A Broken Heart

132922595_f860a8aa20_b 2“My heart is broken” is a lament often spoken by those who mourn. While that description is poetic, rather than literal, what is the physical impact on the heart and the rest of the body when a loss occurs?

The day after the funeral and burial of former First Lady Barbara Bush, her husband was admitted to the hospital. Some medical commentators questioned if President George H.W. Bush was suffering from Broken Heart Syndrome.

This medical condition is described as a reaction of the heart to a flood of stress hormones that can occur after a significant life stressor like the death of a loved one. Japanese researchers were the first to describe this reaction and named it Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy. Takotsubo is the Japanese term for octopus trap. When the heart of someone with Broken Heart Syndrome is X-rayed, the left ventricle shows atypical ballooning and resembles the structure of an octopus trap.

This condition is very rare, mostly affects post-menopausal women, and typically does not create long term damage. Yet, this syndrome does alert us that grief not only affects our thoughts and emotions but also our physical bodies.

Some common physical manifestations of grief are insomnia, oversleeping, low energy, loss of appetite, overeating, headaches, muscle tightness, muscle weakness, slowed speech, sweating, sighing, rapid heartbeat and shortness of breath.

Although our hearts may not be literally broken by loss, our bodies will experience the impact of grief. Compassionately care for your physical being as well as your emotional self when you mourn. Seek medical help if at any point you are concerned about your physical responses to grief or if previous physical problems worsen.

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Dr. Patrick O’Malley is a psychotherapist in Fort Worth, Texas, specializing in grief counseling. For 35 years, he has counseled individuals, couples and families in his private practice. Dr. O'Malley has recently published a book, "Getting Grief Right" about grief recovery.

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