How Grief Can Break Your Heart

How Grief Can Break Your Heart

Story at-a-glance -

  • Losing a significant person in your life raises your risk of having a heart attack the next day by 21 times, and in the following week by 6 times, new research shows
  • The abrupt increase in risk of cardiovascular events like heart attack following extreme stress may be related to the flood of stress hormones your body is exposed to
  • Stress cardiomyopathy, aka “broken heart syndrome,” which causes many of the same symptoms as a heart attack, is also known to occur shortly following extreme emotional stress
  • If you’re currently grieving or going through any type of emotional stress, it’s important to take steps to support positive mental health, not only for your mind but also for your body

By Dr. Mercola

Dying from a broken heart may seem more like a scene from a Shakespearean drama than reality, but extreme grief really can "break" your heart.

In the days after losing someone close to you, your risk of suffering from a heart attack goes through the roof -- increasing by up to 21 times!

If You Lose a Loved One, You're at Serious Risk of Having a Heart Attack

It's well known that psychological stress exacts a great physical toll on your health, but new research reveals just how extreme that toll can be.

In comparing how grief affects your heart disease risk within a period of time, researchers found that losing a significant person in your life raises your risk of having a heart attack the next day by 21 times, and in the following week by 6 times. 

The risk of heart attacks began to decline after about a month had passed, perhaps as levels of stress hormones begin to level out.

The study did not get into the causes of the abrupt increase in risk of cardiovascular events like heart attack, but it's likely related to the flood of stress hormones your body is exposed to following extreme stress.

For instance, adrenaline increases your blood pressure and your heart rate, and it's been suggested it may lead to narrowing of the arteries that supply blood to your heart, or even bind directly to heart cells allowing large amounts of calcium to enter and render the cells temporarily unable to function properly.

Interestingly, while your risk of heart attack increases following severe stress, so does your risk of what's known as stress cardiomyopathy -- or "broken heart syndrome" -- which is basically a "temporary" heart attack that occurs due to stress.

Did Penn State Football Coach Joe Paterno Die from a "Broken Heart"?

Joe Paterno, the beloved former head football coach at Penn State University, died just 74 days after he was fired from his position in the wake of a sex abuse scandal. It was last November that child sex allegations were brought up against Jerry Sandusky, Paterno's assistant at Penn State, and many blamed Paterno for not doing more to protect the boys.

Paterno had been quoted as saying the incident was "one of the great sorrows in my life," and noted he was "absolutely devastated" by the allegations against Sandusky. This undoubtedly placed great stress on Paterno, and in combination with also losing his position at Penn State, may very well have contributed to his demise.

While it's officially said that Paterno died from complications from lung cancer, stress, grief and a broken heart would be hard to rule out as contributing factors.

Broken Heart Syndrome Often Mimics a Heart Attack

The symptoms of stress cardiomyopathy or broken heart syndrome are very similar to those of a typical heart attack -- chest pain, shortness of breath, low blood pressure and even congestive heart failure can occur. There are some important differences, however.

In broken heart syndrome, the symptoms occur shortly after an extremely stressful event, such as a death in the family, serious financial loss, extreme anger, domestic abuse, a serious medical diagnosis, or a car accident or other trauma. This stress and the subsequent release of stress hormones are thought to "stun" or "shock" the heart, leading to sudden heart muscle weakness.

This condition can be life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention, however it is often a temporary condition that leaves no permanent damage. In most cases a typical heart attack occurs due to blockages in the coronary arteries that stop blood flow and cause heart cells to die, leading to irreversible damage. But people with broken heart syndrome often have normal arteries without significant blockages. The symptoms occur due to the emotional stress, so when the stress begins to die down, the heart is able to recover.

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Stress Impacts Far More than Your Heart...

The fact is, you can't separate your health from your emotions. Every feeling you have affects some part of your body. And stress can wreak havoc even if you're doing everything else "right."

Extreme, sudden stress like the examples noted above can obviously have near-immediate impacts on your health, but so can lingering everyday stressors that we all juggle, particularly when they're not dealt with over time. This causes your body to remain in "fight or flight" mode for far too long -- much longer than was ever intended from a biological standpoint.

One of the most common consequences of this scenario is that your adrenal glands, faced with excessive stress and burden, become overworked and fatigued. This can lead to a number of related health conditions, including fatigue, autoimmune disorders, skin problems and more. Stress has also been linked to cancer by acting as a pathway between cancerous mutations, potentially triggering the growth of tumors. In fact, stress, and by proxy your emotional health, is a leading factor in virtually any disease or illness you can think of.

Are There Any Proven Ways to Deal With Grief?

Getting back to the original study, the grief experienced following the loss of a loved one is easily one of the most devastating experiences a person can face. So what can you do to get through it?

Generally speaking, the emotional intensity of feelings of grief will recede over time, but the grieving process itself will be unique to you. You might feel denial and anger, but you might not. You might feel depressed or a yearning for your loved one, or you might not. It's important to open your mind to the notion that whatever you feel during your grieving process is OK, and likely exactly what you need.

While grief can feel insurmountable and become understandably all-consuming, take comfort in the fact that virtually everyone is able to move past the dark feelings. Typically within six months, you'll begin to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

During the grieving process, be gentle with yourself and take steps to support positive mental health. Exercise is very helpful for this aspect. Other common stress reduction tools with a high success rate include prayer, meditation and yoga. The Emotional Freedom Technique, or EFT, is another option; it's a psychological acupressure technique, one I highly recommend to manage stress and optimize your emotional health.

Also, please remember that both your mind and mood are significantly affected by your diet, so don't dismiss that part. While it may not be a miracle cure in and of itself, it can be extremely difficult to achieve sound mental health without the proper foundation of a sound diet and exercise plan.

Sound sleep is another critical issue. You can have the best diet and exercise program possible but if you aren't sleeping well your mental health can suffer and it is difficult to make healing progress. You can find 33 tips to help improve your sleep habits here.

Remember, left untended, emotional trauma like losing a loved one can lead to serious health problems down the road -- anything from heart attacks to depression and cancer is possible. If you've been dealing with debilitating feelings of grief that last for a year or more, professional help, including counseling or working with an EFT professional, may be warranted.

As an aside, many of these same tips, particularly my nutrition plan for proper diet along with regular exercise and attention to reducing emotional stress will drastically lower your heart disease and heart attack risk from any cause, so it's wise to implement them into your lifestyle whether you're experiencing grief or not.

One final tip... low levels of vitamin D in your blood have long been correlated with higher risk of heart disease and heart attacks, as well as problems with emotional health, such as depression. So I recommend you optimize your vitamin D levels for the sake of both your heart health and your emotional health.