By Gianna Huesch
Anyone who has experienced the pain of a relationship ending will attest to feeling like they may truly die of a broken heart. And now scientific research into Broken Heart Syndrome is showing that it is in fact more than simply a myth.
In the past ten years, the condition known as Broken Heart Syndrome has become widely medically recognised in Australia, following research in Japan over the past 20 years. Clinically known as Takotsubo cardiomyopathy (TTC), the condition mimics the symptoms of a heart attack, but the causes are quite different. While heart attacks are caused by blockages to the coronary arteries, TTC is suspected by the scientific community to be triggered by severe psychological or physical stress, though the exact causes are not yet clear. It’s thought that a sudden influx of stress hormones such as adrenalin somehow “stun” the heart.
Research has shown there is a strong relationship between the syndrome and physical or emotional stress, such as a death of a loved one, giving rise to the name Broken Heart Syndrome. But the list of stressors associated with the syndrome is lengthy, with psychological trauma implicated, including family arguments, negative events in the workplace, psychiatric illness, loss of property or pets, anniversaries of deaths of loved ones, and social and environmental events such as war. Physical stressors are also found to be associated, including suffering acute illnesses or being diagnosed with a disease, and even giving birth.
It has also been shown that it doesn’t just have to be a negative stressor—even extreme emotional responses caused by a positive, apparently happy event can be a factor. It seems that anything that elicits a stress response in an individual can be to blame.
The upshot is that TTC appears to be yet another example of the adverse and sometimes deadly effects of stress on our health. Given that negative emotions including stress, depression, anger, frustration, panic, fear and anxiety have long been associated with an increased risk of developing heart problems, and are associated with poorer outcomes for people with existing heart problems, it is not surprising to the medical community.
People who most seem to be affected by TTC are postmenopausal women, with around 90% of reported cases in women aged between 65 and 70 years. However as the condition becomes more widely known, cases are also being reported in younger women, men and even children.
Luckily, while TTC can cause death, it is relatively rare. It can still be deadly however, as a large part of the heart muscle is temporarily weakened to the point that it does not pump properly and so can lead to cardiac arrest.
At present, people diagnosed with TTC are treated with pharmaceuticals, though this is still in its experimental stage and medications have not yet been shown to reduce recurrence of the condition, which occurs in about 20% of sufferers.
It’s thought that psychological resilience to stress may play a role in preventing TTC, so learning effective coping mechanisms to deal with traumatic life events such as relationship breakdowns is an important way that people can try to limit their risk of developing Broken Heart Syndrome. If you are going through a painful breakup, therefore, it’s a really good idea to seek out counselling or other therapeutic help, to help ensure your emotional stress does not develop into the actual physical trauma of Broken Heart Syndrome.