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“Broken heart syndrome” mimics the symptoms of a heart attack. Getty Images
  • Cleveland Clinic researchers have found an increasing number of stress-related heart conditions throughout the pandemic.
  • A recent study shows a significant increase in patients experiencing stress cardiomyopathy, also known as “broken heart syndrome,” during the pandemic.
  • Stress cardiomyopathy is a temporary heart condition that’s brought on by stressful situations and extreme emotions.

All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date.

They say there’s no cure for a broken heart, but it turns out that one cure might be self-care, especially during a global pandemic.

Cleveland Clinic researchers have found an increasing number of stress-related heart conditions throughout the pandemic.

According to a recent study, there’s been a significant increase in patients experiencing stress cardiomyopathy, also known as “broken heart syndrome,” during the pandemic.

The Mayo Clinic explains that stress cardiomyopathy is a temporary heart condition that’s brought on by stressful situations and extreme emotions. The symptoms are similar to a heart attack, such as chest pain and shortness of breath.

“Stress cardiomyopathy is an acute and usually transient event causing weakening of the heart muscle in a characteristic pattern at the apex of the heart due to an extremely emotional or physical stressful event,” said Dr. Guy L. Mintz, director of cardiovascular health and lipidology at Northwell Health’s Sandra Atlas Bass Heart Hospital in Manhasset, New York.

As part of the new study, cardiologists looked at 258 patients coming into Cleveland Clinic and Cleveland Clinic Akron General with acute coronary syndrome (ACS) between March 1 and April 30.

These patients were compared with four control groups of patients with ACS before the pandemic.

The research found a significant increase in patients diagnosed with stress cardiomyopathy — 7.8 percent compared with 1.7 percent pre-pandemic.

Those who had stress cardiomyopathy during the pandemic had a longer length of hospital stay as well. Interestingly, all patients diagnosed with stress cardiomyopathy tested negative for COVID-19.

“Stress cardiomyopathy… is not directly caused by COVID-19, but is a consequence of COVID-19 and its psychosocial and economic effects,” Mintz said.

“It is no surprise that stress cardiomyopathy has increased during this pandemic. There is a connection between the heart and the brain. Emotional and physical stress are triggers for this entity. The social restraints during this pandemic set up a foundation for certain patients to go on and have stress cardiomyopathy,” he explained.

Doctors and clinicians must be aware of the association between the psychosocial feeling of hopelessness and the effects of COVID-19.

“Stress cardiomyopathy should be recognized early in its clinical presentation, and differentiated from the inflammatory and clotting effects of COVID-19,” Mintz said.

“Physicians need to take the extra 5 minutes and ask their patients the seminal questions: How are you feeling? How is your family holding up? Can I help you?” he said.

These three important questions, Mintz says, can change a life and prevent stress cardiomyopathy in many people.

The good news is that stress cardiomyopathy is reversible.

It’s believed to represent a benign condition. In fact, the new study found that patients with stress cardiomyopathy didn’t have any significant difference in likelihood of death between the groups.

Most recover in a matter of days or weeks.

This doesn’t make the condition any less real. No one wants to go through the motions of having a heart attack, regardless if it’s actually diagnosed as one or not.

The best way to keep stress cardiomyopathy at bay is to take care of your mental and emotional event — i.e., self-care.

“We know that individuals who have heart disease are at greater risk for developing complications with COVID-19, so it’s important we approach this pandemic in a heart-healthy way,” said Dr. Brittany LeMonda, senior neuropsychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

“Sleep well, eat well, and reduce stress to reduce risk of developing heart disease or exacerbating preexisting conditions. Basically, we need to be in a position where our immunity can be as strong as possible,” she said.

Some of the ways people can reduce their stress are to get outside — provided masks are worn and physical distancing is practiced.

But if people adhere to the health guidelines put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as gauge their own risk factors, walking outside, running, physically distant picnics with friends, or FaceTiming with family are all effective methods of reducing stress.

Self-care can also mean refraining from behaviors that may make stress worse.

We all handle stress in different ways, and some stress management may be considered unhealthy, which can exacerbate the likelihood of developing stress cardiomyopathy.

“We know things like stress and anxiety cause us to engage in health behaviors that are not good for us, like our diet or lack of exercise. We may not take care of our bodies as much. How we react to stress and anxiety can cause a greater likelihood of the condition,” LeMonda said.

LeMonda recommends making sure to get 8 hours of sleep per night and wake up at the same time each day. She also suggests people watch a movie, eat a nice meal, or enjoy a glass of wine here and there.

“All of these things that can be enjoyable for us are recommended for reducing stress and feeling good overall,” she said.