How Stress Harms the Heart

Heart Muscle Disease Is Increasing, and Experts Think Emotional Distress Is a Major Cause

broken heartIf someone says their heart is broken, you instantly know what that means: The person is feeling deep grief, usually from the loss of a love relationship or the passing of a loved one. The pain is emotional, but it can feel—and be—physical as well.

In fact, cardiac specialists know extreme emotional stress can actually “break” a heart’s functioning by reducing the ability of heart muscles to pump, thereby depriving the brain and organs of oxygen-rich blood.

This is called stress cardiomyopathy, also known as “broken heart syndrome,” and cases have been on the rise.

“Recent data show an increase of four times the number of stress cardiomyopathy cases compared to before the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Fadi Chaaban, MD, Director and Chief of Cardiology at Clara Maass Medical Center and a member of RWJBarnabas Health Medical Group.

How It Happens

“The mechanism for triggering stress cardiomyopathy is not completely understood, but it’s possible that there is a link between the brain and the heart where you have a high activation of neurons in the brain stem,” says Dr. Chaaban.

“These in turn secrete a tremendous amount of stress hormones and neuropeptides, which could be captured by the receptors of the heart, leading to a temporary dysfunction of an area in the heart.”

However, the COVID-19 virus attacks the heart in many ways that are still not completely understood, he notes.

Stress cardiomyopathy has the same symptoms as a heart attack: chest pain, shortness of breath, sweating, dizziness, nausea and vomiting, weakness, and pounding of the heart.

In addition to being triggered by intense emotion, it can be caused by significant physical stress, such as a severe asthma attack or a broken bone.

“Many times, a patient comes in with what presents as a heart attack, and we discover it was actually stressed cardiomyopathy only after further testing, such as an echocardiogram or angiogram,” says Dr. Chaaban.

Women, especially those over 50, seem to be more at risk of emotion-caused stress cardiomyopathy. When men have the condition, it is more often caused by physical stress.

Managing Stress

“We don’t know why some people get stress cardiomyopathy and others don’t, but what we can tell patients is that they are highly likely to fully recover,” says Dr. Chaaban.

“We generally need to provide supportive treatment for several weeks, with medications to help improve blood pressure, remove fluid from the lungs, and prevent blood clots.”

For very sick patients, a ventilator or an intra-aortic balloon pump may be needed.

Managing stress is the most important thing anyone can do to protect the heart, he says. “The best way to de-stress yourself is to live a healthy life—stay active, eat well and maintain a healthy weight as well as a positive attitude,” he says.

“Life is stressful, but you can learn not to take things personally and become more resilient to whatever life throws at you.”

The most urgent message Dr. Chaaban has is for people to pay attention to their symptoms.

“If you’re stressed out and suddenly feeling chest pain, don’t ignore it,” he says.

“Get checked as quickly as possible. Call 911 or go to the Emergency Department. That’s a controlled environment where we can help you and support you until the stress has passed and your heart has healed.”

Your heart doesn’t beat just for you. Get it checked. To find a cardiac specialist at RWJBarnabas Health, call 888.724.7123 or visit www.rwjbh.org/heart.