it didn’t do anything.
“It took about a month to realize [not drinking] wasn’t going to save me from the procedure, but by the end of that month I felt so different and good. And I realized this thing–when you’re young drinking is an act of rebellion, you’re throwing off the conventions of society. It feels so radical and empowering.
“Then I realized that as I got older, the radical revolutionary act is to be clear-minded. And in some ways society doesn’t want people to be clear-minded because if they were clear-minded, they wouldn’t put up with this shit. They wouldn’t put up with iPhones and televisions and commercials… it’s toxic.
“So I feel like there’s a de-facto sort of conspiracy to keep people clouded in their thinking, through entertainment, social media and alcohol. So I got to the point where I was like, no, no no, not drinking is my act of rebellion. Like, I’m not going to go quietly into the good night of commercial society. I’m going to be clear-minded.”
I’m not going to lie. There was a fist-bump at this moment in our conversation.
So wait, the procedure reset your heart, right? I asked.
“Yeah, after a few months, all of a sudden I wasn’t going into AFib, my heart was beating normally.”
When Our Defenses Become Our Vulnerabilities
It’s pretty common knowledge that those who are physically strong and athletic tend to fare better during recovery from medical procedures. But when I asked Junger if he felt this was true in his case, he pointed back to those early years as a young athlete as being the origin of the problem.
“With this, the irony for me is that it’s because I was such a strong athlete that my heart was malfunctioning. It’s associated with strong hearts. Like physically, hearts that are overdeveloped because you’re an athlete and you can move so much blood. I was running very fast, very far, starting at age 15.
“So to me there’s this incredible irony and something to be learned…it’s possible that which makes us feel the most defended actually makes us the least safe.”
Junger went on to disclose that the process taught him that he needed to gain a sense of emotional safety from something other than physical power. How did you find that emotional security? I asked him.
“I think a lot of people feel that they have to be extraordinary in order to deserve ordinary things… so in order to deserve an ordinary rich connection with another person, you have to, like, be extraordinary in some way to impress them.”
This was, apparently, how Junger felt as a teenager when he started running. “Girls when I was a teenager left me pretty bewildered. One thing I tried to do with my bewilderment was [to decide] if I run a fast enough mile time, I will be impressive enough so that girls will talk to me.
“Then you finally realize that girls don’t care about your mile time. What they want is to really connect with somebody. And that comes from ordinariness–from being open and ordinary and normal with another person.
“I think people realize that at different points in their life. I didn’t realize it until my 50s: Impressing people is not a path to closeness, it’s the opposite, but it takes a long time to figure that out. What I always had was this incredible reservoir of athletic strength and when I lost that… I finally sort of joined the human race.”
During the months leading up to his heart procedure, Junger was finishing his most recent book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. Tribe highlights the value of of building and maintaining close communal ties as the “key to our psychological survival.”
He also recently fathered his first child, a daughter. I asked if the shift in recent years of his life toward community and fatherhood might have been part of his healing process.
“Yeah, I mean humans are social primates and we get our physical safety, and as a result our emotional safety, from the proximity of others that we care about. End of sentence.
“I’m 57 now and I’m no longer particularly interested in myself. I’m interested in my family. I’m no longer the focus of my energy. It’s going outwards rather than inwards. And that feels incredibly good.”
On Listening to the Heart
My last question to Junger was admittedly a bit yoga-centric. After all you’ve been through, do you ever purposely listen to your heart for insight or guidance?
“Once in a while, I’ll have a little fluttering of pre-ventricular contractions–PVCs. They’re like a skipped heartbeat… I’ll have an afternoon of a little bit of those. I’ve never had them before in my life, and that either creates a sense of anxiety, or if I’m anxious it makes that [the PVCs] happen. And I don’t know which direction it goes in, but regardless when that happens it makes me think.
“I actually have to, like, collect myself. Like either my heart’s not working quite right and it’s affecting how I am, or I’m not quite right and it’s affecting my heart, but either way, I just have to stop things for a moment, or for a day, and get into a better place.”
This last part of our conversation was my favorite.
“When you become aware of your heartbeat, it can lead to a sort of neuroticism about mortality. And no one wants that. But, it’s a fucking miracle that we’re alive and that this thing beats I don’t know how many trillions of times in our lifetime, it’s a goddamn miracle, right?”
Yes. It certainly is.
“And if you can be aware enough to appreciate the miracle of that, without crossing the border into a kind of neuroticism about like, I’m gonna die any moment, if you can do that, you’re really participating in the act of being alive. You don’t want being alive to go by without thinking about it… and awareness of your heart can lead you to that appreciation.”
For more information, on Sebastian Junger including his books, films, media and speaking engagements visit sebastianjunger.com
Feature image by Tim Hetherington
Lewis M.D., Thomas, and Amini, M.D., Fari, and Lannon, M.D., Richard (2000). A General Theory of Love. [New York]: Random House.
Junger, S. (2016). Tribe: [on homecoming and belonging]. [New York]: HarperCollins Publishers.
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