"Broken Heart Syndrome" Is On The Rise Amid COVID-19: Here's What That Tells Us

Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor By Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
Deflated Balloon Hearts on a Blue Background

A broken heart isn't just a metaphor. In some cases, experiencing acute emotional distress—such as following a devastating breakup or the death of a loved one—can actually produce physical symptoms akin to an actual heart attack, including shortness of breath and chest pain. 

And researchers at the Cleveland Clinic have found that more and more people have been experiencing this so-called broken heart syndrome throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

When stress becomes physical.

Published in JAMA Open Network, the new study looked at 258 patients who'd come into the Cleveland Clinic and Cleveland Clinic Akron General for acute coronary syndrome in March and April and compared them with those who'd come in with it pre-pandemic. The cardiologists found a "significant increase" in the incidence of broken heart syndrome during the pandemic compared to before, jumping from 1.7% pre-pandemic to 7.8% during. Patients with the condition also tended to have a longer hospital stay for it amid COVID than patients who had it pre-pandemic. 

"The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about multiple levels of stress in people's lives across the country and world. People are not only worried about themselves or their families becoming ill, they are dealing with economic and emotional issues, societal problems and potential loneliness and isolation," Ankur Kalra, M.D., a Cleveland Clinic cardiologist who led the study, explains in a news release. "The stress can have physical effects on our bodies and our hearts, as evidenced by the increasing diagnoses of stress cardiomyopathy we are experiencing."

Broken heart syndrome, also known as stress cardiomyopathy or Takotsubo syndrome, is a sudden weakening or failure or the heart muscle usually in response to significant emotional distress. There's no coronary blockage as in a heart attack, but there are symptoms like chest pain, irregular heartbeat, fainting, blood pressure drop, and even cardiogenic shock, in which the heart cannot supply the body with enough blood because of the stress hormones' effects on the heart cells.

Past research has found that the regions of the brain that handle the experience of stress are also the ones that handle unconscious bodily functions like the heartbeat and breathing, suggesting that breakdown in communication in these regions of the brain may be what causes the stress cardiomyopathy symptoms. Some physicians believe it may also have to do with the release of stress hormones, which may temporarily inhibit the heart's ability to contract.


Why stress relief is about holistic health.

The good news is that people dealing with broken heart syndrome were no more likely to die than those without it, according to the study. Broken heart syndrome can be fatal, though it's rare. Doctors will sometimes prescribe a blood pressure medication or stress relief medication to help treat it, and most people gradually recover over the course of a few days or weeks. 

The main takeaway here is that finding ways to decrease our stress during this time is important both for our mental health and our physical health. Even the common headache can be linked to stress!

"While the pandemic continues to evolve, self-care during this difficult time is critical to our heart health, and our overall health," says Grant Reed, M.D., another Cleveland Clinic director and author of the study, in the news release. "For those who feel overwhelmed by stress, it's important to reach out to your health care provider. Exercise, meditation and connecting with family and friends, while maintaining physical distance and safety measures, can also help relieve anxiety."

Here's what the CDC recommends for stress relief during COVID-19, plus tips for managing COVID anxiety and how to stop doomscrolling.

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