Dear Dr. Brit and Catherine,
Can you die from a broken heart?
"Ava" (not her real name)
Thank you for your note. That’s a very good question. The short answer is “yes”. You can indeed die from a broken heart.
During a difficult breakup, the sudden death of a loved one or any other heartbreaking event, negative emotions take over our bodies.
The fear processing center of the brain, known as the amygdala, fire intensely, the adrenal glands sitting on top of the kidneys release enormous amounts of stress hormones into the blood stream and some of these attack the heart.
We feel an ache in the heart because stress hormones are attacking it and that in turn is making the brain enter an even more negative mode. It’s a vicious cycle. If it is not broken, it can kill.
It has been known for some time that stress chemicals can kill. One of the most dangerous chemicals in the stress cocktail is adrenaline.
In their book Psychosomatics science journalists Howard Lewis and Martha Lewis discuss a true case of a four-year-old child who was having a couple of baby teeth extracted. The little girl was terrified of the dentist. She screamed and kicked, making it impossible for the dentist to do his work. He gave her an injection containing a sedative to calm the child down. It did calm her down. But only minutes after the extraction was complete, the young child had a heart attack. She died two days later. The autopsy found very high levels of adrenaline in her blood stream due to intense fear.
Stress hormones kill more often than we think. Lewis and Lewis note that 85% of the people who die from snakebite didn’t have enough venom in their bloodstream to cause death. Ironically, they died from the fear that they might die.
Extreme fear of death can cause the body to go into a death-like state. In Your Psychic Powers and How to Develop Them Hereward Carrington, a well-known British investigator of psychic phenomena, discuss a true story of a black man who nearly died from fear of death:
"Fear had seized him with tremendous power, he shook like an aspen leaf, he bordered on the state of collapse and death seemed imminent. Not finding any blood … all clothes removed and, while he was being undressed, a flattened bullet fell upon the floor. The doctor exhibited the bullet to the frightened patient, explaining that he had had a miraculous escape, whereupon his countenance improved, his temperature became normal and the look of life returned to his eyes which had been fixed with the gaze of death" (1975: 26)
Difficult breakups, divorce and the death of a loved one can significantly affect the amygdala in the brain, causing its neurons to send signals to adrenal gland. The signals tell the adrenal glands that it is time to prepare for a fight or flight situation. A loss is a threat to your well-being even if it is not a physical threat.
The adrenaline attacks the heart, which can lead to a heart attack. It can also lead to broken heart syndrome. Broken heart syndrome, or stress cardiomyopathy, consists in a weakening of the heart muscles due to the unexpected death of a loved one or an unexpected breakup.
People with broken heart syndrome have 2 to 3 times as much adrenaline and noradrenalin in their blood compared to people with classic heart attack, and they have 7 to 34 times more adrenaline and noradrenalin in their blood compared to normal individuals.
A large surge in adrenalin and noradrenalin can temporarily stun the heart and give rise to chest pain, fluid in the lungs, shortness of breath and heart failure.
Echocardiograms have shown that people with broken heart syndrome have a weakened contraction in the middle and upper portions of the heart muscle.
Though heart failure in people with broken heart syndrome can cause death, stress cardiomyopathy is not itself a kind of irreversible damage. People sometimes recover completely as their adrenaline and noradrenalin levels return to normal.
These examples illustrate all too well that the body can literally collapse and that the heart can weaken or stop beating when the mind or brain is thick with fear. The intense unconscious fear underlying avoidant attachment disorder can literally kill you.
Dr. Brit and Catherine
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