Another Reason to Avoid a Broken Heart

May 28, 2014

Another Reason to Avoid a Broken Heart: Good Mental Health may benefit your Cardiovascular Health

Anne Murphy, Ph.D.,

Psychologist at Washington Health System Behavioral Health


Have you ever worried about your risk or a loved one’s risk for cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in our nation? If you answered yes to this question, you may be aware of the role of family history and the recommended ways to keep your heart healthy and avoid cardiovascular disease. Eliminating smoking, exercising regularly, eating a heart healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, and getting regular health screenings are among the top behaviors recommended to lower your risk of cardiovascular disease.

Did you know that your emotions, moods, stress level and even personality may also affect your heart? Once viewed as separate entities, the mind and body are becoming increasingly linked together in scientific research. As a result, more attention has been paid to the ways mental health functioning influences the risk for heart disease and other forms of disease. In addition to maintaining health healthy habits, lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease may involve avoiding depression, anxiety, social isolation and the effects of harmful stress.  

Stress is thought to be especially relevant to the relationship between mental health and heart health. Personality and individual differences may determine to what extent an individual will be affected by stress along with what forms of stress an individual will find disturbing. Stress may be most harmful to individuals who lean toward negative thinking about life circumstances, are highly reactive to stress, and confront a type of stress that is personally disturbing. Personality traits such as a tendency to withhold and internalize negative emotion may also make an individual more susceptible to the effects of stress that can affect cardiovascular health.

According to John M. Costello, Jr. MD, Medical Director of Non-Invasive Cardiology and Cardiac Rehabilitation at Washington Health System Cardiovascular Care, stress can exert a negative influence on heart health by causing biochemical changes that constrict arteries and encourage the formation of blockages. One of the most salient examples of the potential impact of stress on the cardiovascular system is seen in instances of Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy, also known as “Broken Heart Syndrome.” Dr. Costello explains that Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy is a type of cardiomyopathy that involves a sudden temporary weakening of the myocardium that can be triggered by severe emotional stress caused by a terrible life event such as the death of a loved one. In Japanese, Takotsubo means “fishing pot for trapping octopus.” Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy was named after the Japanese octopus trap because the left ventricle dysfunction in this type of cardiomyopathy resembles the shape of the fishing pot used for trapping octopus. Dr. Costello explains that treatment of Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy is usually supportive in nature and short-term resolution is expected. Long-term outcomes for individuals who suffered “Broken Heart Syndrome” are not as well known.     

In addition to stress, mood disturbance can also affect the health negatively. Mental health problems such as depression may heighten an individual’s risk for heart disease. And for those confronting a chronic cardiac condition, depression may be a normal reaction to illness that interferes with cardiac rehabilitation. Whether a precursor or reaction to illness, depressive symptoms are both a risk factor for heart disease and a condition that interferes with successful rehabilitation from a cardiac event. The connection between mood and heart health is thought to exist because depression can involve biological and chemical changes in the brain that can influence the cardiovascular system along with other systems in the body. The mood-heart connection highlights the importance of avoiding depression and circumstances connected to depression including social isolation.  

Managing your stress level and mood are clearly important measures to take in the prevention of heart disease and rehabilitation from a cardiac event, in addition to heart healthy behaviors. Toward that end, the following items are recommended:

  • Monitor your mood and aim to address symptoms of depression and anxiety. Be aware of your thoughts and how your thoughts can influence your mood. Try to replace dysfunctional thoughts with functional thoughts that will minimize depression and anxiety.
  • Express your emotions when needed and develop healthy ways of coping with unpleasant feelings. Try to maintain social connections with others with whom you can share your thoughts, feelings and concerns.
  • Monitor and manage your level of stress. Be aware of your personality and level of reactivity to stress. Aim to reduce stress by following heart healthy habits, avoiding harmful relationships, and practicing relaxation and mindfulness.

For more information please find:

Aggie Casey M.S. and Herbert Benson, MD. (2004) Mind Your Heart: A Mind/Body Approach to Stress Management, Exercise, and Nutrition for Heart Health.  Simon & Shuster, Inc; New York, NY.

Virani, S. S., Khan A. N., Mendoza, C. E., Ferreira, A. C. and de Marchena, E. (2007). Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy, or Broken Heart Syndrome. Texas Heart Institute Journal. 34(1), 76-79. 


<< Back to News Room