Broken heart syndrome: Can Stress Alone Cause a Heart Attack?

February 01, 2022
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Americans are stressed today more than ever before, and it’s affecting their heart health.

According to the American Institute of Stress, 77% of people experience stress that affects their physical health, while the Global Organization for Stress reports that 75% of Americans experienced moderate to high stress levels in the past month.

Chronic stress can affect the immune, digestive, sleep, reproductive and cardiovascular systems. February is American Heart Month, a time when all people can focus on their cardiovascular health.

Dr. Amir Lotfi, the associate chief of the Division of Cardiology at Baystate Health, answers some common questions about how stress can affect your heart.

How does stress affect the heart?

“Studies have shown how risk factors such as smoking, obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes can lead to cardiovascular disease. While there is a lack of conclusive data, we know there is an association between emotional stress levels and increased rates of heart attacks,” said Dr. Lotfi.

He cited a study by Harvard Medical School researchers published in the British health journal Lancet. It described how increased activity in the amygdala, a brain region involved in processing intense emotions, has been associated in inflammation in the blood vessels and increase of cardiovascular events.

Can Stress Cause a Heart Attack?

  Stress can cause physical effects including headaches, upset stomachs, muscles aches, and insomnia. Stress can also cause high blood pressure, which is puts you at risk for heart attack and stroke. Experts also say that stress can increase harmful activities like overeating and smoking — also risk factors for heart disease.

Stress can also make you feel like you’re having a heart attack even if you’re not.

“We also know that stress can cause chest pain that isn’t necessarily associated with having a heart attack. Anxiety can increase the body’s stress hormones, cause hyperventilation, and an increased risk of muscle spasms. This can lead to similar symptoms as a heart attack and it can be difficult to distinguish chest pain due to impaired blood flow to the blood vessels of the heart compared to chest pain due to anxiety or other causes,” Dr. Lotfi said.

This type of cardiac event is also known as “broken heart syndrome” or stress cardiomyopathy. Everyday people may call it a “stress heart attack.”

According to the American Institute of Stress, stress doesn’t block your arteries and cause a heart attack.

But the stress can lead to high blood pressure. Combined with other factors like smoking or not eating healthy, the high blood pressure can lead to an actual health attack.

Stress Heart Attack – What does broken heart syndrome feel like?

Broken heart syndrome may feel like a heart attack.

You could experience:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Dizziness

What kind of stress can lead to broken heart syndrome?

Stress can be the result of many pressures from work, family, school and other daily responsibilities.

It could be brought about by losing a job, the loss of a loved one, divorce or illness, even worry over COVID-19.

The stress can be something that comes up all of a sudden or be chronic stress.

Can stress permanently affect your heart?

Broken heart syndrome may make your heart pump ineffectively for about a month.

How do you treat broken heart syndrome?

The important thing to remember is that ‘time is muscle,’ and if you have chest pain which is new or has not been evaluated previously, you should get checked immediately,” Dr. Lotfi said.

Your doctor will likely use beta-blockers and other medications to treat you, similar to other heart failure treatments.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, if you take practical steps to manage your stress, you may reduce the risk of negative health effects.

How to Reduce Stress on Your Heart

The American Heart Associations has some tips for handling the stress in your life:

1. Get regular exercise

Just 30 minutes per day of walking can help boost your mood and improve your health.

2. Try a relaxing activity

Explore relaxation or wellness programs, which may incorporate meditation, muscle relaxation, or breathing exercises. Schedule regular times for these and other healthy and relaxing activities.

3. Set goals and priorities

Decide what must get done now and what can wait. Learn to say “no” to new tasks if you start to feel like you’re taking on too much. Try to be mindful of what you have accomplished at the end of the day, not what you have been unable to do.

4. Stay connected

You are not alone. Keep in touch with people who can provide emotional support and practical help. To reduce stress, ask for help from friends, family and community of religious organizations.

5. Think positively

Keep a positive outlook by practicing positive self-talk. Turn bad thoughts into good ones.

For example, the American Heart Association suggests changing “I can’t do this,” to, “I’ll do the best I can. I’ve got this.”

6. Have calming strategies ready

Make sure you know a few calming strategies to practice if you feel overwhelmed in the moment.

This could be slowly counting to ten, practicing some meditation, saying a prayer, or breaking down the problem into smaller parts.

Having a plan will help you calm down faster in an emergency.

Talk to your doctor

Caring for your heart is an essential part of self-care. And finding out your risk is an important step towards preventing heart disease.

“Don’t let stress overtake you. If you are feeling overwhelmed, talk to your healthcare provider who can discuss treatments that can help ease your stress and help to keep you out of the cardiologist’s office,” said Dr. Lotfi.



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