Dying of a broken heart sounds like something from a fairy tale or a sentimental rom-com, but believe it or not, it’s a real condition. And, due to the stress of the coronavirus and the heavy toll the pandemic has taken on our hearts and minds, researchers say that there has been a noticeable increase in the number of people dying of a ‘broken heart.’
The medical term for dying of a broken heart is Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, and it occurs when the left ventricle of the heart weakens. The left ventricle is essential for heart health because it is responsible for pumping oxygen-rich blood through the aortic valve and out to the rest of the body.
But, for people who suffer from Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, the left ventricle becomes weakened as a result of severe emotional, spiritual, or physical stress. In other words, what is happening inside of our minds can actually take a toll on our hearts and lead to low blood pressure, blood clots, arrhythmias, pulmonary edema, or even heart failure.
And who is most at risk of dying of a broken heart?
Women. Yes, researchers say that middle-aged women and older women are being diagnosed with this brain-heart condition 10 times more often than men.
In an interview with Good Morning America, director of the Barbara Streisand Heart Center at Cedars-Sinai, Dr. Noel Bairey Merz had this to say about the increase of heart conditions in women:
“I don’t know how much we can really blame COVID, or how much of this is that we’re just recognizing more of it. But, heart disease is the leading killer of women and all ages, including teenagers, midlife women and older women. This is just a component of that major killer. So, it’s really something that needs to be addressed.”
Although the rise in heart conditions among women is disturbing, it’s something that I have been talking about for a long time. In my book “Quantum Love,” I delve into research from the Heart Math Institute which shows how powerful our hearts really are, and not just in a physical sense. The heart actually has a powerful electromagnetic field around it, and the energy of the heart is so strong it can be detected from several feet away in any direction. In other words, even when we do not say a word, our hearts are emitting powerful vibrations to those around us, as well as to ourselves.
But, when we are steeped in grief, trauma, shame, stress, and feelings of hopelessness, it’s not just our moods that decline. Our heart health can quickly plummet as the emotional strain impacts our left ventricle’s ability to pump blood effectively from the heart to the rest of the body.
Heart disease is the number one killer of women, even though it may not get as much attention as other more commonly known female health risks like breast cancer or ovarian cancer. Yet one out of five women will die from heart failure or heart complications.
And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that women’s hearts are the organs that are most likely to fail as we age and endure and caregive in this world. Women are often vessels for trauma, not just their own, but that of their partner’s, their parents, their children, their community. They carry the emotional weight of the world inside of themselves, constantly nurturing and uplifting others even to their own detriment.
As women, and especially in our roles as moms, daughters, friends, and wives, we are loathe to let anyone down, even in the slightest bit. Most women I know are so hard on themselves, beating themselves up for the tiniest misstep or forgotten appointment or burnt dinner. Many women I know also blame themselves for their own trauma, for not doing more to stop their abusers, for not getting away fast enough, for not being strong enough.
Years and years of these thoughts can take a physical toll on our hearts, but when something like a global pandemic occurs, that toll can suddenly rachet up to untenable levels. As so many women tried to be caretakers for their older relatives, while also juggling their careers, and their children’s virtual schooling, or their loved ones’ declining mental health or addictions during quarantine, it is no wonder that their bodies kept the score. Their hearts kept the score. Their brave, compassionate, giving hearts—even this kind of superhuman love eventually gives out and gives in, as after all: We aren’t superhuman, just women trying to keep the world spinning and our family smiling even as we are breaking down inside.
I am guilty of this caretaking and codependent behavior as well. For years, I suffered as a people-pleaser who would do anything and everything for the people I loved. I had a chronic inability to say ‘no,’ to carve out time for myself. Ironically, it was the tragic death of my middle son Sammy which forced me to drop the Superwoman act and admit I was broken, defeated, and desperately needing support and love. That love had always been there—my family of choice has always just been a phone call or an email away, but I always hated to center my own needs or make my own pain other people’s problem. But when Sammy died, it became a matter of self-preservation. I had to ask for help. I had to let people help. And so I did.
And I found out the most amazing thing: It felt really, really good to be nurtured. To let myself be administered to. To let myself be loved. And, most shockingly, I realized that there was nothing selfish or weak in letting others care for me. In fact, I found that in letting them care for me, I was giving them the most sacred gift a human can give to another: The chance to be of service, to be of presence, to be of love.
And, I also found movement: Dance, hiking, yoga, anything I could do to move the energy of pain through my body and let my body release it into Mother Earth’s strong, capable core. Yet here’s another problem with women’s role as caregivers and people-pleasers: Most of us don’t make time for exercise, or for nutritious food, or for giving our bodies rest and hydration and sunshine and all the things our body needs to thrive.
Does this sound familiar? Have you let the needs of others erase your needs from existence? Have you been pouring from an empty vessel for so long that you feel on the verge of cracking or breaking into a million pieces?
Take this invitation from the universe right now to make a spiritual shift. Start doing the soul-work needed to find out where you have been neglecting yourself and what wounds you have been avoiding in your desperate desire to heal everyone else around you.
And, get outside: Go for a hike. Go sledding. Take a yoga class. Garden. Connect with earth and movement again. Let tears flow, let rage come out if it must. The earth is strong and can carry it all with you. For you. Let self-care become your highest aspiration and your fullest duty, as it is only a whole, healthy, conscious person that can truly contribute most meaningfully to their families and communities.