Stress: It can literally break your heart


Everyone encounters stress. About one in five people, however, have stress high enough that it affects their mental or physical health, said Dr. Robert Oakley.

Oakley is a cardiologist at Citizens Medical Center and has practiced in Victoria for the past 35 years. Because April is Stress Awareness Month, we reached out to him to find out more about acute stress, how it can affect the cardiovascular system and what to do about it.

He said stress can do a number of things to the body and can set off preexisiting conditions, but in his line of work the most interesting stress-related syndrome is Takotsubo.

Takotsubo cardiomyopathy

Takotsubo cardiomyopathy is a weakening of the left ventricle, the heart’s main pumping chamber, usually as the result of severe stress. The condition is also called stress-induced cardiomyopathy, or broken-heart syndrome.

Dr. Oakley said he’s seen several of these cases in Victoria during the years. The reversible heart condition occurs almost exclusively in women and was first seen about 1990 in Japan.

Main Symptoms

Chest pain and shortness of breath. Dr. Oakley said the peculiar syndrome mimics a heart attack and is indistinguishable because the electrocardiogram may show abnormalities consistent with heart attacks.

But no evidence of blockages in the arteries are found in the patient once they are taken to the cath lab for a coronary angiogram, where a type of dye that's visible by an X-ray machine is injected into the blood vessels of your heart.

The Good News

This is a temporary condition that can be reversed with standard heart failure medications such as beta blockers angiotensin-converting-enzyme inhibitors and diuretics. “Often Takotsubo goes away completely,” he said.

How to combat major stress

Extraordinary stressors that could affect your health include:

  • Death of a loved one, particularly a child
  • Sickness or major trauma
  • Divorce or interpersonal problems
  • Financial concerns

1. If you can fix it, fix it. Dr. Oakley recommends distancing yourself from a problem, changing jobs or ending harmful relationships.

2. If you can't remove yourself from stressful situations, he recommends just changing your attitude. You might not be able to stop the occurrence of stress, but maybe change the way you react to these situations.

3. Adopt or maintain a healthy lifestyle, which means having a good healthy diet, getting plenty of rest and exercise.

4. If all else fails, seek professional help from a psychologist or psychiatrist.

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Features Editor

Laura has covered health and nonprofits in the Crossroads since 2014. She's also mom to a toddler, loves journalism conferences and is a big fan of sci-fi and crime TV.

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