We all know that feeling after a breakup, loss or frightening medical diagnosis — where it just feels like your chest is aching and tightening. It can feel like your heart is literally breaking. As it turns out, we’re not entirely wrong.
We may have been reprimanded for attributing emotional pain to our hearts instead of our brains. But broken-heart syndrome is a very real thing. So much so, in fact, that researchers have spent years analyzing its prognosis and manifestation. They’ve even taken to giving it a medical term: takotsubo cardiomyopathy. The condition was named after the Japanese word for “octopus trap” (takotsubo), because with the syndrome, the left heart ventricle swells to take on this shape.
While broken-heart syndrome is usually a temporary condition that clears once the initial shock is over, it can lead to further health complications if not addressed. Danish researchers found that individuals who have experienced a broken heart (in this case as a result of the death of a spouse/partner) are at a 57 percent higher risk of developing arrhythmia than those who have not. It is also linked with less-favorable cancer prognoses and a higher chance of heart failure. Interestingly enough, it most often affects women.
So, all the phrases we’ve never associated with logic and realism, like “my heart is breaking” or “I’m scared to death,” carry a lot more weight than we think. While coping with grief, stress or trauma will take a lot longer than a few minutes, there are immediate solutions to dealing with a broken heart — and keeping it from getting out of hand.
Try Meditation & Deep Breathing
Broken-heart syndrome usually leads to an elevated heart rate and arrhythmia as a result of irregular breathing. The best and most important thing you can do when experiencing a broken heart is to re-regulate your breath. Deep breathing is often more easily said than done, so here are a few specific exercises that will ensure you do it right:
- Take your thumb and fourth finger. Use your thumb to plug one nostril while you breathe in through the other. Then, switch fingers and exhale through the now-unplugged nostril. Continue to alternate for a few minutes, or until your heart rate slows.
- Breathe in for four counts, hold your breath at the top for four counts, and breathe out for eight counts. Focus on the breath. Counting helps take our mind off our troubles for a few minutes.
- Place your hands over your belly and breathe into the belly as if you’re trying to inflate it. Breathe out slowly through your mouth. Short, sharp breaths that stop in the chest can cause us to hyperventilate and elevate our heart rate, so breathing into the belly ensures we keep it steady.
Once you’ve established some basic breathing techniques, you can move on to a daily 5-10 minute daily meditation. This will help you develop deep breathing as a habit.
Acupuncture is a 3,000-year-old practice that has been used to soothe emotional distress, address chronic pain and overcome injuries. While many people have trouble understanding how covering your body with needles induces relaxation, research shows it does. Clinical studies have proven that the needles release hormones like dopamine and serotonin, the same ones associated with bonding and being in love.
What’s more, different pressure points address different problem areas. For heartache, acupuncturists recommend focusing on the HT-7 acupuncture point, which is located on the lower end of your wrist. It is specifically dedicated to emotional ailments, such as anxiety, worry and depression.
Acupuncture is also used to reduce inflammation, which is exactly what occurs in the heart with persistent broken-heart syndrome. Make sure to see a professional if this is the route you choose to take. If not done by a trained and experienced acupuncture therapist, it could have counterintuitive effects.
Seek Out a Professional
Sometimes, a broken heart calls for professional help, as it can lead to further physical and mental illness, specifically long-term anxiety disorder and depression. Locate a cognitive behavioral therapist in your area who will help with coping methods for when that broken-heart feeling arises. They can supply you with visualization techniques and help you reform your thinking around the physical manifestations of a broken heart. Therapy can also help address any maladaptive behaviors or intrusive thoughts you may be having.
Let Yourself Feel
Sometimes, the only solution to a broken heart is to submit to it. The more we try to distract ourselves with solutions, the more we distract from the problem at hand. This can lead to sustained denial, as well as deteriorating mental and emotional health.
There’s no cure for the broken heart. It’s an obstinate side effect of the human condition. However, there are ways to treat a broken heart and ensure it does not overstay its welcome. Mindfulness, therapy and other holistic techniques are excellent ways to manage it, but don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor about anxiety medications if your onset is particularly severe.
Lastly, remember that broken-heart syndrome (even at its most severe) is a temporary condition that can be overcome with no further negative impact to your health. It is only when it is left untreated that it can contribute to further cardiac concerns. For the sake of your heart and your overall health, don’t be afraid to face your broken heart with the same care and concern you would any other injury.