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The Heart Speaks (Are You Listening?)

Loneliness, anger, and grief can break hearts as easily as high blood pressure. To heal the heart, feel the love.
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WebMD Feature

A broken heart: It's the stuff of folk songs, the stuff of true love. There are plenty of couples who have died within weeks, months, or even days of each other. Johnny Cash's death certificate listed "complications from diabetes," but his fans know otherwise -- he passed away just months after June's death.

Doctors will tell you, "broken heart syndrome" or stress-induced heart failure is a medical condition -- and a perfect example of the heart's power and vulnerability, writes Mimi Guarneri, MD, a practicing cardiologist and author of the book, The Heart Speaks. "The condition seems to be caused by high levels of hormones that the body produces during severe stress, which can be temporarily toxic to the heart."

In her book, Guarneri weaves the latest medical knowledge with her own personal experiences -- hoping to spur conversations that pull people out of their stressful lifestyles. She wants to help them cope better with life-threatening emotions like grief, anger, anxiety, stress.

"I want people to start looking at their lives and see how these events, this stress, grief, anger has affected their health," she says.

Journey Into the Heart

Guarneri's own journey to understand the all-too-fragile heart began in childhood.

"On an evening when I was 8 years old, my vivacious 40-year-old mother told me she had pain in her chest, then got into bed and died of a heart attack," she writes. "My father's subsequent death from heart disease at 50, almost a decade later, was surely hastened by this tragedy in our family. Heart disease, with its layers of grief and guilt, stress and love, had blasted a hole through the center of my own family."

In her book, Guarneri introduces the relatively new science of psychoneuroimmunology, known in scientific circles simply as PNI. It is a study of the relationship between the nervous system, emotions, and immunity that has developed over the past decade -- an effort to understand how mind and body communicate, and the impact on our health.

This mind-body network has been studied over the past three decades. Until recently, however, some of the only measuring tools to show this link were EKGs, blood pressure, and blood tests of stress hormone levels.

When we experience anger or other emotions, it triggers a cascade of negative reactions throughout the body, says Guarneri. "We know that when we're angry, our bodies are surging with stress hormones that raise our blood pressure, heart rate, and stress hormone levels," she tells WebMD.

"When we give beta-blockers [medications] to slow the heart down, we're giving medication to stop stress hormones," she says. Her goal is to teach people to gain control over that stress and help them cope better without the drugs -- to learn to heal their own hearts.

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