03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

From Heartbreak To Heart Attack: What You And Your Loved Ones Need To Know

Are you, or those you love, at risk? Who do you know who's living half-heartedly? What about you in the past 48 hours at home, work, and in your community? Are you aware that doing so places you at higher risk of a heart attack? Yes, it's true. Not only that, but heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in America. Although we hear more about "the big C," compare heart-related mortality (631,636) to cancer-related deaths (559,888), according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Link between Heartbreak and Heart Attack. Chronic, half-hearted living is associated with a syndrome called "Vital Exhaustion," which, turns out to be the predecessor to a heart attack. Dr. John Graham, a Canadian import to New Mexico, and clinical professor for the Department of Psychiatry at the University of New Mexico, speaks eloquently on this crucial matter. The precursor to heart attacks carries with it, according to Graham and others, a predictive value from the very first episode. Women, in particular, take note, since our 'numero uno' killer is massive myocardial infarction, or, heart attack. During such an attack, the heart doesn't get the blood it needs, neither the uptake of adequate new oxygen, nor expulsion of carbon dioxide. Which, in laymen's terms, means big, big doo-doo? This potentially deadly syndrome is linked with the following symptoms:

• unusual fatigue
• increased irritability,
• Depression, anxiety, and/or burn-out.

And, check this out. Of 41 cases of patients studied in a merger of two studies:
• "36% had experienced real and threatened loss,
• 21% fear, and
• 36% a death in the family."

Reflecting on the toll of the past year with all the changes in the economy and world issues, it's not a big stretch to imagine the many lives around us matching this profile, and perhaps, in the person staring back at us in the mirror.

The Challenge of Facing Heartbreak. It's crucial to face what's upsetting, and take action to deal with any real or threatened loss. Please note, this is not 'positive thinking hooey,' but, clinically true. The obstacle for doing so, however, is that we not only cover over our feelings of loss, threat, and fear, from others, but we are apt to do so from ourselves. Doing so weakens our chances of recovering much needed vitality and strength to move forward into healthy living.

The Power of Living the Whole-Hearted Life. Many years ago, I began to notice the pattern that Graham describes. Here's how it went: the person, often a woman, would say to me something like this: "My heart's been broken." Frequently men made comments like this: "I don't know why but I just 'can't get it up, literally or figuratively. I don't know what's wrong with me." To get a baseline, often, I'd suggest these individuals get a physical. Usually, there was no physical evidence of a problem. Despite this, many, many of these folks told me: "I just don't feel like myself. Others seem to be happier. What's wrong with me? What's wrong with my life?"

The second population came from cardiologist referrals. Having already experienced cardiac episodes, these folks independently told stories of loss, disappointment, often accompanied with decreasing life energy prior to their illness. None of them had shared this with a professional, believing they could "pull themselves together," privately. In every single case, their healing has come from powerful medicine: facing their heartbreak, and learning the necessary skill set to support their heart's recovery, re-engaging in the greater meaning they discovered through their life threat. It's in our best interest to live fully engaged. Not only do we score higher on happiness indexes, and lower on depression scales, but we exude a joie de vive that's contagious.

A Place to Begin. We do well to consider revising how we think about heartbreak, and take action steps that support where we really are, discovering how we can be increasingly authentic, attending what's underneath any temptation to mask over the truth. Living with 'all our heart,' does not mean pretending that the bad stuff is not there, but finding a way of growing through it, as distinct from unconsciously 'going through it.' Living out the directives of our heart's desire carries a buoying effect. The more we can give ourselves permission to savor what we've got, putting our 'whole heart' into the moment, the better off we are. It's good for our health, and 'heart smart,' as well.

Check List to Determine Where You Are.

1. What real or threatened losses/fears/heartbreaks have you suffered this past year?

Ask yourself what you've done about this? Are you being what I call a 'brave warrior?' Are you giving yourself permission to 'take a load off' and seek help?

2. Have you noticed increased irritability/lower energy lately?

Identify what's draining you. How might you build better boundaries?

3. How well are you sleeping?

Consider unplugging from the T.V., computer/cell phone a good hour before you sleep. Make sure there is no light in your room.

4. How much sexual energy do you have?

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