Broken Heart Syndrome is on The Rise and The Superwoman Phenomenon is Partly to Blame

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Don’t overlook the impact of intense stress.

The idea of dying of a broken heart may sound dramatic, but broken heart syndrome is a very real thing, and you don’t have to be grieving an immense loss to experience it. You can just be saddled with too many responsibilities.

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“It’s also called stress cardiomyopathy and it’s a syndrome that leads to a temporary weakening of the heart muscle,” says cardiologist Sandy Charles, M.D., the director of Novant Women’s Heart Center in Charlotte. “It’s triggered by intense emotional or physical stress.”

Broken heart syndrome was just identified in the 1990s, and it can be triggered by a number of things, including by the death of a loved one, domestic abuse, devastating financial loss and more. During the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a significant increase in these cases and they have disproportionately impacted women.

“About 80 percent of the cases of broken heart syndrome are seen in women — middle-aged to older women,” Dr. Charles says. Aside from the stress of the pandemic, and the many hats it required people like working moms to wear to take care of themselves and their families, women attempting to play the superwoman role is something that’s been going on long before COVID-19. That penchant to prioritize everyone else’s needs first, personally and professionally, contributes to one’s increased risk for broken heart syndrome.

“Women, especially Black women, deal with something called superwoman phenomenon where you’re already dealing with and caring for so many other people and that’s been worsened by the pandemic. They’re putting themselves and their wellness second to everyone else’s,” she says. “This is important to highlight because it’s not only emotional stress you’re feeling but it can actually physically affect your heart strength and sometimes lead to death.”

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“Superwomen” more prone to internalized stressors and who experience a high level of overwhelm are more at risk. Also more prone to the syndrome, because of the release of stress hormones, are people struggling with their mental health, older people, and individuals who work jobs that require nonstop multitasking without adequate opportunities for downtime. Dr. Charles says constant states of great stress shouldn’t be normalized, nor should the belief that stressors can take care of themselves. Making time for meditation and connecting with family and friends, as well as seeking out help can decrease that risk.

“Sometimes it can be too much,” she says. “Reaching out for resources and specialists and counselors, it’s important to not just get you through it but it’s also vital and critical for heart health and wellness.”

But what does broken heart syndrome feel like? While it might sound like it’s a heart attack, it’s not.

“It’s a different syndrome than a heart attack but can manifest in similar ways,” she says. “While some might have chest pain, others don’t. For a lot of women it’s just shortness of breath, inability to do physical activities you’re used to, sometimes fainting or feeling very lightheaded, a low blood pressure. Indigestion, nausea and vomiting are also symptoms, as well as an abnormal heart rhythm.”

And it can impact people who’ve built up stress over time, as well as people dealing with a devastating loss and find themselves exhibiting symptoms immediately. The good news is, chances of recovery are great because there are usually no long-term impairments of the heart, which is what makes this heart condition different. “Typically in about one to four weeks, heart strength will return back to normal in a majority of women,” she says. But that requires you to act fast to avoid a high risk of complications, one of those being the possibility of death. One to two percent of cases are fatal.

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