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Breaking Up Can Literally Break Your Heart

The word "heartbreak" is bandied about so much we often forget that physical heart pain is a side effect of high-stress events.
 
 
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There's a pivotal moment in an episode of "The Simpsons" that has always stood out in my memory. When Lisa tells Ralph Wiggum she doesn't want to be his girlfriend, his face scrunches in agony and he clutches his heart as if it's literally breaking. I remember giggling at the exaggeration and then years later when my own heart got broken, I put my hand to my chest and felt his pain.

The word "heartbreak" is bandied about so much we often forget that, along with depression and loss of appetite, physical heart pain is an actual side effect of high-stress events like the loss of loved ones. The grief from a breakup or death can be so consuming that it's actually heart wrenching and can have serious consequences for our physical health, too.

The Physical Effects of a Broken Heart

Anyone who has experienced real heartbreak knows that it's not just a melodramatic term. The aching, tight feeling that accompanies such sadness is uncomfortable, but usually not disconcerting. However, for people with broken heart syndrome, it feels scarily similar to a heart attack -- in fact, most people are diagnosed after being taken to the emergency room.

Broken heart syndrome, also known as stress cardiomyopathy, is a sudden weakness in the heart muscle due to a severely stressful situation. It has the same symptoms as a heart attack -- difficulty breathing, chest pain, and a drop in blood pressure -- but while a heart attack permanently damages the heart, broken heart syndrome's effects are temporary. Also, heart attacks are caused by blocked coronary arteries; people can experience stress cardiomyopathy without existing blockages. This important difference is often how doctors determine one from the other.

In 2005, researchers at John Hopkins University discovered the distinction when they studied the hearts of patients dealing with deaths of family members, car accidents, financial woes, and other anxiety triggers. They postulated that being under such stress causes the brain to release a constant stream of stress hormones like adrenaline into the blood, which makes heart vessels work too hard and reduces pumping strength. However, this is but one theory -- doctors are still trying to determine exactly why adrenaline surges affect heart muscle cells the same way that heart attacks do.

The syndrome might be serious like a heart attack, but luckily it's a temporary condition that can be cleared up in about a week with proper medical care. Mostly people just need time to recover from whatever physical or emotional event shocked their systems enough to cause cardiomyopathy. Even seemingly innocent things like surprise parties and public speaking can spark heart problems; many patients don't have preexisting heart conditions, so it is difficult to tell who is at risk for the syndrome. For reasons still unknown, it does occur more frequently in women than men, particularly postmenopausal women.

Toxic Relationships Can Be Deadly, Too

Suffering through a traumatic event like a breakup isn't the only way to weaken our hearts -- staying in a toxic relationship can be just as detrimental. It's no secret that negative relationships, whether platonic or romantic, can have negative effects on our physical well-being. Emotional stress puts added pressure on our bodies, which weakens our immune systems and increases depressive episodes. In 2007, a study conducted at University College London found that people in bad relationships -- characterized by a lack of support and a constant source of stress -- had a 34 percent higher chance of having heart problems in the future compared to those in positive couplings.

 
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