Broken Heart Syndrome
Health + Wellness Wellness

Broken Heart Syndrome: When Grief Affects Your Mind and Body

February 4, 2019

The loss of a loved one or pet can lead to symptoms that mimic a heart attack. Here’s how to tell if your heart is in danger.

By Susan Peck

Your heart is racing, palms are sweaty and your cheeks are flushed bright red. It’s not a virus you’re coming down with — you’re falling in love. But what physically happens to your heart when you find yourself falling head over heels for your new flame?

According to medical experts, your brain sends a signal that releases hormones such as adrenaline, dopamine and oxytocin, which are responsible for the fast heartbeat and feelings of euphoria and excitement. The response occurs just by being in the presence of the object of your affection.

“There aren’t many physical risks to the heart from falling in love,” says Dr. Pamela Marcovitz, medical director of the Ministrelli Women’s Heart Center at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak. “But the same isn’t always true for the opposite. The general hypothesis is when a person is experiencing loss of a loved one, or extreme grief, the release of stress hormones can trigger cardiac abnormalities that adversely affect the heart muscle and shouldn’t be taken lightly.”

Dr. Pam MarcovitzCourtesy Dr. Pam Marcovitz

Dr. Pam Marcovitz, Ministrelli Women’s Heart Center director at Beaumont, talks with a patient.

This grief response is known as “broken heart syndrome” and was first noted in Japan in 1990. Physicians discovered certain people had symptoms of a heart attack, such as chest pain, shortness of breath and an abnormal electrocardiogram and echocardiogram at their initial testing, but follow-up cardiac angiograms that look for the signature blood clots, or blockages of a heart attack, turned up clean — ruling that diagnosis out.

“It became clear something else was going on, and today because we are mindful of broken heart syndrome, every cardiologist diagnoses multiple cases of it every year,” Marcovitz says. “I saw my first case in the ER in the late ’90s from a mother who had just found out her son was killed in Iraq.”  

Broken heart syndrome is also referred to as takotsubo cardiomyopathy — when the left ventricle of the heart temporarily balloons or enlarges, masquerading as a typical heart attack. If undiagnosed and left untreated, the American Heart Association reports it can lead to heart disease and heart failure, including sudden death from cardiac arrest.

“The condition can occur when going through any severe trauma or loss such as a divorce, grieving for a departed loved one, sudden illness, a serious car accident, natural disaster or financial loss,” says Dr. Ilana Kutinsky, cardiac electrophysiologist at Beaumont Hospital. “Whether we know it or not, most of us are familiar with the syndrome because we’ve seen a spouse that dies within a short time of losing their partner — a common presentation of takotsubo cardiomyopathy.”

Even the loss of a family pet has been documented to bring about the syndrome. Barbara Ross, 69, of Bloomfield Hills was feeling fatigue and chest pain when she went in for her annual physical with Dr. Henry Green, a cardiologist at Ascension Providence Hospital-Southfield.

“I mentioned to Dr. Green that my dog — who was like a member of my family — just passed away that week, and I hadn’t been sleeping or eating well since. Abnormalities showed up on my electrocardiogram in his office, and I was shocked when he sent me immediately to the hospital for further tests,” Ross says. “I was in a panic because I could sense my situation looked serious.”

The tests confirmed that while Ross had other symptoms of a heart attack, Green says, she had no blockages in her coronary arteries. “I then started to suspect takotsubo, or broken heart syndrome, because sufferers are more than 90 percent women ages 58 to 75, having experienced a life situation that brings on strong emotions and stress — like Barbara losing her pet. The result is a physical response like the one she had,” Green says, adding that individuals should seek medical attention immediately for any marked chest pains, as the situation may be life-threatening.

How to Heal a Broken Heart

Treatment after diagnosis is similar to that for a bona fide heart attack. “As clinicians, we typically recommend standard heart failure medications such as ACE inhibitors, beta blockers and diuretics for hypertension, controlling heart rhythm and treating angina (chest pain),” Kutinsky says.

“The difference is that while they may be very ill at the onset, patients with broken heart syndrome have completely clean coronaries and can usually resolve in anywhere from just eight hours to two months.”

Teri Racey, physician assistant and owner of Illumined Heart mind-body healing practice in Huntington Woods, explains the synergy between the mental and physical aspects of our health: “We have to remember there is a very significant brain-heart connection, and we are neurobiologically wired for love. It is a primal survival need. When love is lost through separation or death, this primal need is endangered, and our mind/body attempts to neutralize this threat, resulting in the extreme stress that affects the heart.”   

The good news, Racey says, is you can release emotional pain through activities like meditation, Reiki therapy, yoga or regular workouts, and your physical heart will start to heal. “You’ll also need to take time to process the grief, and practice self-care with anti-stress remedies,” she adds. “Find a guided meditation like the CD ‘New Mind, New Body’ that allows you to relax, release stress and cultivate a healthier partnership between your mind, body and spirit.”    

If anything, broken heart syndrome reveals that the link between our heart and mind is more literal, and influential, than we may ever have imagined.

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