This article first appeared on Doctor Portal on 7 September 2016.
You can die of a broken heart.
Intense grief can trigger a heart attack, especially in the early weeks of grieving the loss of a loved one, a study looking into the physiological effects of emotions on the heart has found.
“When you are under emotional stress, your heart dissolves under physical stress,” said Dr Thomas Buckley, a cardiovascular researcher at University of Sydney.
Dr Buckley and his team have been researching the link between acute emotional episodes and risk of severe cardiac events and have identified the biological responses in bereavement.
“Coping with the death of a loved one can be incredibly difficult on an emotional level, and now we can see the physical impact as well,” he said.
The highest risk of a cardiac event was seen in the spouses or parents of the deceased, who all had higher heart rates and blood pressure.
Intense anger – the feeling of being outraged, ready to burst, with teeth and fists clenched – is also a trigger for heart attack.
“We’re not just talking about being irritated or mildly annoyed,” said Dr Buckley.
In fact, the risk of heart attack was 8.5 times higher in the two hours after an angry outburst.
According to the research, two-thirds of anger outbursts were related to family arguments and the rest were related to driving or workplace stress.
The increased risk was most likely due to higher heart rate, higher blood pressure, a tightening of blood vessels and increased clotting – all known heart-attack triggers, said Dr Buckley.
Stay calm and know the triggers that make you angry was his advice to avoid such a life-threatening event.
For those in grief, the key message was not to ignore symptoms and put it down to “just grieving”.
“While the grieving process is normal it’s not desirable to have cardiac symptoms and to seek medical assistance during that time and not to ignore those symptoms,” said Dr Buckley, who would like more effort placed on the health and welfare of bereaved survivors.
In times of grief in particular, he said, a lot of focus was on the deceased, but it was important to recognise the health of the surviving partner or spouse or parent was also at risk “and it is a significant risk”.
Encouraging grieving relatives to get enough sleep, eat well and reduce their alcohol and smoking intake would help to reduce their risk of dying from a heart attack.