When people discover what I do for a living, say around a dinner table, one of the most common questions I get asked is, ‘Can you die of a broken heart?’. While broken hearts to me largely mean the physically broken or sick hearts I encounter in my work, most people want to know if that terrible feeling of heartbreak can actually make us sick or even kill us. Since we’ve all been broken hearted either through bereavement, a break-up or divorce (or we will do), we are very familiar with that dreadful feeling that is heart break.
Heart break is by no means a medical term. Whatever the cause though, heart break is kind of an extreme form of stress. And what we know about stress and in fact a lot of emotions, is that the emotional stress that you feel has a strong connection to the physical body and can impact on our physical health.
When we feel stress, our brains signal our hormonal systems and ask them to produce a whole host of hormones that are designed to help our bodies adapt to stress. The problem is that in high enough doses or sometimes, over a long enough period of time, they end up causing mischief rather than helping. In a stressful situation, we see heart rate and blood pressure shoot up, inflammation happen (which can cause disease, left unchecked), our blood getting sticky and glucose and fats flood our blood stream.
In someone who is susceptible, this can be quite a stress on the heart and even make that person quite unwell. However, it is uncommon that this will cause an otherwise healthy person to pass away. The stress can be enough to cause illness and it’s something what we see in hospitals from time to time, when someone gets sick after a major life stress.
The other thing that happens when we’re stressed is that we forget to take care of ourselves. Heart break or any kind of stress can sometimes mean we give up on our exercise routines, healthy eating or social connection. Some of us even rely on smoking, alcohol or other drugs to help us through. These changes in our behaviours are also responsible for turning emotional upheaval into physical illness.
In very unusual circumstances, we see a clinical problem called ‘broken heart syndrome’ or takotsubo cardiomyopathy. This happens when someone experiences a sudden shock, such as a loved one dying and a massive surge of hormones which cause the heart to get sick and pump very poorly. It tends to be seen largely in women who have gone through menopause although men do get it also. It’s not because someone is overly emotional, rather their heart seems to be very susceptible to a massive hormone surge. A number of these people recover but for some, it can make them incredibly sick or even end their life.
Since we won’t be wrapping ourselves in emotional cotton wool, heart break will happen. And as much as it hurts, we will muddle our way through it and be alright in the end. A physical broken heart, like the ones I see, is more likely to make us sick. Either way, the principles of taking care of yourself are the same. Eat well, exercise, avoid numbing things with drugs or alcohol and stay connected to the people in your life to help your heart and mind bounce back.
In her new book, heart and lung surgeon Dr Nikki Stamp examines how heartbreak can literally break us.