How Your Emotions Change the Shape of Your Heart
Stress and grief can change the shape of our heart.
For centuries, literature, art, philosophy and religion across cultures have a deep connection between human emotions and the heart. Of course, emotions don’t originate in the heart. But the effect of a broken heart can surely be felt.
So is the emotional link to the heart just symbolic?
However, scientific discoveries show that emotions indeed have an impact on the mechanics of the heart. However, it might be exactly in the way the ancients had imagined.
“In a sense, a record of our emotional life is written on our hearts.”
In the 1990s, we found that intense stress or grief can temporarily change the human heart into a shape that resembles a takotsubo, a Japanese pot with a wide belly and a narrow neck. Those suffering from takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or broken heart syndrome, are at risk of deadly heart failure and arrhythmias.
But survivors can go on to make a full recovery once their grief or stress begins to subside.
Emotions have the power to influence the heart’s physiology.
Severe stressful situations can trigger takotsubo cardiomyopathy. Some documented stimuli include the death of a loved one, family arguments, financial losses, public speaking and even surprise birthday parties. Natural disasters, too, can spark the syndrome.
In 2004, a massive earthquake struck Japan, killing dozens and injuring thousands. In the immediate aftermath, incidents of heart disorder were 24 times higher than during the same period the previous year. Almost all of those inflicted lived close to the earthquake’s epicentre.
“Our hearts are extraordinarily sensitive to our emotional system – to the metaphorical heart, if you will.”
Happy events too can temporarily change the shape of the heart, expanding the midsection. So although emotions don’t spring from the heart but they do influence the heart’s physiology.
Emotional well-being is more important than a healthy diet for cardiovascular health.
In one study conducted on two groups of rabbits live on a high-cholesterol diet.
- One group received regular human interaction and affection;
- The other group received none. I called them, the forever alone group.
After one year, the researchers found that the former group had 60% less aortic disease than the latter group.
“Even if emotions are not contained inside our hearts, the emotional heart overlaps its biological counterpart in surprising and mysterious ways.”
Another study with human subjects made a similar observation indicate that a healthy diet and regular exercise helped reduce 5% of the coronary plaque. Those patients also learned to manage stress which was even more successful at reversing their heart conditions.
“Broken hearts are literally and figuratively deadly.”
Remember, correlation doesn’t necessarily prove causation. But these pioneering studies suggest that the link between psychological well-being and cardiovascular health is worth exploring. Modern science views the heart like a machine, and the American Heart Association has yet to list stress as a central modifiable factor in heart disease. The medicine must recognize that a figurative broken heart can indicate a literal broken heart.
Check out the Talk @ TED.