The Japanese call it Takotsubo’s cardiomyopathy. It’s the period following a sudden emotional shock when the resulting surge of stress hormones causes structural changes to the heart. For a period of time the heart itself changes shape and resembles the old “tako tsubo” or pot-shaped Japanese lobster trap.
More commonly known as stress cardiomyopathy, or broken-heart syndrome, this is a temporary heart condition that tends to mainly affect women over the age of 50. Usually the condition reverses within a week, but at the time the symptoms can resemble a heart attack, and in a very few cases could be fatal.
Stress in any form is not good for the heart and as indicated on the Mayo Clinic website, it isn’t just bad news that can trigger symptoms. They point out that a surprise party, a sudden loss of money or an upsetting medical diagnosis can have exactly the same effect.
A sudden emotional upset will not only increase stress hormones but heart rate and blood pressure too. Anyone with an existing or underlying heart problem could be at particular risk due to plaque rupture inside the heart leading to a clot inside the artery.
Although coronary heart disease still affects more men than women some recent research suggests women may be harder hit following emotional upsets. In the experiment the heart rates of men and women at rest showed little difference. When asked to undertake a mental arithmetic task all volunteers showed an increase in heart rate. In a surprise discovery, men showed improved coronary blood flow, yet there was no change in women. This, suggested the study leader Chester Ray, could predispose women heart problems when under stress and could help to explain why women have more heart problems following stressful events.
American Physiological Society (APS) (2012, April 24). Mental stress may be harder on women’s hearts. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 9, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2012/04/120424205137.htm
Salim S. Virani, MD, A. Nasser Khan, MD, Cesar E. Mendoza, MD, Alexandre C. Ferreira, MD, and Eduardo de Marchena, MD. (2007) Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy, or Broken-Heart Syndrome. Tex Heart Inst J. 2007; 34(1): 76-79. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1847940/
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.