Stress and Heart Disease: Can You Die of a Broken Heart?

By Val Silver

broken heart syndrome, stress and heart disease

Scientists may not entirely understand the relationship between stress and heart disease, but they do know there are short and long term effects of stress on your heart. If you have ever experienced great worry, fear, aggravation or loss, you know your rising blood pressure and the literal heart ache you feel in your chest is real. 

Heart disease is the number one killer of men and women. Scientific evidence suggests that lifestyle choices plus environmental factors and psycho-social factors such as loneliness, personality and job stress are to blame. 

How Stress Affects Your Heart

When your body is in stress response mode powerful hormones flood your body. Adrenaline and cortisol alter how the body normally works so it can better respond to perceived danger.  Your heart pumps harder, blood vessels constrict, and clotting increases.

Your body, including your heart, is designed to handle occasional stress without harm. On the other hand, chronic stress with its continuous hormone assaults and demands on your cardiovascular system can create a recipe for damaged arteries and blood vessels. 

Another possible factor linking stress and heart disease is that stressed-out people tend to have unhealthy habits. They are more likely to smoke, eat unhealthy foods, eat too much in general, and lose sleep. They may anger easily and are far less likely to exercise.

Sometimes a stress event affects us so powerfully that it can cause immediate heart damage. Broken heart syndrome, or stress cardiomyopathy, causes symptoms of heart pain much like a heart attack. 

According to the British Medical Journal, there is a 20 percent increase in heart attacks as people returned to work on Monday after a weekend off.

Stress and Heart Pain

As well as being responsible for pumping blood through the entire body, the heart is an emotional center. You are correct when you sense emotions in the heart. It has its own neurons that think and feel independent of the brain. The love hormone oxytocin is manufactured in the heart and is released when you feel love and connection with others.  Feeling happy and connected to loved ones is  good for the heart.

Stress, intense anger, and intense grief can damage the heart.  When painful emotions rage and stress levels soar, chest or heart pain may result. Sometimes this pain is severe and feels like a heart attack. As muscles tighten in the chest and throughout the body from stress, blood pressure rises and chest pains may result. The heart may be affected, or the pain could just be coming from chest muscles.

It is important to get checked out by a doctor if this occurs. People are 20 times more likely to suffer a heart attack after the death of a loved one. Each year, many people visit emergency rooms because of unexplained chest pains. A study from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, indicated that anxiety, depression, stress at work, and lack of exercise are common causes.

If you have unexplained chest or heart pain, and/or shortness of breath, seek medical attention.

Broken Heart Syndrome: Can You Die of a Broken Heart?

The short answer is yes, but not likely. Feeling as if your heart is breaking when you suffer the loss of a relationship, job, or someone you care about and love is emotionally and often physically painful. 

Broken heart syndrome is most common in menopausal women. It can occur within minutes of unexpected, severe stress. As stress hormones surge, you feel intense chest pain and shortness of breath. A part of your heart muscle weakens and enlarges, which interferes with its ability to pump well. Symptoms mimic a heart attack without the characteristic clot or blockage. This can happen even if you are healthy.  This damage can be temporarily dangerous, or if severe enough, even result in death.

The heart usually heals completely within a few weeks.  In the meantime, you may experience low blood pressure, congestive heart failure and arrhythmia. Your doctor may provide medication while you are healing. It also helps to minimize and eliminate "stress attacks" as much as possible during this time.  Meditation and other stress relief techniques can help.

The Stress Blood Pressure Connection

blood pressure and stress

High blood pressure is associated with a greater risk of heart disease, heart attack and stroke.

Medical research indicates that blood pressure rises during times of stress, it has yet to prove a direct connection between a stress and heart disease with long-term high blood pressure. A Japanese study showed that many workers have much higher blood pressure when returning to work on Monday. 

Personally, on two occasions, I observed my blood pressure steadily rise on a monitor while awaiting medical procedures even though I did not consciously feel nervous. I have known several people who suffered from prolonged high blood pressure after unresolved emotional issues. The connection was undeniable. When either their response or the situation resolved, so did their blood pressure problem.

One woman suffered with uncontrollable high blood pressure for over 30 years despite being on seven medication. When I asked her when it started, she described feelings of anger toward her first husband who died, leaving her with three teenagers. Even after being happily remarried and her children grown, her body was either still holding onto the heartache and trauma, or the damage was permanent. Regardless, her blood pressure was "through the roof".

It is so common for people to have higher blood pressure in a doctor's office that this phenomenon has been dubbed white coat syndrome.

Reduce Your Stress and Heart Disease Risks

Reduce your risk of stress-related heart disease and broken heart syndrome by managing daily stress and protecting yourself from its ill-effects. Do what it takes to help your mind and body focus on repair instead of reacting to stress and creating further damage.

  • Close your eyes, place your hands on your heart center, and take slow deep focused breaths to relax. Feel compassion, love, and gratitude for yourself. Breathe it in. Breathe out the stress and sorrow. Send these feelings to a loved one in body or spirit. Be at peace. Put a smile on your face. Open your eyes.
  • Lower your stress and heart disease risk with natural stress relief techniques.  Exercise and a regular practice of meditation and deep focused breathing can help.
  • Increase your intake of muscle relaxing magnesium. Stress depletes calming magnesium, a mineral most people are already deficient in.
  • Quit smoking. Smoking puts a lot of physical stress on your respiratory and circulatory systems and damages them with toxic buildup and damage over time.

Your heart is in your hands. Take good care of it. 

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Source: Is Broken Heart Syndrome Real?

Stress and Heart Disease page updated 01/2021

For Educational Purposes Only. This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease or medical condition. Please consult with your health provider before using natural remedies and/or complementary therapies if you are pregnant, nursing, or you are being treated for a medical condition. Be aware that certain herbs and supplements interact with medications.

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