Understanding How Grief Can Cause Physical Harm

You may have heard of “broken heart syndrome” in which the effects of stress caused by a traumatic event or significant grief can result in very real physical systems.  And a new study delves deeper into the syndrome explaining that people with this condition have a different response in the brain to stress.   

According to a recent report in the New York Times, cardiologists and neuroscientists have taken a closer look at Takotsubo syndrome (TTS); in which a period of extreme stress causes the heart to abruptly weaken and bulge.   The damage to the heart, caused by stress, usually resolves over time but sometime may lead to death.

The Swiss study, published in the European Heart Journal, compared participants who had recently survived an episode with the syndrome with volunteers who were healthy and not affected by the condition.  The brains of the patients with a history of Takotsubo syndrome showed dampened neuronal activity between the regions that control the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems.  Because of this hampered communication, patients with TTS experienced a longer period of stress following a loss of a loved one before the system calmed down.  

Researchers were interested in how the body is affected by emotional or physical stress and this study is the first of it’s kind to demonstrate how the brain is linked with the regulation and functions of the limbic system in patients with TTS.   With a clearer understanding of how extreme stress affects the mind and the body, more can be done to help prevent stress from taking a toll on patients following a death or other traumatic event.  

Grief as the result of the loss of family or friends is more common as we age and it’s important to understand how acute or persistent grief and stress can affect your health.  According to Harvard Men’s Health Watch, chronic stress can led to depression, trouble sleeping, anxiety, loss of appetite, physical aches and pain and feelings of anger or bitterness.  These symptoms, if left untreated, can increase the risk for heart attack, stroke and death. 

People who experience persistent grief can benefit from counseling or therapy to help manage a stressful life event.  Lifestyle changes including regular exercise, eating a healthy diet and practicing mind-body activities such as yoga or tai chi can help alleviate some of the stress associated with grief.  Staying socially connected is also important to reduce feelings of isolation that can lead to depression.