Broken Heart Syndrome: Can You Live With a Broken Heart?

Figures of couple from paper and scissors.

In 1971, at the peak of their career, the Beegees music group launched a Grammy Award winning song called “How Do You Mend a Broken Heart?” The lyrics pleaded, “Please help me mend my broken heart…And let me live again.” The song resonated with audiences around the world who had long been familiar with the experience of a broken heart.

The idea that the heart can be metaphorically broken is ages-old and has been forwarded by myth, religion, and literature throughout the world. But with the progress of science, the idea has moved from metaphor to something more literal, embodied in what has been termed “broken heart syndrome.”  While having a broken heart as the result of a romantic breakup may have sent the Beegees swooning, there are more serious implications when broken hearts result from the death of a loved one.

What is Broken Heart Syndrome?

Broken heart syndrome is defined by the Cleveland Clinic as “a group of symptoms similar to those of a heart attack, occurring in response to a physical or emotional stress. Most people affected by broken heart syndrome think they are having a heart attack” because its symptoms may include shortness of breath and chest pain, which are similar to both conditions. 

Cardiologist Holly Andersen, MD, scientific adviser for the Women’s Heart Alliance, said that the condition can be treated and even heal untreated, but it can also cause heart arrhythmias and sudden death. She said, that “you don’t have to have any predisposing disease, and you could still be susceptible to sudden death…because of overwhelming emotional stress.”

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Survival vs. Creation

www.health.harvard.edu

An astonishing approximation of 1.2 million people were reported as having a myocardial infarction ( an interruption of blood supply to the heart) in 2007. About 1 percent of those, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, are said to have undergone broken heart syndrome.

The broken heart syndrome medical term is Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, named after an octopus trap due to the similarities in shape the heart takes when suffering from the illness. Since it was first recognized officially in Japan in 1990, it has been studied extensively.

More than 90 percent of reported cases, according to Harvard researchers, are in women ages 58 to 75, and the syndrome causes “a weakening of the left ventricle, the heart’s main pumping chamber, usually as the result of severe emotional or physical stress, such as a sudden illness, the loss of a loved one, a serious accident, or a natural disaster such as an earthquake.”

The Death of Carrie Fisher and Her Mother Debbie Reynolds

A great many people are familiar with — or know someone who has experienced — the death of a person that quickly led to the death of a close relative. It’s as if the one death was so shocking that it somehow short-circuited the heart of the surviving relative(s). 

The world was witness to this phenomenon not long ago, in a high profile case, when famed actress Carrie Fisher (Star Wars’ Princess Leah) suddenly passed away on December 28, 2016, only to have her famous actress-mother, Debbie Reynolds, die the next day. Hollywood Reporter explained, “Reynolds…was taken by ambulance to a hospital the day after Fisher died.” Her son, Todd Fisher, told the Associated Press that his mother had said, “I want to be with Carrie…And then she was gone.”

Writing for Psychology Today, therapist Kristin Meekhof explained that, after her husband died she began to do research for her book, A Widow’s Guide to Healing. She said, “I wanted to know and understand how other widows coped with grief, so I interviewed dozens of widows. Their age and financial, educational, and religious backgrounds varied. A widow named Julie, 34, said, ‘For about six months I had heart palpitations. Sometimes it felt like I was having a heart attack and other times my heart would beat out of my chest.’”

Psychological effects of Broken Heart Syndrome

Beyond the physical symptoms of broken heart syndrome are psychological ones. Psychologist Guy Winch, PhD explained that “heartbreak activates the same mechanisms in the brain that get activated when addicts are withdrawing from substances like cocaine and opioids. These powerful withdrawal symptoms from the loss of love impact our ability to think, focus, and function in the broadest terms.”

And, noted Winch, “When our heart is broken, our brain will generate intrusive thoughts of our ex that invade our thoughts without warning. It may be a mental image of the partner, a snippet of conversation, a memory, or some other reminder. Each time such a thought appears, it interrupts us, reopens our wound, reactivates our emotional pain, and triggers our withdrawal symptoms.

Given that intrusive thoughts can occur dozens of times in an hour, and how significantly they can set us back, it is clear why so many of us struggle to get over heartbreak and recover in a timely manner.”

Healing From Broken Heart Syndrome Naturally

Dr. Ross Walker, an expert in the field of preventive cardiology, explained, “Although superficial interactions are of no value in this situation, staying close to the other important, supportive people may ease the suffering somewhat. Being held and comforted by important members of your family and close friends is an important part of healing the horrible wounds experienced when your heart is breaking… Strangely, the most important tip I can give in this situation is to feel and accept the pain. You are supposed to feel bad when your heart is broken and often by not trying to fight this emotion, the dreadful feelings will ease somewhat.”

This close relationship between brain, mind, and body, is embodied in heart-brain coherence, a biological occurrence that Gregg Braden has discussed in his writings and videos. He explained that there is a “never-ending conversation of emotion-based signals between our hearts and our brains, also known as the heart brain connection.

The reason this conversation is so important is because the quality of the emotional signal our hearts sends to our brains determines what kind of chemicals our brains release into our bodies.” Braden explains that when we learn how to help the heart and brain work in harmony this is not only good for healing, but it is also a means of prevention of future health issues.

When it comes to matters of the heart, there is an unseen connection that is still beyond the ken of modern science. What people have experienced for millennia has only recently been officially termed “broken heart syndrome.” This is one more step toward modern medicine’s recognition that the mind, body, brain, and consciousness may truly be a singular network that requires a holistic health paradigm to understand and treat. 

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Awakening the Heart-Brain Union
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Guide to Alternative Medicine Part 1: Traditional Chinese Medicine

“When health is absent Wisdom cannot reveal itself, Art cannot become manifest, Strength cannot be exerted, Wealth is useless and Reason is powerless.”
— Herophilies, 300 B.C.

Just a decade ago, if patients wanted to explore unconventional treatment options they were on their own. Traditional health professionals generally didn’t encourage alternative therapies or treatments, and discouraged departures from allopathic treatment models such as drugs and surgery.

As research validates the efficacy of non-traditional treatment models, such as traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), ayurvedic medicine, massage and chiropractic adjustment, naturopathy, diet, and natural supplementation — even homeopathy and sound therapy — new branches of medicine emerge.

Integrative, Functional, Complementary, and Alternative Medicine

The “integrative” medical model developed during the early 1990s but was formalized when the National Institute of Health (NIH) created the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). This classification covered non-conventional treatment and research, and was the beginning of a slow recognition of alternative systems. Integrative models include consideration of a patient’s lifestyle, body, and mind, and how to promote well-being for the whole person rather than just diseases and their symptoms.

“Functional” medicine refers to holistic and alternative medical practices intended to  improve overall functions of the body’s systems and explores individual biochemistry, genetics, and environment to determine underlying causes of disease.

According to the NIH, “complementary” medicine coordinates non-mainstream practices with conventional treatments. This has driven acceptance of alternative therapies such as TCM, diet, and nutraceuticals, or supplements.

Alternative medicine is any practice that falls outside conventional systems and is not combined with traditional treatments. For example, if patients choose Ayurvedic medicine, dietary changes, and supplementation to treat their cancer and exclude conventional therapies, they have entered the realm of alternative medicine.

Traditional Chinese Medicine

“Those who disobey the laws of Heaven and Earth have a lifetime of calamities while those who follow the laws remain free from dangerous illness.”

— Huangdi, The Yellow Emperor,  2698–2598 BCE

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) claims to be the third-oldest medical system, preceded only by Egyptian and Babylonian medicine. Theories of TCM are believed to be at least 3,000 to 4,000 years old — likely older, predating written language.

The foundations of TCM are meridian channels and acupuncture points that conduct the movement of chi, and the five-element model correspondences to these points and channels. This five-element system of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water also applies to seasons, colors, sounds, sense organs, personality types, Chinese astrology, feng shui, the I Ching, and countless other aspects of Chinese culture and life.

The Five-Element System in Chinese Medicine

Called the Wu Xing, this five-element system defines relationships between the elements and considers them to be in continual active cycles wherever they are found. Mother/child, or generating relationships, are: wood fuels fire, fire forms earth (think of volcanic flow and ash) earth produces metal, metal carries water (buckets, pipes, etc.), and water feeds wood.

Conversely, there are antagonistic (father/child) relationships: fire melts metal, metal penetrates wood (ax, saw), wood separates earth (tree roots break soil), earth absorbs and directs water (river banks), and water extinguishes fire.

Feng Shui destructive cycle, five elements

Chinese and Taoist doctors, called OMDs (oriental medicine doctors), see a patient through this lens of five-element relationships, along with yin and yang (passive and active) qualities. Organs are paired into male and female element families that include seasons, colors, compass directions, sense organs, emotions, and virtues. The female, or yin, organs are continually active — the Chinese say a woman’s work is never done — while male yang organs have periods of rest and activity. Element family qualities are:

    • Metal: Lung (yin), large intestine (yang); season: autumn; color: white; direction: west; sense organ: nose; emotion: grief. When balanced, grief becomes the virtue of integrity.
    • Water: Kidneys (yin), bladder (yang); season: winter; color: black; direction: north; sense organ: ears; emotion: fear. When balanced, fear becomes the virtues of poise, calm, and alert stillness.
    • Wood: Liver (yin), gall bladder (yang); season: spring; color: green; direction: east; sense organs: eyes; emotion: anger. When balanced, anger becomes the virtue of kindness.
    • Fire: Heart (yin), small intestine (yang); season: summer; color: red; direction: south; sense organ: tongue; emotion: rush/rudeness. When balanced, rushed rudeness becomes the virtues altruism and  joy.
    • Earth: Spleen (yin), stomach(yang); season: late summer; color: yellow; direction: center or middle; sense organ: mouth; emotion: worry and overthinking. When balanced, worry and obsession become the virtues of balance and equanimity.
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