Broken Heart Syndrome

Broken Heart Syndrome

By Kerry Cannity, PH.D. | March 15, 2021

Patients with Broken Heart Syndrome can experience symptoms such as chest pain, shortness of breath, and low blood pressure – which can easily be confused for a heart attack.

The physical and metaphorical heart have been long been linked in our language. But did you know that a broken heart actually can cause real heart problems?

Broken heart syndrome (also known as stress-induced cardiomyopathy or Takotsubo cardiomyopathy) is a rare cardiovascular condition in which significant stress causes heart dysfunction or heart failure. Patients can experience symptoms such as chest pain, shortness of breath, and low blood pressure – which can easily be confused for a heart attack. Scientists have hypothesized that this condition is caused by a rapid release of stress hormones (known as catecholamines, such as epinephrine and norepinephrine), which weakens the left ventricle and therefore the heart’s ability to pump blood.

This phenomenon is very rare; of the hundreds of thousands of people who experience a heart attack yearly, approximately 1% meet criteria for stress-induced cardiomyopathy. Those most likely to experience this are white or Asian older women, especially those with a history of anxiety or depression. Numerous factors – sometimes personal to the individual – are hypothesized to trigger an episode of stress-induced cardiomyopathy. Of course, this can include the breakup of a relationship, but it also can be precipitated by an acute psychiatric episode, grief, or another significant stressor.

Treatment for stress-induced cardiomyopathy include supportive treatment of the cardiac symptoms, as well as treatment for the underlying stress or mental health conditions. This might include trauma treatment, building coping skills and social support, and potentially a consultation for medication management. Finally, heart health can always benefit from good lifestyle management, including eating well, exercising, and getting enough sleep.

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About the Author
Kerry Cannity, PhD is a clinical psychologist with a doctorate from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) at New York-Presbyterian Westchester Division. In addition to her clinical work, she serves on the faculty at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Connecticut, where she teaches psychology to undergraduates, and as a research associate with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. She has published articles in Health Psychology and the Journal of Counseling and Clinical Psychology, and she is a member of the National Register of Health Service Psychologists and the Society of Behavioral Medicine. LEARN MORE

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