The Reality of Broken Heart Syndrome

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sun-heart-autumn-leaf-39379“She died from a broken heart.”

Is that really possible?

Many of us will likely experience what we call a broken heart at some point in our lives, but can you really die from an emotionally stressful event such as the death of a loved one? Apparently you can. In fact, broken heart syndrome is a recognized medical condition also known as stress-induced cardiomyopathy.

The condition was first identified in Japan where it is known as Takotsubo Syndrome and it strikes those with no previous heart disease or issues. It can be caused by any stressful, emotional event including, but not limited to, the death or illness of someone close to you, divorce, the sudden loss of your job or other major life upheaval. As a recent example, many believe that actress Debbie Reynolds died from broken heart syndrome after the death of her beloved daughter, Carrie Fisher. Fortunately, however, broken heart syndrome is not typically fatal.

The symptoms of broken heart syndrome are similar to those of a heart attack, but are not caused by blocked arteries. Instead, the condition is believed to be caused by a surge of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which narrow the arteries and temporarily limit blood flow to the heart. This can also lead to an irregular heartbeat and, in rare cases, sudden death.

What does broken heart syndrome have to do with mental health? Personally, I can’t think of a better example of how our emotions can affect our bodies and our health. I have always felt that there should be no separation between “physical health” and “mental health.” Rather, we need to look carefully at the person who is suffering, and not neatly compartmentalize each sign and symptom as its own entity. While diagnoses are important and serve their purpose, I believe we must always be aware of the interconnectedness of all of our symptoms — we need to look at the whole person.

More and more research indicates that there is a genetic component to most, if not all, brain disorders. It is widely believed that environment and genes both play a part in the development of these illnesses. Likewise, through the use of genomic sequencing, researchers have identified genetic risk factors that are linked to broken heart syndrome. They also used ultra-high resolution cameras and supercomputers to identify genes. As technology becomes even more advanced, my guess is we can expect more discoveries by way of DNA sequencing.

Our brains, our hearts, and our genes. Each one likely plays a part in the development of broken heart syndrome. And while we can’t control the occurrence of stressful events in our lives, we can work on what we can control. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and stress management techniques can be very helpful in dealing with all of life’s challenges. Let’s use this obvious connection of our minds and our bodies to our advantage and do everything we can to work toward, or maintain, good overall health.

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