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How Your Broken Heart Can Impact Your Body

Emotional pain and grief can totally break you.

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Pink kintsugi pottery shaped heart on colorful background
Photographs and Prop Styling: Stephanie Shih (Ceramicist: Brianna Kaufman)
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Heidi Bright’s heart broke in 2015. When the Cincinnati-based writer lost her teenage son to a heroin overdose, she said it felt like a horse had kicked her in the chest. Bright described the pain as intense and constant. Yet the physical discomfort “was nothing compared to the emotional aspect,” she said.

Bright, now 62, didn’t seek medical attention for her aching heart, which is not unusual, said Sudip Saha, a cardiologist with Kaiser Permanente. As a result, the condition is very likely underdiagnosed, he noted.

Bright spent some time reading about broken heart syndrome, also called stress cardiomyopathy or takotsubo cardiomyopathy, on the American Heart Association's website. This gave her reassurance that the condition was, in most cases, temporary or reversible. Indeed, the pain in her chest subsided within a few weeks, fading little by little as the days went on.

Typically brought on by a heartbreaking event, traumatic experience or loss of a loved one, broken heart syndrome most often does heal with time.

What exactly is broken heart syndrome?

In broken heart syndrome, a part of the heart temporarily enlarges and doesn’t pump blood as well as it should. The rest of the heart functions normally or sometimes more forcefully to make up for the part of the heart that isn’t in peak condition.

This may lead to “chest pain, chest pressure, shortness of breath, heart failure symptoms, passing-out type symptoms,” Saha said.

Diagnosing the reversible condition is pretty straightforward.

Cardiologists want to rule out any serious heart conditions so they can decide on a course of treatment and management. If an electrocardiogram and/or blood work reveal broken heart syndrome or stress cardiomyopathy, there’s not much that can be done from a medication perspective.

Theresa L. Woodard, a doctor of internal medicine and the area medical director for CenterWell Senior Primary Care in Louisiana and Mississippi, said sometimes standard medications for heart-muscle weakness are prescribed, depending on one’s heart rate, blood pressure and other factors. Time, however, is the ultimate healer.

Sometimes broken heart syndrome is misdiagnosed as a heart attack as some test results can be similar. Symptoms may overlap too. With a heart attack, however, coronary arteries are blocked; that is not the case with broken heart syndrome, which doesn’t require surgery or other medical intervention.

Healthy individuals can suffer from a broken heart and, although it can occur in anyone, postmenopausal women are the highest risk population, according to both Saha and Woodard. The reason for this, explained Saha, has to do with changes in hormones, though much still needs to be learned about the condition’s causes.

A 2021 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association adds to research finding that broken heart syndrome is more frequently diagnosed in middle-aged and older women than in younger women or men of any age.

Those with a history of chronic anxiety, depression or neurologic illness are also at elevated risk,” said Woodard.

How can you mend a broken heart?

Although the emotional toll of grief may be ongoing and undulating, the physical pain of a broken heart usually does go away over time.

Bright likened the pain she felt after son died to a heart attack. Even so, she chose not to dwell on the physical pain and discomfort. Since she was so overcome with grief, this was a less challenging task than it might seem.

In the aftermath of her son’s tragic passing, Bright “sat in my grief.” Her healing journey involved spending one to two hours each day talking to one of 14 close people in her life about what had happened and how painful it was. This deep grieving process went on for about six months, though she recovered from broken heart syndrome in a few weeks’ time. “My heart has been fine ever since,” Bright said. (If you are suffering, please do see your doctor.)

Saha said broken hearts can result from either an intense physical experience (he once had a patient who choked while eating, which resulted in stress cardiomyopathy) or an emotional one, “where we just have this intense emotional negative experience, fear-based grief.”

He went on to explain that our bodies have a strong mind-heart connection; when our endocrine glands release stress hormones, this can play a role in how the heart reacts to very stressful situations. In the case of broken heart syndrome, the heart — at least a part of it — responds to the stress of a heartbreaking event. But when the event that caused the stress cardiomyopathy isn’t quite so fresh, the heart begins to function normally again.

What can you do to prevent your heart from breaking?

There’s no preventive medication or measure for stopping broken heart syndrome from occurring in the first place. Most people do recover with their heart fully functional and no long-term damage to the organ.

“In general, if you experience any form of stress, participating in stress-reducing activities like meditation, relaxation and yoga can help,” said Woodard, who also suggests therapy as a useful part of the healing process.

Dallas-based counselor Candy Marcum emphasized the importance of self-care following a traumatic event. Talking about how you’re feeling, either with a professional or with close friends and family like Bright did, is essential, Marcum said.

Movement is also useful for “it is almost impossible to be sad and moving at the same time,” Marcum said. Since broken heart syndrome manifests as a physical condition, there’s no DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) classification for it, although on the mental and emotional side, it often shows up as depression or situational depression.

Once the heart has physically healed, there’s typically still work to be done to heal the whole person.

No matter how generally healthy we are, the truth is many, if not all of us, have experienced what we’d describe as a “broken heart,” resulting from the loss of a loved one or a devastating experience. Sometimes, the heart really does break and it’s only in time that it mends.

Have any of you ever suffered from a broken heart? How did you handle it? Let us know in the comments below.

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