Estrangement and Broken-Heart Syndrome

Do you prefer listening to reading? This topic is also the subject of Episode 145 of The Reconnection Club Podcast.

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As if being estranged from your adult child(ren) weren’t bad enough, the stress of the emotional pain it causes could actually affect your heart.

Known by various names, including Takotsubo Syndrome and stress cardiomypathy, Broken-Heart Syndrome is brought on mainly by emotional or physical stressors. Extreme emotions, such as those that may accompany an unwanted estrangement — despair, anger, fear, remorse, loneliness, etc. — can trigger it.

Symptoms include sudden chest pain and shortness of breath.

Eighty percent of sufferers are over the age of 50, and ninety percent are women.*

And while Broken-Heart Syndrome is usually temporary and often resolves by itself, it can also lead to complications and even death. Heart symptoms should always be evaluated by a doctor as soon as possible.

Broken-Heart Syndrome is a frightening and stressful condition. But there may be ways you can try to protect yourself from the physical effects of emotional pain, even during an unwanted estrangement.

Respect Your Emotions

When we don’t have good tools for emotion regulation, we tend to lean on coping strategies like suppression, and we engage in unhelpful thinking. For example, we allow our minds to declare — and our bodies to respond to — losses that haven’t actually happened. (E.g., “What if I never see my child again?”) Poor emotion regulation skills contribute more stress and extra harm to the body.

Since the brain and heart share the same biochemical environment, some cardiovascular stress may be unavoidable when strong emotions arise. For example, finding out you won the lottery will probably put some strain your heart for at least a moment.

But there’s often more stress piled on top of that natural quickening that’s caused by judgment of certain emotions as intolerable, and efforts to avoid or suppress them.

“Experiential avoidance”** is the academic term used to describe attempts to get away from what we’re feeling. It’s been shown to produce elevated blood pressure and other markers of physiological stress. When we’re engaged in efforts not to feel the way we do, it’s hard to relax and recuperate from stressful situations.

So one path to disarming physical effects of strong emotions is what I call “constructive wallowing.” Welcoming all emotions with acceptance, compassion and willingness to feel them can mitigate their physiological impact. My Constructive Wallowing book explains exactly how to do this.

Get Moving

Since the heart is inextricably linked to the brain and the rest of the body, we can support it with lifestyle factors. Just as physical and emotional stress affect the heart, so can physical and emotional wellness create better conditions for healing.

Although very little has been documented about how to prevent Takotsubo Syndrome, there may be quite a lot we can do protect our hearts by optimizing our internal environment.

If your doctor has cleared it, exercise is a natural stress reliever. Walking is free and always available. Being outside in itself can be beneficial, especially if there are plants or trees nearby.

Not everyone is up for exercise. But movement alone — even simply changing your position — can be beneficial. Just changing from sitting to standing, or moving to a different chair or going to another room, has been shown to interrupt mood states.

Calm Your Nervous System

Possibly the greatest gift you can give your entire body is to regulate your nervous system. Here are a few ways to break out of the constant fight-or-flight state that can develop when you’re estranged from someone you love.

Breathing (slow, quiet, and through the nose), yoga, and meditation. All of these send messages to the brain that there’s no immediate danger. It’s safe to calm down. Exhaling is particularly relaxing.

Nutrition and hydration. Increase the amount of fresh or frozen vegetables in your diet. Drink clean water multiple times a day. Limit sugar.

Take breaks when needed. “Rest” is a verb; it’s an activity. Whether you’re physically tired, or just mentally zoning out, take that break. Staring out the window is allowed. If tears come, let them be allowed as well. Greet them with compassion and understanding. Breathe slowly, with your exhale longer than your inhale.

Step away from situations that hurt you. Maybe social media is making you sad or anxious. If so, be kind and stop consuming it. Drinking to excess, spending too much time with people who make you feel bad… Whatever it is, see if you can eliminate it, at least for a little while.

Get enough sleep. I know: You would if you could, right? All of the foregoing will help to calm and regulate your nervous system, which has to be able to relax and calm itself. After that, simple sleep hygiene can do the rest. See the link below for sleep tips from the CDC.

You Can Do This

Feeling as though your heart is broken is part of the human experience. If painful emotions continue over time, as they may during estrangement from your adult child(ren), you might begin to feel powerless. Ongoing pain can convince us that nothing we do matters, that all we can do is wait for something outside ourselves to change. We learn helplessness, and our nervous systems remain on high alert.

That’s the danger zone.

If you find yourself believing the situation is hopeless, or feeling tormented by emotions that won’t leave you alone, remember that what happens inside you is what determines your experience of what’s happening on the outside. Just by deciding to use tools and techniques like the ones described above, you’ll be taking steps to protect your heart from extra, unnecessary stress.


*European Heart Journal, 2018 Jun 7; 39 (22): 2032–2046

** Behaviour Research and Therapy Volume 44, Issue 9, September 2006, Pages 1301-1320

CDC Tips for Better Sleep

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