Close this search box.

Can Stress Break Your Heart?

Was there a link between stress and the death of Debbie Reynolds? Many people asked that question when the legendary actress suffered a stroke and died one day after losing her daughter, Carrie Fisher, to a heart attack.

Stress can contribute to a variety of illnesses and conditions, including high blood pressure and heart disease as well as headaches, stomach problems and depression. However, stress doesn’t have to be chronic to affect health. Sometimes a single stressful event like an unexpected death can be, as Reynolds’ son said, “just too much.”

A Shock to the Heart

Stress-induced cardiomyopathy, also known as broken-heart syndrome, is caused by an emotionally stressful event such as the death of a loved one. It can also happen at happier occasions like a wedding or job promotion. These highly charged moments upset equilibrium, which the body perceives as threatening prompting it to activate what is known as the “fight or flight” response: a burst of stress hormones, such as adrenaline, that cause blood pressure to rise, the heart to pound and in some instances, increase risk for heart attack and stroke.

The Physical Fallout of Grief

Grief, particularly when unexpected, can profoundly affect cardiovascular health.

Recent research found that parents mourning the death of a child were at increased risk for dying for up to three years after that loss compared with other parents, particularly from coronary disease.

In older circles, where death is more common, the sudden death of a loved one can also affect cardiovascular health. A study involving more than 30,000 couples over age 60 found that those who unexpectedly lost a spouse or partner were more likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke within the next 30 days compared to those mourning a death caused by a chronic condition.

What Happens During Stress-induced Cardiomyopathy?

During an episode of stress-induced cardiomyopathy, the lower left section of the heart temporarily balloons. When this happens, the heart doesn’t pump as well as it should. Chest pain, shortness of breath, sweating, dizziness and nausea result. These, along with test results showing changes in heart rhythm and blood, are classic symptoms of a heart attack. However, unlike a heart attack, there is no evidence of plaque-clogged arteries and in most instances, no permanent damage.

Stress-induced cardiomyopathy is usually treated with heart medications like angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, beta blockers and diuretics. In most cases, this is a stopgap measure to ease the workload on the heart while it recovers.

However, sometimes the same life-threatening complications that can follow a heart attack also occur, which is why prompt treatment is essential. Stress-induced cardiomyopathy can cause arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats) and cardiogenic shock, in which the suddenly weakened heart is unable to pump enough blood to supply the body with what it needs. It can also lead to a stroke.

There is no way to predict how your body will react in the face of an unexpected and shocking event. But like traffic, deadlines and other routine stressful situations that can make you feel frustrated, anxious and angry, when you recognize stress, you can better manage it and reduce its effects on your health.

Manage Your Stress By:

  • Recognizing the symptoms of stress, including feeling overwhelmed or irritable
  • Identifying your unique sources of stress such as family, job or financial pressures
  • Making a list of work and personal tasks according to priority
  • Taking breaks of a minute or two throughout the day to stand, stretch and breathe deeply
  • Replacing unhealthy coping strategies such as eating junk food, smoking or drinking alcohol with healthy behaviors including exercising, meditating or talking with friends and family
  • Eating right, getting enough sleep, drinking plenty of water and taking time off
  • Asking for professional support and, if available, taking advantage of stress management resources available through Member Assistance Programs (MAPs)

The LHSFNA has a variety of brochures and health alerts pertaining to stress management, high blood pressure, heart disease, nutrition and general wellness. They can be ordered through the Fund’s online Publications Catalogue.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]

Recent Lifelines