Suffering from a broken heart? Yes, it’s a real condition – do you have it?

In literature, or even common conversation, a broken heart usually refers to emotional disappointment or some sort of overwhelming stress, most likely relating to love – ie. losing a partner, the end of a relationship, losing an opportunity or just generally losing something or someone near and dear to one’s heart. It can be on an emotional level, or even on a psychological level, but rarely, if ever, has the concept of a broken heart been forwarded with a physical connotation in mind. Now that’s about to change. In recent years researchers have discovered what many have suspected long ago, that excessive stress, and even physical illness can result in a condition known medically as takotsubo cardiomyopathy or more commonly known as broken heart syndrome. To the surprise of many of us (or not!) it’s more commonly found in women.

What can cause broken heart syndrome?

Whether it’s due to the death of a loved one or some serious illness that brings on stress, broken heart syndrome can almost feel like an outright heart attack. In addition, the condition can also be brought on by an underlying serious illness like cancer, heart diseases or as a result of post-surgery difficulties.

Considered to be a temporary condition with limited likelihood of death or serious injury, broken heart syndrome can be a sign of a serious underlying problem. From a purely medical standpoint, the condition can be characterized as a disruption in the heart’s pumping of blood. The heart may also be reacting to a sudden surge of stress hormones, thus causing a degree of strain on the heart and surrounding blood vessels, resulting in symptoms akin to those of a heart attack.

Is emotional heartbreak connected to broken heart syndrome?

The almost convenient connection between both the physical condition of broken heart syndrome and emotional heartbreak is too obvious not to mention. Research has confirmed that high stress levels (which could be experienced after a tumultuous breakup) are closely connected to broken heart syndrome.

Monitoring one’s stress level is critical to preventing undue pressure and strain on the heart and organs surrounding it. The onset of takotsubo is characterized by a weakening of the left ventricle, which is the main pumping chamber of the heart. This usually comes on when there is a surge of stress hormones in and around the heart. Any sudden event that brings on undue stress to what may be an already troubled organ(s) can bring on takotsubo cardiomyopathy.

Impact of emotional stress on your heart

The toll of an emotional break-up can bring on such mental and physical stress that the actual body may react to in unconventional ways. Research featured in the renowned publication psychology today showed results that confirmed the hypothesis that a tumultuous social or emotional event, like particularly break-up in the case of their research, can affect the human beings physically just as much as it does psychologically. According to psychology today: Using fMRI scans, the researchers assessed which brain areas lit up when participants looked at pictures of their ex-partners and simultaneously thought about experiences they had shared together… The scientists found that the same parts of the brain lit up when individuals looked at the partner pictures or experienced physical pain, but not when they looked at the friend pictures.”1 A remarkable discovery by any means; however, many of us may have already been intuitively aware of this reality.

Broken-heart syndrome is 99.9% of the times preceded by an emotionally traumatic event. These events may include but are not limited to: sudden death of a loved one, emotional devastation ie. break-up, loss of a friend, financial troubles, psychological issues ie. mental illness, depression etc. One of the more authoritative lists forwarded on potential causes of broken heart syndrome is by the American Heart Journal, which list the following:

Stressors associated with broken-heart syndrome

  • Sudden drop in blood pressure
  • Serious illness, surgery, or medical procedure (e.g., cardiac stress test)
  • Severe pain
  • Domestic violence
  • Asthma attack
  • Receiving bad news (such as a diagnosis of cancer)
  • Car or other accident
  • Unexpected loss, illness, or injury of a close relative, friend, or pet
  • Fierce argument
  • Financial loss
  • Intense fear
  • Public speaking
  • A surprise party or other sudden surprise

Source: Prasad A, et al. American Heart Journal (2008), Vol. 155, No. 3, pp. 408–17; others.

Although this condition has proven to be completely reversible, it is to be taken seriously. Even the emotional toll of the more conventional heartbreak caused by partner separation ought not to be taken for granted, because, as noted earlier, it could lead to actual harmful physical effects.

Here are some tidbit similarities between broken heart syndrome and the more traditional emotional heartbreak:

  • It’s most likely temporary (although some may argue otherwise)
  • It’s associated with a high degree of emotional stress

Are you at risk of broken heart syndrome?

Being aware of the factors that puts one potentially at risk of suffering broken heart syndrome or other kinds of heart related ailments is important, especially considering the unbelievably high number of deaths suffered from heart-related illnesses. According to the NHS, heart disease is the second leading cause of premature death in the UK.2 However, there is some proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. One of the main positives as it concerns this syndrome is that it’s completely reversible. In fact, according to Harvard Health, recovery is generally made within a one month period.3

As a condition, research has only now begun on a substantial level to investigate other causes and potential preventative measures for takotsubo cardiomyopathy. It was only in 1990 that the illness was first described in Japan after it was said that a patience heart resembled a Japanese octopus pot – hence the name takotsubo. Couple this with the fact that the Australian medical fraternity only designated this as a legitimate health condition just some ten (10) years ago, and we have a case of a condition that’s in need of much more substantial research.

Dealing with a broken heart in a healthy way

With all of this said, it is critical for patience to ensure to not only practice physically healthy habits and stay in good shape but make sure that psychological and emotional well-being are also priorities when focusing on one’s overall health.  

The use of certain types of drugs and medications can also increase the risk of broken heart syndrome by increasing the flow of stress hormones to the heart.

Drugs that are potentially able to contribute to broken heart syndrome:

  • Epinephrine (EpiPen, EpiPen Jr.), which is used to treat severe allergic reactions or a severe asthma attack
  • Duloxetine (Cymbalta), a medication given to treat nerve problems in people with diabetes, or as a treatment for depression
  • Venlafaxine (Effexor XR), which is a treatment for depression
  • Levothyroxine (Synthroid, Levoxyl), a drug given to people whose thyroid glands don’t work properly

Can I die from a broken heart?

Well, it depends. The likelihood of one living a full and healthy life after having reversed the medical condition is completely possible. In one particular case, after the 2011 Christchurch earthquake that killed 185 people in New Zealand, more than 20 patients were found to be suffering from broken heart syndrome in the aftermath.4 The apparent shock and trauma of such an event – an earthquake – affected the individuals so immensely to the extent that they were left with the residual effects in the form of takotsubo cardiomyopathy. It’s not reported whether these patients had pre-existing conditions of anysort, but they were counted among the survivors of the natural disaster. Broken heart syndrome is still being researched and studied, however at present it is not considered to be a fatal illness; although in worst case scenario it can result in severe heart muscle failure. That’s why it’s critically important to call a medical practitioner in case of serious chest pains or heart problems.

As for the emotional condition of a ‘broken heart’ that’s a case all by itself. The manner in which we all deal with emotional heart-break varies. In most cases it does take time. As the old adage goes: time heals all wounds.  

The importance of psychological and emotional health

Maintaining an even-keel, keeping control of one’s emotions, and ensuring a much-needed balance between work and leisure is critical to maintaining quality overall health. Many times after a difficult event in life the general habits that follow are just as detrimental or even more so to one’s well-being. The detachment from social circles, whether its friends or family, and the negative habits like overeating, alcoholism etc. can exacerbate what could have been only minor health concerns. In fact, those habits play just as large a role in damning one to lengthy spells in the hospital or even an early grave.

The NHS forwards the following 5 recommendations as important for helping maintain a stable and positive mental state5:

  • Connect – Develop relationships and connect with those around you socially. Family and friends are important, after all we are social beings.
  • Be Active – This doesn’t necessarily mean that you got to be at the gym, but you should stay as active as possible and exercise regularly. Sports, walking, jogging, whatever keeps you mentally and physically engaged.
  • Keep Learning – Continuous learning gives one a sense of achievement and something to look forward to.
  • Give to others – A small act of kindness reverberates. It doesn’t only help the receiver, but also the giver.
  • Be mindful – Be aware of the present moment; have ‘self-awareness’, and enjoy the present. The past is the past, and the future would get here soon enough.
  1. Neuroscience of Breakup – Psychology Today
  2. Top Causes of Premature Death in the UK – NHS
  3. Broken Heart Syndrome – Harvard Health
  4. Yes, you can die of Broken Heart – ABC News
  5. Improve Mental Wellbeing – NHS

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