Broken heart syndrome is real.
In 2007, I met Jane at a senior center where I was giving a presentation on the role emotions play in influencing our overall health, energy and resilience. To illustrate my point, I cited emerging scientific evidence supporting the phenomenon known as “broken heart syndrome;" in broken heart syndrome, heart health and functioning are compromised due to the stress of the loss of a loved one or other profound loss. The syndrome is common among older adults, especially after the death of a loved one. After my presentation, Jane approached me to share this story:
Jane had been in “perfect health” until the death of her son two years earlier. Right after his death, Jane quickly began experiencing profound congestive heart failure. Jane’s doctor attributed the heart failure to old age and dismissed Jane’s self-diagnosis regarding the way the trauma of loss had affected her health. Jane however could feel her heart “struggling to try and figure out how to go on without my son.” She had tried meditation, and prayer, guided visualization, affirmations, and more and still her heart felt "broken."
Now armed with the knowledge that her broken heart was “real," Jane asked me to train her in heart-centered stress resilience techniques as a way to bring back greater balance to her heart rhythms – something I had talked about in my presentation. Through our work together, Jane’s health was renewed and she once again went on to find joy in living. Jane died last year just shy of her 100th birthday; she attributed the healing of her broken heart to her longevity.
Why Grief Feels so Bad
The emotion of grief has a profoundly depleting affect on our physiological functioning, especially in the first six months after the loss of a loved one. The stress of bereavement compromises the optimal functioning of our immune, hormonal, and nervous systems and thus inhibits access to executive, higher brain functioning. This depletion effect can show itself in many ways as we do our best to navigate the often turbulent, often muddy waters of grief processing. Symptoms of grief-induced stress depletion include:
Mind-based expressions of inhibited brain functioning: brain fog; confusion; difficulty concentrating; increased mental noise; preoccupation with what was lost; and more
Physical expressions of inhibited bodily functioning: loss of energy; broken heart syndrome; a tendency to get sick more often; dizziness; fast heartbeat; fatigue; shortness of breath; tightness or heaviness in the throat or chest; weight gain or loss; hyperventilating; elevated blood pressure; insomnia and other sleep disturbances; and more
During our period of bereavement we may also experience symptoms of spiritual depletion driven by the stress of loss such as: a lessening of compassion towards others; a lack of tolerance for others and their beliefs and values; a sense that we have lost – at least temporarily - our best selves; and more.
It is our emotions that are the primary drivers of our physiology and thus our felt sense of grief. What this means is that during our period of bereavement, the strong emotions of grief direct the activity in our hormonal system; when feelings of grief arise a cascade of depleting biochemical and hormonal releases are activated that we then experience as the mental, physical and spiritual expressions of our loss. Cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, is the main hormone associated with stress depletion. According to research, it appears that cortisol levels remain elevated for at least the first six months of bereavement, affecting heart and immune functioning, as well as quality of sleep and life.
It is important to note that grief is not a stand-alone emotion but instead can be thought of as a constellation of emotions that can include anger, anxiety, blame, confusion, denial, relief, depression, fear, guilt, irritability, loneliness, numbness, sadness, shock, yearning and more. When experienced, these emotions give us a felt sense of depletion, accounting for brain fog, a lack of energy and the many other expressions of grief.
Self-care Is Imperative
The effect that grief has on our physiology makes good self-care imperative, especially during the first six months to one year after the death of a loved one. More obvious forms of self-care include eating well, getting enough exercise and maintaining a routine. However, other and more specific interventions may be recommended by your doctor or mental healthcare professional if you find yourself struggling in the aftermath of loss, such as:
Grief support. Sharing your story with caring others who are also experiencing grief not only provides emotional support but new research appears to indicate that it may also provide physiological support, as well: In a randomized controlled clinical trial, the effect of grief support group sessions on the immune response were studied, showing that cortisol stress hormone levels were significantly lowered in those attending support sessions (see source 2).
Sleep interventions. Sleep is regenerative. Sleep disturbances such as insomnia are a common symptom of grief, contributing to physiological depletion. Sleep disturbances can be a factor in a post-loss rise in blood pressure, disturbances in cardiac rhythms and more. Therefore pharmacological and non-pharmacological interventions are sometimes needed to improve sleep quality in the initial stages of bereavement. Non-pharmacological interventions may include modalities such as cognitive behavioral therapy and relaxation techniques.
- The Institute of HeartMath
- “Physiological Correlates of Bereavement and the Impact of Bereavement Interventions”
- It’s OK You’re Not OK by Megan Devine
- The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk
- Mayo Clinic, “Broken Heart Syndrome”