We’ve all heard the phrase “she died of a broken heart.” And, I’m sure many of you have experienced the pain of heartbreak. Whether it’s due to the end of a romantic relationship, divorce, death, or other painful circumstances, it can feel like your heart is literally broken.
While it’s something that everyone goes through at some point in their lives, science shows that heartbreak can actually be pretty bad for your health – your heart in particular. In extreme cases, heartbreak has even been reported to cause stroke or heart attack.
There is a strong connection between depression and heart disease. A broken heart can lead to cardiac consequences as well. Dr. Steven Sinatra says that this is because the loss of a vital connection can lead to the literal breakdown of the functions of the heart.
The American Heart Association has a term for the physical effects of heartbreak. It’s called Broken Heart Syndrome or Takotsubo cardiomyopathy. It’s named after an octopus trap, and it occurs almost exclusively in women!
That’s not all. Broken Heart Syndrome can strike even if you’re healthy.
How To Recognize The Symptoms of Broken Heart Syndrome
Broken Heart Syndrome can feel much like a heart attack and may even be misdiagnosed as such because the symptoms and test results are usually similar. For example, test results for someone who has Broken Heart Syndrome may show significant changes in rhythm and blood substances. This is also true for someone who is having a heart attack. Also, with Broken Heart Syndrome, a part of your heart temporarily enlarges and doesn’t pump well, while the rest of your heart functions normally, or may even have more forceful contractions.
The most common symptom associated with Broken Heart Syndrome is angina — or chest pain. You may also experience shortness of breath and arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat). You can experience any or all of these symptoms even if you have no history of heart disease. In addition, even though there may not be anything wrong with your heart, Broken Heart Syndrome can lead to severe, short-term heart muscle failure.
The good news is that Broken Heart Syndrome is usually treatable. Most people who experience it make a full recovery within weeks, and they’re at low risk for it happening again. Although in rare cases, a person can experience cardiogenic shock due to a weakened heart, which can be fatal. This is the most common cause of death due to heart attack.
More Physical Effects of Heartbreak
Heartbreak is inevitable if you are going to live a connected life. Some other physical effects of heartbreak include:
- Experience of physical pain. When you experience heartbreak, your brain actually thinks you have been physically hurt. That’s because physical and emotional pain register and are processed in the same regions in the brain. That’s why heartbreak can feel all-consuming. Your brain is telling you the pain is real! This is similar to withdrawal from drugs. Luckily, the physical symptoms will subside with time.
- Appetite changes, weight gain, weight loss. Depending on how you cope with extreme sadness, you may find yourself eating more – or not at all. For some, food can be a distraction and a comfort, for others it’s something that seems repulsive.
- High cortisol. When you are heartbroken, your brain perceives stress and pumps your body full of cortisol and epinephrine. You may become tense, have headaches, or feel pressure in your chest – all due to stress hormones!
- Feeling sad, depressed or anxious. Heartbreak (and other traumatic experiences) can cause clinical depression. In fact, research shows that losses impacting self-esteem — such as a break-up — are twice as likely to trigger depression versus ones that involve loss alone, such as death. Part of this stems from the fact that relationships change the way we think about ourselves. Heartbreak due to a romantic break-up or divorce can leave you questioning your identity.
10 Tips for Overcoming Heartbreak
Allowing yourself to mourn the loss of a relationship can be tricky. Here are some things that can help you break through the heartbreak and stay healthy.
- Don’t be alone. Heartbreak can make us want to crawl into a shell – or into bed with a pint of ice cream. While it’s important to allow yourself time and space to experience your feelings fully, becoming a hermit is only going to prolong your heartbreak and possibly send you into full-blown depression. Going out with friends and doing activities you love – even if you are not in the mood – is the best way to get your dopamine levels up and start experiencing joy again. And, a little ice cream — with friends — can be good for the soul.
- Move your body. Staying active, even when you don’t want to, increases levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine (the exact neurotransmitters antidepressants are aimed at) as well as the feel-good hormones, endorphins. When you exercise you feel better. It’s a simple way to help yourself. You can always call a friend to get moving with you, even if it’s just for a walk.
- Maintain proper eating habits. You may crave sugar — or not feel hungry at all for days. But, when you are under stress due to heartbreak it’s even more important to maintain a healthy diet that minimizes simple carbohydrates (sugar and starch) and contains plenty of the right kind of fats (such as omega-3 fats.) Reach for fruits and vegetables that don’t take long to prepare. If you are up for cooking, have some cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage. Or, make a salad full of green leafy vegetables and citrus fruit. Be sure to avoid alcohol and caffeine.
- Break off contact with the person who hurt you. The only true remedy for heartbreak is time. Trying to hang onto a relationship after it ends just prolongs the pain. Unless there are children involved, it’s best to cut off all contact with the person. This includes on social media!
- Stay away from prescription drugs for depression. Often the very prescription drugs used to treat anxiety and depression are the ones that exacerbate these conditions. Even over the counter medications, such as anti-inflammatory drugs, can contribute to depression.
- Take time out for you.Some alone time is healing. Take time to meditate, soak in an Epsom salt bath, read, watch a movie, or listen to uplifting music. Give yourself permission to cry and feel whatever emotions you have been holding on to. You can do this for 10-30 minutes each day as needed.
- Laughter really is the best medicine. And, you may be surprised how close to the surface it is for you. Watch a funny movie, call a friend with a good sense of humor, or watch funny videos on YouTube.
- Practice compassion. It’s easy to be compassionate when we are feeling good. It’s often when we are down that we have trouble. Start by accepting yourself right now and make yourself your number one priority.
- Follow up with your health care practitioner. If your doctor thinks you have Broken Heart Syndrome, you may need follow up tests to be sure your heart is functioning normally. Talk with your doctor about what’s right for you.
- Practice Divine Love. Divine love is accessible to everyone and it is the most powerful form of healing. People often have profound experiences of emotional release and also physical healing. To learn more, click here.
Check out these articles for more information on the symptoms of Broken Heart Syndrome:
Have you ever felt the physical effects of heartbreak?