Use your mind-body connection to heal the damaging effects of broken-heart syndrome.
For six months after my husband left, I rarely ate. I rarely slept. Complaining of fatigue sounds like weakness; in adulthood, tired is normal. But the additional fatigue from our newly adopted baby weighed on me like a thick gray fog. My body’s “fight or flight” survival response could only be sustained for so long before giving way to a physical breakdown. The prolonged stress of the divorce finally manifested in a moment of dangerously low blood pressure and a heart beating so wildly and so painfully that I had the quiet thought: I’m going to die of a broken heart.
About the loss of any love, you’re bound to feel heavy sadness when they’re gone. Emotional grief is brutal as much as it’s natural and necessary. But what do you make of the physical effects of a broken heart?
The Real Mind-Body Connection
New studies now lend credence to the age-old wives’ tale that it’s possible to die of a broken heart, or at least to feel as though you may die of one. In fact, sudden and intense emotional distress—from grief, fear, anger or shock—can precipitate heart failure symptoms in a rarely understood syndrome that seems to affect perfectly heart-healthy patients (almost always women, for yet unknown reasons).
In other words, it’s clear that our hearts as biological organs are responsive to our psychological and emotional lives.
The condition labelled “stress cardiomyopathy” has been nicknamed “broken-heart syndrome,” namely for the heart muscle’s abnormally ballooning shape resembling a Japanese octopus trap and the subsequent symptoms that are nearly identical to a heart attack. Chest pain, fluid-filled lungs and shortness of breath often accompany extreme stress or grief, such as what you might experience after the death of a spouse or the end of a romantic relationship.
I had continued my teaching position throughout the divorce and was seated at my desk when raw pain shot through my back and upwards into my chest. Unlike a panic attack, my breath felt heavy and buried deep in my diaphragm. The pain pinned me back into my chair until it settled enough for me to notify my doctor.
Laying at the cardiologist’s office, my abnormal EKGs recorded irregular heart rhythms. A panel of abnormal blood work signaled high blood sugar readings, hyper coagulation, and extreme hormonal imbalances. For six years, I had dedicated my lifestyle to maintain and regulate these inflammatory markers since my Lyme disease diagnosis in 2012. This was the first time in three years that my body was not moving in a positive direction. I was regressing.
This time my doctors made it clear: This surge of symptoms was my body headed towards the damaging effects of broken-heart syndrome if I didn’t take control of my mind.
Curiously, despite the inflammation and the pain, no diagnostic tool was able to detect blockages in my arteries. Despite all signs pointing to congestive heart failure, I was merely experiencing a nervous system both intensely stress-impaired and weary. It was the first time I had ever heard of such a diagnosis for a heart responding to loss.
A Heart in Distress
The heart is both a straightforward biological machine and a powerhouse organ that symbolizes the emotional core of our being. Its job, simply put, is to circulate blood. But it is singularly the only organ that moves itself, beating three billion times throughout a typical human lifespan. It has the hypothetical pumping ability to empty a swimming pool in a matter of a week.
That’s why when surging stress hormones “stun” your heart, triggering its muscle cells and coronary blood vessels to prevent the left ventricle from properly contracting, it’s all you can do to catch your breath.
Those suffering from the syndrome are often mistakenly told they’ve had a heart attack because symptoms and heart rhythm diagnostics produce similar results. But the difference is striking: Showing no evidence of blocked arteries, broken-heart syndrome patients typically recover within weeks. The treatment is clear. A distressed and overwrought parasympathetic nervous system—the nerve fibers responsible for both stimulation and relaxation—requires calm.
How to Heal Stress-Related Heart Problems
Physical pain spurred me to action. Our body is a system of stimulation and responses, after all, which meant intentional relaxation just might throw in reverse whatever wild course had begun during the divorce. Here are the ways I coped with stressors outside my control in order to protect and prevent further damage to my most vital organ.
Talk to someone.
I enrolled in intensive cognitive-behavioral therapy twice a week. I shared my grief and confusion and anger with an outsider who helped me gain perspective in a way that friends and family simply couldn’t. She outlined coping mechanisms and healthy channels to direct my tangled emotions in the long term since emotional and mental health need to be maintained for a lifetime.
Exercise or get physical.
The heart is a muscle requiring at least 2.5 hours of aerobic activity a week to not only prevent disease but improve cognition, sleep and quality of life. After experiencing broken-heart syndrome, I made realistic exercise goals for myself, working out at least five times a week and beginning Yin Yoga. The slow-paced yoga practice and deep meditative breathing are what my doctor calls, “little love notes to my nervous system.”
KonMari your broken heart.
Marie Kondo’s signature KonMari method of organization asks one simple question of your possessions: Does it spark joy? Disposing and purging sentimental and non-sentimental objects alike helped me to remove painful memories from my daily life. Could I wear the dress I wore to my baby shower without unwanted reminders? It had to go. New curtains, new clothes, new home. It was all part of my letting go and establishing a new peace.
Enjoy life on your terms.
Despite its pop connotation, selfcare isn’t an excuse to indulge in harmful behaviors like drinking or addictive consumerism. Selfcare after grief, loss, or shock is an excuse to prioritize healthy personal pleasures. I visited with girlfriends more often and initiated dinners at favorite restaurants. I got pedicures and built up my confidence with new makeup and regular visits to the gym. Positive affirmations plastered my refrigerator and the mirror above my television. These were reminders that all was well, and I was going to do more through this experience than merely survive.
Join a support group.
Empathy is irreplaceable when you feel alone. Local or online support groups tailored to your specific experience can help you navigate vulnerable questions and emotions. I joined a group for women who endured divorce and found a community with similar experiences and helpful advice. Griefshare for people specifically navigating loss after death are also local and offer space to share memories, questions and thoughts in an attempt to process them productively.
The heart is a workhorse, surviving a lifetime of conditioning and intense stimuli. That’s why the abnormalities resulting from intense and prolonged stress are to be treated with the same care as severe diseases. While not all people who experience broken-heart syndrome have experienced an emotional loss (many have responses to physical trauma), it does highlight the need to shift our thinking about heart problems. Focusing on prevention means treating our hearts in tandem with treating our minds.
External stressors are out of your control but how you deal with them makes all the difference. For coping strategies and help managing the effects of stress on your nervous system, reach out here to discuss your symptoms or visit www.naturallywithtami.com for more information.