How Is an Octopus Trap Like a Broken Heart?

Posted by Emily Piccirillo on

Our instincts and experiences tell us that the presence of companion animals in our lives has remarkable beneficial effects on our physical health and the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri has proven that we’re right!

Health Benefits of Pets

Studies demonstrate that when we interact with our pets, beneficial neurohormones are released that induce a sense of good will, joy, nurturing and happiness. At the same time, the stress hormone cortisol is suppressed. Heart rate, blood pressure and respiratory rate can all decrease, leaving us more relaxed and able to manage tension in ways that aren't harmful to our health. Data also show that people with pets have lower levels of triglycerides and cholesterol. In fact, pets are their own unique brand of effective medicine and they can help you live longer!

These extraordinary and wonderful effects are available to anyone who shares a close bond with a pet, and they can deliver especially transformative gains for vulnerable individuals with chemical dependency, life-challenging medical conditions, histories of abuse and neglect, and also for isolated and incarcerated persons.

More Than a Metaphor

But here’s the rub — Broken Heart Syndrome is real, not merely a sweet sentiment. While rather rare, it is caused by an acute emotional stressor and has occurred after the loss of a cherished pet. It could even happen after a good shock, like winning the lottery.

Officially named Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy, it is named after a Japanese clay octopus trap — Takotsubo — because the affected heart somewhat resembles a takotsubo with a narrow neck and round bottom. Japanese fishermen tie a rope around the pot, lower it into the sea, the tako slides into it, and they haul him into the boat.

With Broken Heart Syndrome, the heart muscle becomes suddenly weakened. The left ventricle, one of the heart’s four chambers, temporarily enlarges and changes shape. As a result, the heart doesn’t pump blood to the rest of the body as well as it should, while the rest of the heart functions normally or with even more forceful contractions. This can cause a range of alarming symptoms that feel like a heart attack, including chest and shoulder pains, palpitations, nausea and collapse. Broken Heart Syndrome may be misdiagnosed because the symptoms and test results are similar. In fact, tests show dramatic changes in rhythm and blood substances that are typical of a heart attack. But unlike a heart attack, there’s no evidence of blocked heart arteries in Broken Heart Syndrome.

Researchers are just starting to comprehend the causes and determine how to diagnose it; 90% of cases occur in women. Unfortunately, there’s currently no medical treatment specific to Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy; however, most people’s hearts will spontaneously begin to return to normal within a couple of days, although it may take weeks or months. It is worth noting that research shows that ~10% of the affected hearts will permanently change shape and may continue to cause symptoms such as tiredness, chest pain and lack of energy. And yes, it’s true, on rare occasion it can be fatal.

The Power of Knowledge

I share this information not to scare devoted pet lovers. Quite the contrary. I share it for two reasons. The first is that it is reassuring to know that despite the apparent medical crisis of Broken Heart Syndrome, the experts say this stress-induced condition seldom results in lasting cardiac consequences. And let’s face it, intense love comes with all sorts of risks and we keep doing it because it feels great and makes life better! We know it’s worth it.

My main point here is that the reality of Broken Heart Syndrome is a compelling argument for incorporating more cultural supports and rituals into the grief process around the loss of a beloved pet. If we invested more resources, respect, and effort into elevating and formalizing their importance in our lives and in society, the bereaved would be more comfortable sharing their stories, reaching out to others for support for the full duration of their grief, and reminiscing about all the delightful ways a pet makes life better.

Healing from a major loss is always hard and every broken heart deserves to be handled with care. RemembeRing was conceived of in order to help during the grief process and we invite you to utilize one in the event of the loss of a beloved pet.

Feel free to explore additional resources and detailed guidance here and, of course, I always welcome your insights and feedback here.

Take care! ~Emily

Please note that RemembeRing content is for informational purposes only and not intended to replace professional evaluation or care. Be sure to reach out to your providers for their expertise as needed. 

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