What is broken heart syndrome?

Illustration Elin Matilda Andersson, Makers MGMT.

High levels of stress can, on occasion, lead to “Broken Heart Syndrome”, a term I recently stumbled across. 

Broken Heart Syndrome (or stress cardiomyopathy) is a condition in which emotional or physical stress can temporarily weaken your heart muscle. 

Signs and symptoms may be similar to those of a heart attack. Patients can present with chest pain, shortness of breath and heart rhythm disturbances. Most recover in a matter of days, with a minority suffering from permanent heart muscle weakness.  

I’ll explain how stress can spiral into this syndrome. But first, I want to share I have empathy for anyone feeling stressed. I’ve been there. A year ago I had a tough time. My dad was in a serious car crash, a friend committed suicide and a loved one was gripped by depression. If I faced all that while in a stressed state within myself, my mental health could have unravelled.

If you wonder why I run, lift weights or practice yoga and meditate, the focus is not purely to look good. It unwinds my nervous system so I’m healthy, happy and can sleep better. 

According to the science, stress impacts on people no matter what the cause. So the cause can be things like bereavement, divorce, or hard life events. Stress can increase your risk of having a “heart event”. So says pain specialist Dr Giresh Kanji. He is an honorary associate professor at Auckland University and author of the book Brain Connections: How to Sleep Better, Worry Less and Feel Happier. He tells me, “Broken Heart Syndrome is a thing”. 

Dr Kanji explains that stress releases chemicals throughout your body and brain. This includes adrenaline, cortisol and serotonin. These chemicals activate the fight-or-flight response in the body. The fight-or-flight response temporarily raises your blood pressure and cholesterol. It also releases glucose into the  bloodstream. Dr Kanji suggests that this can increase your risk of heart disease, diabetes and other chronic health conditions. 

Too much stress can escalate into patterns of poor sleep, impaired concentration and burnout. Without appropriate self-management, stress can increase your risk of developing anxiety and depression. 

“Levels of stress hormones fluctuate in response to our daily activities and environment. Prolonged stress can result in physiological and physical changes. Adrenal glands (which release cortisol and adrenaline) may, in response to depression, be 70 per cent larger than normal. The pituitary gland (which releases hormones from your brain) may increase in size by 30 per cent,” Dr Kanji explains. 

So how can we ease stress? 

Five habits that can reduce stress activity in your brain, says Dr Kanji are yoga, tai chi, breathing/meditation, saunas and exercise. If you don’t have access to a sauna, a hot bath does the same thing. “The stress brain activity can reduce in four weeks if you have a bath five times a week for 20 minutes,” says Dr Kanji. 

Why exercise 4-5 times weekly?

This is important because each time you do a workout it can further wind down the stress in your body. So if you only do one workout weekly, then your stress brain keeps feeling “wound up”. And so the stress cycle not only continues, it snowballs. 

Dr Kanji explains that there is a big overlap for insomnia, anxiety, depression and poorer memory. All are exacerbated by stress. He believes the “art of changing behaviour” is giving people a reason “why” they should change. 

Then it’s about breaking down the barriers that prevent the behaviours, such as finances, time, energy issues, or self-belief. And finally it’s about finding the right habits that fit the individual. 

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