New Study Finds How Heartbreak Can Alter The Brain
You may have heard that someone "died of a broken heart," but it may not be just a turn of phrase. A new study in the European Heart Journal has probed deeper into the sensation known as "broken heart syndrome." As it turns out, severe emotional stress like heartbreak may actually affect your brain and, in turn, your body.
Takotsubo syndrome (TTS) is a sudden temporary weakening of the heart muscles. It's colloquially referred to as "broken heart" syndrome, as the symptoms (which include chest pain and shortness of breath—and sometimes heart attack) usually appear shortly after severe emotional stress like heartbreak after a breakup or death of a loved one, in addition to other types of extreme sadness, anger, or fear.
The study's researchers, which included both neuroscientists and cardiologists, compared MRI brain scans from 15 TTS patients with those of 39 healthy patients. Researchers specifically looked at the amygdala, hippocampus, and cingulate gyrus, three areas of the brain involved in emotional processing, motivation, and memory and that are regularly in communication with each other. The amygdala and cingulate gyrus also handle certain unconscious bodily functions like the heartbeat and breathing. And collectively, these brain regions are also the same ones that control our response to stress.
The study found that in patients with TTS—that is, people who are having a physical reaction to emotional stress—there's a breakdown in communication between these regions of the brain. These heartbroken patients essentially exhibit a misfire in these brain regions controlling both emotional processing and automatic bodily processes.
"[This finding] strongly supports the idea that the brain is involved in the underlying mechanism of TTS," Christian Templin, a cardiology professor at University Hospital Zurich and the study's lead researcher, said in a news release. "Emotional and physical stress are strongly associated with TTS, and it has been hypothesized that the overstimulation of the autonomic nervous system may lead to TTS events."
In other words, because the parts of the brain involved with emotions are also the parts of the brain that deal with involuntary bodily functions like keeping the heart beating, it's possible that the effects of an extreme emotional event may trickle from the mind to the body. Although TTS has long been associated with emotional stress, researchers can now confirm the mind-body connection.
The study did state that it is unclear whether patients with TTS already had a breakdown in communication between the brain regions or if it was caused by the TTS. What we do know is that there does appear to be a link between the emotional and physical pains of the heart. Although run-of-the-mill lovesickness is not necessarily the same as broken heart syndrome, Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, Ph.D., told mbg that heartbroken individuals can also experience inflammation, changes in the gut microbiome, and weaker immune functions due to elevated stress hormones.
The biggest take-away from this study is that our emotions have a much greater toll on our physical health than we realize, which is why it's important to pay attention to your body and your holistic wellness in the aftermath of an emotional trauma. Everything is connected.
Madison Vanderberg is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, editor, and screenwriter specializing in the women's lifestyle space. She has a bachelor's in sociology from UCLA. Vanderberg has written for HelloGiggles, Insider, Hunker, Racked, and more. When she isn’t writing, she's probably researching skincare products or baking gluten-free cookies.