8 Ways to Beat Broken Heart Syndrome

Broken Heart Syndrome Doesn’t Have to Be a Death Sentence

Broken Heart Syndrome is brought on by sudden stress, such as the loss of a loved one.

broken heart image by fastreflex

When Sam’s eyes closed for the last time it was raining.

Funeral services were held. Most of the family and friends who had come to pay their respects went home, offering final condolences to Sam’s wife, Germaine, as they left.

A few days later, over morning coffee, Germaine looked across the table at her two adult daughters and said, “I guess I’ll be leaving. Which one of you wants to deal with me first?”

“You really want to leave, mom? Why don’t you think about it some more.”

“I don’t want to and I don’t have to think about it anymore—if I stay here I’ll die, too.”

Neither of her daughters, mothers now themselves, were going to argue with her. They’d known better for a long time.

But Jane, the younger of the two, said, “More than a couple of people who were at the funeral made a point of telling me how good you looked … that you seemed to be doing so well.”

“They don’t see me at three in the morning.”

Broken Heart Syndrome—Explanations and Better Names

“A … study from Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center showed that the risk of having a heart attack is 21 times higher than normal within the first day after a loved one dies.”Patrick J. Skerrett, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

“Acute psychological stress is associated with an abrupt increase in the risk of cardiovascular events. Intense grief in the days after the death of a significant person may trigger the onset of acute myocardial infarction.Circulation (multiple authors)

The actions that Germaine took in the days following the death of her husband might just have saved her life.

We’re going to give you some pointers and techniques that may very well help you avoid a trip to the hospital in the event of sudden stress.

But first, for clarity’s sake, let’s take a quick look at the two kinds of broken hearts … and the medical difference between them.

(“Broken Heart Syndrome” is actually a kind of catch-all term that implies the (similar) effects of a couple of different (dissimilar) phenomena—it works, but it’s limited.)

Better names:

Stress Cardiomyopathy (first known as Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy)

Events that change our lives dramatically or come as a shock—whether the death of a loved one, divorce, or even moving to a new home—can release stress hormones in waves. This can take a toll on the heart.

Broken Heart Syndrome was called Takotsubo Syndrome by Japanese doctors who saw a similarity in the shape of the heart that suffered the condition and a vessel used to catch octopi.

Left, a heart suffering “Broken Heart” or “Takotsubo” Syndrome. Right, a takotsubo, used to catch octopi.

Stress Cardiomyopathy is what happens when there is a weakening of the heart’s left ventricle (its main pumping chamber) resulting in the lower portion ballooning when the heart beats.
(Japanese doctors thought that the heart suffering this condition looked remarkably similar to a takotsubo—a vessel used to trap octopi—hence its former name.)

Stress Cardiomyopathy feels like a heart attack, and to an electrocardiogram it looks like one, too. But it’s not—none of the coronary arteries are blocked. Over the course of a week or so, with proper treatment, the ballooning usually goes away and pumping power returns to normal.

Just because it’s not a “real heart attack”, though, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taken seriously. It can still be debilitating or deadly—especially to women in their late sixties or older, who are affected in 90 percent of reported cases.

To wit, “The rates of death in the hospital between Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy and more “traditional” heart attacks were similar …” according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Myocardial Infarction

Myocardial Infarction is what’s traditionally been referred to as a heart attack.

Unexpected stresses can cause heart attacks in two ways—by acting as triggers that lead to erratic heart rhythms, and by causing the plaque that builds up in our arteries to burst.

In the first case the left ventricle may beat so fast that it can’t catch up with itself, so to speak. It can’t fill with blood because it can’t relax, therefore it doesn’t function properly.

In the second case, when plaque bursts, if the blood clot that forms—to contain the damage being caused by the release of debris into the bloodstream—is so big that it blocks the artery, blood will stop flowing to a section of our heart muscle. Lacking oxygenated blood, that part of the heart will begin to die.

Whether Stress Cardiomyopathy or Myocardial Infarction, tell-tale signs include chest pain, shortness of breath, and very rapid or irregular heartbeat.

If you’re experiencing these symptoms, the best idea is to call 911 and get to a doctor immediately. Once it’s happening, trying to stop it on your own is a gamble with your life that you’ll likely lose. Again, get to a doctor immediately.

Treating Broken Heart Syndrome usually takes the form of prescribed heart medications—such as ACE inhibitors, beta blockers, or diuretics—as well as long-term stress management.

Self-Care Is Essential

Some of us think of ourselves as being able to “handle stress well”. Some of us don’t. But no matter who we are, we don’t really know how we’ll react to a sudden stress until it happens.

There’s just no way, for example, to prepare for the shock (and sense of loss) that accompanies the death of a long-term partner …

How to beat Broken Heart Syndrome? Cultivate habits that fortify the body, mind and spirit.

But we can work on keeping ourselves healthy, happy and whole right now.

By cultivating habits and routines that serve the body and mind, we are not only creating deep wells to draw strength from when inevitable stresses find us, we are improving our present quality of life.

Exercising, eating well and not smoking are the obvious ones. We’re all familiar with those.

What many of us are less familiar with are effective methods to manage stress.

Start experimenting with these and other techniques now to figure out what works best for you. When you find something(s) that you enjoy, stick with it!

Avoid stressful situations when you can—accept or change them when you can’t. It’s not kind of like the Serenity Prayer, it’s exactly like the Serenity Prayer. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re religious or not—feeling calm and frictionless with the world is good for your heart, stressing out about, well, anything … is not.

But, as an example, let’s take rush hour.

If running late and then sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic is ruining your morning, try getting up five minutes earlier, to start—then ten … then fifteen.

Prepare your lunch for the next day and get the coffee pot ready before you go to bed. Lay out the clothes you’re going to wear, too.

When it’s all said and done you’ll shave at least another 15 minutes (or more) off of the time it takes you to get out the door after you wake up.

Before you know it you’ll have reclaimed a solid half an hour at the beginning of your day to use however you see fit.

And make sure you keep plenty of relaxing tunes in the car. We all want to be informed, but if the news is getting you down or upsetting you, it’s okay to take a break from time to time.

Yoga and Meditation are among the many relaxation techniques that have been shown to lower blood pressure, slow the heart rate, and benefit the brain by deepening our sense of calmness, expanding compassion and changing, for the better, the way that we see ourselves—and therefore interact with others.

Where you live hardly matters anymore. There’s more than likely a yoga class or mediation group in your neighborhood. If you can walk to it, do that. If not, there are plenty of books, CDs, and DVDs available online for order. And YouTube is a great resource to help you explore the options that are best for you.

Exercise regularly and efficiently. The Scientific 7-Minute High-Intensity Workout is amazing, especially for people who are short on time. Created by the American College of Sports Medicine, it works every muscle group in the body in just seven minutes—all you need is your own body, a wall and a chair. And if it’s too intense at first, it’s easy to modify the exercises. Don’t hurt yourself, start where you are.

“Reprogram” yourself to think positively. Somewhere along the way a whole lot of us learned to rehash the past (keeping past pains alive) and to worry about things that haven’t happened yet (as well as things that will probably never happen).

Our internal monologue runs in a constant loop … “What if little Billy falls off his bike and scrapes his knee? Or gets a concussion? Or breaks his neck?”

The connection between thought and emotion being what it is, we are literally stressing ourselves out for no reason, at all.

It’s a vicious circle—the chatter reinforces the negative emotion, the negative emotion informs the chatter. Pay attention to that. And when you hear yourself starting to fret, change the narration. (It’s yours, after all.)

Try replacing, “What if little Billy scrapes his knee?” with “If he scrapes a knee I’ll patch him up. In the meantime he’s learning valuable skills and having fun.” Or even, “What if little Billy grows up to win Olympic Gold?!”

With a little bit of sustained practice your new way of thinking will become just as ingrained as the old way. We guarantee you’ll feel better. And in the long run so will your heart.

Show a Little Gratitude. Practicing gratitude is an essential part of training yourself to think positively. And if you want to enjoy a whole host of benefits such as a stronger immune system, lower blood pressure, more joy, optimism and compassion you’ll want to practice it everyday.

Start keeping a gratitude journal. Write down three things you are grateful for every day for the next 30 days. Be as specific as possible—e.g., instead of, “I’m grateful for my family,” put a finer point on it by writing, “I’m grateful that my family had dinner together this evening, the fish was grilled perfectly and the conversation was light and easy.”

Make time in your life for your loved ones. And when you do, that’s what you’re doing—spending time with your loved ones—nothing else.

Stress has a way of creeping into our lives through work obligations … household responsibilities … technology.

Be on the lookout for it and stay one step ahead by defining clear boundaries, i.e., “Screen-Free Sundays”—no computers, tablets or smartphones until the family has made, eaten, and cleaned up breakfast together (at a minimum). If you can rally the troops to take a walk around the neighborhood together after that, even better.

Sleep well. Depriving ourselves of a good night’s rest with the idea that we’re getting more done is folly. Lack of sleep has been linked to all manner of ailments, including heart attacks, heart failure and strokes. If that’s not enough to convince you to hit the sack an hour or two earlier, sleep loss is also connected to low libido.

Put your jammies on, fluff that pillow and tuck in.

Say NO. It’s paradoxical, but saying “no”—to more tasks at home or work, or even in your “extracurricular” life—can be incredibly liberating, can be a resounding “Yes!” to your own health and happiness … to yourself.

What good are you to others if you’re not happy and whole, anyway?

Be honest about what you can and can’t handle, set clear boundaries accordingly, and don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.

How are you managing stress? Have any tips that might help our readers? Let us know in the comment section below.

If you’re looking for some relief and you’re in the greater Washington, DC area give us a call at 301-650-4169. Or visit our Contact page and drop us a line.

We look forward to hearing from you.


To your unbroken heart,

Care for You


P.S. Germaine did move—first to Michigan where she had deep family roots, and then to California to be close to her eldest daughter and her grandchildren. She lived for another 12 years.




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