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Stress

Heartbreaking Holidays: Broken Heart Syndrome Is Real

It's possible to die from a broken heart, and holiday stress increases the risk.

Key points

  • It is indeed possible to die from a broken heart.
  • Immense stress, such as the kind suffered after the loss of a loved one, can take a heavy toll on the body physically.
  • Holidays can compound stress, so it's important to practice stress-relieving techniques, like mindfulness, and make healthy lifestyle choices.

We have all heard stories of people who lose their partner and soon die “from a broken heart.” While some of us may doubt that this can actually happen, research indicates that “broken heart syndrome,” or stress cardiomyopathy, is real. Stress cardiomyopathy is a genuine physiological response to multiple forms of trauma, including heartbreak, loss of a loved one, and other significant emotional stressors.

People experiencing broken heart syndrome or stress cardiomyopathy have many of the same symptoms of a real heart attack, including the crushing chest pain that we associate with heart attacks, but the person’s arteries look normal and not obstructed. The treatment for this form of heart malfunction typically includes bed rest and beta blockers. It’s clear that psychological well-being is incredibly intertwined with physiological well-being. In fact, during the pandemic when all of us were under stress at a level few of us had experienced before, more people experienced this disorder than they normally do, and their hospital stays were longer (Ahmad et al., 2020).

The Literal Broken Heart

When someone suffers a literal “broken heart,” it takes the shape of a takotsubo, which is the Japanese word for a specific fishing pot. This leaves the heart looking like it’s been literally broken with the left ventricle stretched out to form a narrow, neck-shaped section of the heart. Japanese physicians originated the diagnosis and named the syndrome takotsubo cardiomyopathy in 1990 (Sato et al., 1990).

Perhaps not surprisingly, broken heart syndrome has been known to cause death—even when the loss is the death of a pet. The Journal of the American Medical Association reported that a 37-year-old woman died of broken heart syndrome when her beloved canine companion died. Stress isn’t just a mind game; stress plays to win where physical well-being is concerned.

The Holiday Heart Under Stress

Stress after losing a loved one is one cause of cardiomyopathy, but the stress of the holidays can also be a factor in stress cardiomyopathy. For women, especially, the holidays can be overwhelmingly stressful as they seek to attend to their already jampacked daily lives while trying to pull together the makings of a “perfect holiday” for everyone else.

In addition to the risk of stress cardiomyopathy, more cardiac infarctions occur during the winter holidays than at any other time of the year. In fact, there’s a 37 percent greater likelihood of having a heart attack on Christmas Eve than on other days, and New Year’s heart attacks are also more likely. Further study indicated that it is not the sweet treats and rich foods that are traditionally part of holiday celebrations that were the dividing line between heart attack sufferers and control group participants, but rather the levels of stress and emotional upsets were what made the difference (Olsson et al., 2021).

Our bodies may be strong, but our psychological and emotional well-being is essential to keeping our bodies as healthy as possible. When we allow ourselves to get drawn into other people’s drama, carry the weight of the world on our shoulders, hold on to old grudges and resentment, worry about past mistakes, or dread future challenges, we are doing our bodies a grave disservice.

Give Your Heart a Head Start

Whether you’re experiencing a crushing romantic blow, the death of a loved one, or feeling overwhelmed by everything that falls on you to make a day special for others, be aware of the damage to your physical health that your mental health can cause. Holiday heart and broken heart syndrome can mimic the symptoms of a heart attack, and a true diagnosis cannot be made prior to a medical assessment of the heart. Its physical cause is still not known for sure, but research suggests that some people may be sensitive to the stress hormones that our bodies secrete when being informed of traumatic occurrences, such as the death of a loved one, rejection by a partner, or other significant negative events, such as a natural disaster or a job loss.

Even the holidays can be a source of compromised heart health. Prepare yourself to manage stress by getting a handle on your psychological well-being now.

Here are some things you can do to shore up your emotional well-being to ideally prevent damage to your heart:

1. Integrate mindfulness and relaxation practices into your life. Awareness and appreciation of the present moment help you focus on the present and let go of attachment to the past or unhelpful worries about the future.

2. Eat a healthy diet that is full of fresh fruits and vegetables. Research shows that a healthy diet positively affects our mood and psychological health. Healthy diets decrease feelings of depression and anxiety.

3. Get regular exercise. If organized exercise isn’t for you, you can still log steps with your pup or on your treadmill and reap the benefits. Another benefit of getting in your steps each day is a lowered risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

4. Spend time with people who care about you and whom you care about. Social support plays a significant role in our well-being, so make time to catch up with folks who help you feel good about life—even when you feel like things are falling apart.

5. Avoid the overconsumption of alcohol. It can lead to really poor choices that can be hard to undo once you sober up. It also takes a huge toll on your circulatory system, including blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Stop smoking, too, as a gift to your heart.

References

Jabri A, Kalra A, Kumar A, et al. Incidence of Stress Cardiomyopathy During the Coronavirus Disease 2019 Pandemic. JAMA Netw Open. 2020;3(7):e2014780. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.14780

Mohammad M A, Karlsson S, Haddad J, Cederberg B, Jernberg T, Lindahl B et al. (2018). Christmas, national holidays, sport events, and time factors as triggers of acute myocardial infarction: SWEDEHEART observational study 1998-2013 BMJ, 363 :k4811 doi:10.1136/bmj.k4811

Olsson, A., Thorén, I., Mohammad, M. M., Rylance, R., Platonov, P. G., Sparv, D., & Erlinge, D. (2021) Christmas holiday triggers of myocardial infarction, Scandinavian Cardiovascular Journal, 55:6, 340-344, DOI: 10.1080/14017431.2021.1983638

Sato, H., Tateishi, H., Uchida, T., Dote, K., Ishihara, M., Kodama, K., ... & Hori, M. (1990). Clinical aspect of myocardial injury: from ischemia to heart failure. Kagaku Hyoronsha, 2, 55-64.

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