- Heart Palpitations: Is It Afib or a Panic Attack?
- Afib or Panic Attack?
- Medical History Provides Clues
- Age Matters
- See Your Doctor
- Mental Health
- Be still, my beating heart
- Heart palpitations can be alarming, but are they dangerous?
- Skipping a beat
- More serious concerns
- When treatment is needed
- Exercising With Heart Flutters: Is It Dangerous?
- How Tachycardia Affects Healthy People with Anxiety
- How Anxiety Causes Tachycardia
- Is Tachycardia From Anxiety Dangerous?
- Tachycardia and Heart Attack Fears
- How to Stop Anxiety Tachycardia
Heart Palpitations: Is It Afib or a Panic Attack?
If your heart starts racing, your mind might, too: Is this a panic attack? Is this a heart problem? Sometimes it’s hard to tell — even for doctors.
The irregular heartbeat known as atrial fibrillation (afib), a physical disorder, shares some symptoms with a panic attack, an emotional problem, said John Day, MD, director of Heart Rhythm Services at Intermountain Medical Center in Salt Lake City. Pounding in your chest, difficulty breathing, chest pain or discomfort, and feeling dizzy or lightheaded are panic attack symptoms that overlap with afib symptoms. Sudden onset is another.
“Either could start at any time for any reason,” Dr. Day said, about afib and panic attack.
However, not all symptoms are the same, and the differences can help your doctors determine what’s causing your heart to race.
Afib or Panic Attack?
A single panic attack can last a few minutes or an hour. A type of arrhythmia called supraventricular tachycardia (SVT) can make your heart beat as much as 150 to 250 times a minute. This is the heart arrhythmia most likely to be mistaken for a panic attack. An episode of SVT can last 5 seconds or until your doctor does something to stop it, Day said, “so length of time doesn’t really distinguish between the two.”
One difference with afib though, is that the irregular heartbeat symptoms start and stop suddenly. With a panic attack, your heart rate slowly returns to normal.
Another difference is that your heartbeat in atrial fibrillation is totally erratic. “You could have two or three beats super fast, and two or three slower, and two or three fast — your heart rate is bouncing all around,” Day said. “With a panic attack, your heart is going fast, but it’s totally regular.”
Stephen Sobel, MD, a San Diego psychiatrist who treats anxiety disorders and is the author of “Successful Psychopharmacology: Evidence-Based Treatment Solutions for Achieving Remission” said that people having a panic attack feel panic. They have a sense that the world doesn’t seem real, or a fear that they’re going crazy. “Generally, people with a heart arrhythmia don’t have this emotional component,” he said.
RELATED: How to Navigate the Heart-Mind Connection
Medical History Provides Clues
Your medical history may offer hints as to whether you’re experiencing a panic attack or afib. Often panic attacks are precipitated by some anxiety or depression or another psychiatric difficulty. Also, whether you’ve had a panic attack in the past could be a clue. Dr. Sobel said “the presence of one panic attack increases the likelihood of another.” Likewise, he said, a family history of cardiac disease and arrhythmias may point in a different direction.
Women may have atypical symptoms of a heart attack or other heart condition, such as a burning sensation in the upper abdomen, an upset stomach, or sweating. Doctors don’t always consider a heart attack or heart arrhythmia when women come to the ER with those symptoms, said Michelle B. Riba, MD, a professor and associate chair for integrated medical and psychiatric services at the University of Michigan.
Age can also be a factor. Younger women are more likely to have tachycardia, the heart condition that’s sometimes mistaken for a panic attack. “The reason is that SVT (tachycardia) often manifests at a younger age, in your teenage years or 20s or 30s, and is more common in women,” Day said. But what happens, Day added, is that “they look at this young healthy woman and think she can’t be having a heart problem — it must be some sort of anxiety disorder.”
Atrial fibrillation typically shows up later in life, when people are in their 50s, 60s, and 70s, Day said.
See Your Doctor
If you’re having chest pain and aren’t sure whether it’s atrial fibrillation or panic attack, Dr. Riba stressed the importance of seeking immediate medical attention. As with any medical condition, it’s better to be safe than sorry. “It could be a panic or anxiety attack, and it’s not going to kill you if it is,” she said. “But if it’s an arrhythmia or another heart condition, you won’t know until you are tested and get a good medical history.”
If doctors suspect a heart arrhythmia, they’ll order an electrocardiogram (EKG) or ask you to wear a Holter monitor for 24 hours or longer to record your heart rhythm. A panic disorder may be diagnosed after the other medical conditions are ruled out, Riba said.
Author: Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division
You’re waiting in line at the bank. You’re running late, you have a million other errands to run and the child at the back of the line won’t stop screaming. Suddenly you start feeling strange. Your heart starts racing. You start to feel dizzy, nauseous and sweaty. After a minute, it feels so bad that you get the overwhelming feeling you’re going to die. It’s hard to breathe and your hands and feet start to tingle. You are absolutely terrified. Within a few minutes, the terror slowly starts to subside. Your heart rate and breathing start to return to normal. This is what a panic attack feels like.
You start to experience panic attacks more often, often usually out of nowhere. Now you’re always scared about having another one. You think that this might be a sign that you’re having a heart attack or stroke, even though the doctor has ruled those out. You might start avoiding the places or situations where you’ve had attacks before. Or maybe you are scared to be in public because you’re embarrassed that people might see you have an attack. This is what panic disorder feels like.
What is it?
Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder that causes repeated, unexpected attacks of intense fear, along with fear of having more attacks. If you have panic disorder, you are probably also scared that bad things will happen to you because of the attacks. While up to a third of adults may have a panic attack in any given year, only 1–2% of Canadians in that same year would experience panic disorder. About 4% of Canadians will experience panic disorder in their lifetime.
Who does it affect?
While panic disorder can affect anyone, there are certain groups of people that it affects more often than others.
Women: Like most other anxiety disorders, women are twice as likely as men to experience panic disorder.
Young adults: Panic disorder usually appears in your mid-twenties, although it can happen at any age. Three quarters of people with panic disorder experienced the onset before the age of 33. Although it can exist in kids, it’s often not diagnosed until they’re older.
People with a chronic illness: Three quarters of people with panic disorder report having at least one other diagnosed chronic physical or mental illness like diabetes or depression.
Family history: People with a family history of anxiety or depression are at greater risk for developing panic disorder.
Could I have panic disorder?
If the first symptom plus several of the others come on suddenly, you may be experiencing a panic attack. Panic attacks usually peak within a few seconds or a few minutes, although it can take some time for all the symptoms to settle. Panic attacks can happen at any time and while they are sometimes triggered by a stressful life event, they can often appear to be triggered by nothing at all.
It’s important to know that having a panic attack doesn’t mean you have panic disorder. A third of adults will experience a panic attack in their lifetime and most of them will not develop panic disorder or need help. You might have a panic attack when you are feeling stressed about a life event, but on its own, this doesn’t mean you have panic disorder. Panic attacks can also be a symptom of other anxiety disorders, like phobias or post-traumatic stress disorder. For example, someone with post-traumatic stress disorder might have a panic attack when they revisit the place where the trauma happened. In this case the person is afraid of their trauma and not of the panic attack itself, so this would not be a sign of panic disorder.
What can I do about it?
There are a few different things you can do that have been shown by research to help the most:
Counselling: Many people with anxiety disorders benefit from a form of counselling called cognitive-behavioural therapy or CBT. A mental health professional trained in the CBT approach can help you work through the thoughts, emotions, behaviours and triggers contributing to your panic disorder. They can also teach you coping skills. Part of CBT may involve slowly introducing you to things that may more easily trigger your panic until you feel more comfortable. Although CBT is usually a short-term treatment, practicing the skills you learn both during and after treatment can help you manage your symptoms for a long time to come.
Medication: Anti-anxiety medications and antidepressants can be used in combination with counselling to reduce your body’s response to anxiety.
Support groups: You are not alone. Anxiety disorder support groups, including for panic disorder, are a great way to share your experiences and learn from the experiences of others.
Self-help: During and after treatment, there are some things you can do on your own to help keep you feeling better. Regular exercise, eating well, managing stress, spending time with friends and family, spirituality, and monitoring your use of alcohol and other drugs can help keep anxiety from getting worse or coming back. Talking to your doctor, asking questions, and feeling in charge of your own health are also very important. Always talk to your doctor about what you’re doing on your own.
Although there are many other alternative therapies for anxiety, there is less evidence that they actually work. Some people find that herbal remedies help reduce their body’s response to anxiety. Remember that even herbal remedies can have side-effects and may interfere with other medications. Dosages can also vary depending on the brand you use. Talk about the risks and benefits of herbal or other alternative treatments with your health care providerand make sure they know all the different treatments you’re trying.
Where do I go from here?
The best first step is always to talk to your doctor. They can help you decide which, if any, of the above treatments would be best for you.
Other helpful resources are:
Visit www.anxietybc.com or call 604-525-7566 for community resources and lots of helpful information about panic disorder and other anxiety disorders, including strategies to try at home.
Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division
Visit www.cmha.bc.ca or call 1-800-555-8222 (toll-free in BC) or 604-688-3234 (in Greater Vancouver) for information and community resources.
BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information
Visit www.heretohelp.bc.ca for info sheets and personal stories about (illness). You’ll also find more information, tips and self-tests to help you understand many different mental health problems
Resources available in many languages:
*For the service below, if English is not your first language, say the name of your preferred language in English to be connected to an interpreter. More than 100 languages are available.
Call 811 or visit www.healthlinkbc.ca to access free, non-emergency health information for anyone in your family, including mental health information. Through 811, you can also speak to a registered nurse about symptoms you’re worried about, or talk with a pharmacist about medication questions.
Crisis lines aren’t only for people in crisis. You can call for information on local services or if you just need someone to talk to. If you are in distress, call 310-6789 (do not add 604, 778 or 250 before the number) 24 hours a day to connect to a BC crisis line, without a wait or busy signal. The crisis lines linked in through 310-6789 have received advanced training in mental health issues and services by members of the BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information.
The Canadian Mental Health Association promotes the mental health of all and supports the resilience and recovery of people experiencing a mental illness through public education, community-based research, advocacy, and direct services. Visit www.cmha.bc.ca.
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If you’ve ever felt as though your heart is beating too hard or fast, skipping a beat, or fluttering, you know it can be a scary experience. However, these sensations don’t automatically signal something serious or harmful, and often they go away on their own. Most of the time, they’re related to stress or too many stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine or alcohol.
Why your heartbeat goes off-tempo
Palpitation refers to the sensation that the heart beat is faster than normal. Although some palpitations are considered benign, a carefully taken patient history typically exposes important clues that an abnormal heart rhythm, or arrhythmia, might be the culprit. Palpitations that appear and disappear abruptly are an important clue that an arrhythmia is occurring.
Much like an orchestra maestro synchronizes complex sounds into symphony, electrical signals in the heart synchronize muscle contractions, which result in heart beats. The electrical system has to perform in a regulated fashion for the heart to function effectively and efficiently.
The electrical system runs on the equivalent of railroad tracks – a very specialized tissue that allows for efficient electrical conduction. Patients with arrhythmias often have extra electrical connections, and arrhythmias can occur when the electrical system uses these accessory connections.
Instead of the heart beating at a normal rate, these extra electrical connections can cause the heart rate to abruptly race at rates that exceed the normal capacity of the heart. When this occurs, patients will sense a rapid and uncomfortable increase in their heart rate referred to as palpitations.
Not all palpitations are considered abnormal. It’s common for the heart to skip for single beats, causing an unusual sensation. With rare exception, these single-skipped beats are considered normal.
In contrast, a patient who experiences an abrupt change in heart rate requires further investigation. Palpitations in these scenarios can often be accompanied by discomfort, chest pain, dizziness or even passing-out spells. These important clues serve as red flags that the patient’s palpitations represent an arrhythmia, and further evaluation is warranted.
During an evaluation, your physician will obtain a detailed history with particular attention to symptoms such as discomfort, chest pain, dizziness and fainting. An electrocardiogram (ECG) – a non-invasive study that assesses the electrical conduction of the heart in its resting state – likely will be performed during the initial evaluation. Occasionally, even at rest, the ECG can show subtle clues that an extra electrical connection exists.
If the ECG is normal and the details of the history suggest an arrhythmia, ambulatory monitoring may be employed. Ambulatory monitors are wearable devices that serve to capture the electrical activity in the heart during an episode. Your doctor will instruct you to record any symptomatic events with your device. This strategy provides a definitive diagnosis if an arrhythmia is in fact captured.
Prognosis and treatment
Depending on the underlying electrical problem, the prognosis and treatment of arrhythmias can vary. Most often, arrhythmias that occur in otherwise healthy children are referred to as supraventricular tachycardia (SVT). The prognosis for SVT is excellent and luckily, SVT is not considered a life-threatening condition.
Management for SVT is largely based on symptoms but can include observation, medical therapy or catheter ablation. Catheter ablation involves a procedure in which an electrophysiology doctor will use electrical wires placed inside the heart through the groin. These wires provide a map of the patient’s electrical system and can identify accessory electrical connections.
Typically, once the accessory tissue is identified, a special catheter called an ablation catheter can be used to deliver energy to the accessory tissue and destroy the electrical activity in that small area. Catheter ablation for SVT is considered quite safe and has outstanding success rates.
With the right prognosis and treatment, patients with arrhythmias are able to get their heart beat back on track and live normal, healthy lives.
This post is based on one of a series of articles produced by U.S. News & World Report in association with the medical experts at Cleveland Clinic.
Be still, my beating heart
Heart palpitations can be alarming, but are they dangerous?
Published: March, 2016
Do you ever feel that your heart is pounding, skipping, or racing so fast that you’re certain it will explode from your chest at any moment? That’s how many people describe the experience of heart palpitations. In the most literal sense, palpitations are simply an awareness of your heart beating, says Dr. William Stevenson, professor of medicine at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. The most familiar trigger for palpitations is heavy exercise, such as when you pedal extra hard to summit the last computerized hill in your indoor cycling class.
Skipping a beat
Although common, palpitations alarm many people, in part because they tend to come on unexpectedly. Isolated palpitations typically occur when a small rush of adrenaline courses through your body, causing your heart to beat more forcefully than usual. These surges can be generated by a strong emotion such as excitement, fear, or anger. They also can come on after consuming a stimulant such as caffeine.
Another common source of palpitations is premature contraction of the atria. When the heart’s upper chambers squeeze a fraction of a second earlier than they should, they rest an instant longer afterward to get back to their usual rhythm. This feels like a skipped beat. It is often followed by a noticeably forceful contraction as the ventricles clear out the extra blood they accumulated during the pause. These premature beats are almost always benign, meaning they aren’t life-threatening or the sign of a heart attack in the making. “Everyone has a few of these premature beats once in a while, and they tend to increase with age,” says Dr. Stevenson.
More serious concerns
The sensation of abnormal heartbeat can also be a warning sign of a heart rhythm problem. A sustained fast or irregular heart rhythm originating in either the upper or lower chambers can result in distressing symptoms such as lightheadedness, dizziness, or shortness of breath. At their most serious, these rhythm abnormalities may lead to complications such as stroke and even sudden death if the ventricles contract so chaotically that blood doesn’t move out of the heart. So if you start having palpitations or irregular heartbeats that you haven’t noticed before, it’s wise to get checked out, says Dr. Stevenson. This is especially important if you are having worrisome symptoms such as shortness of breath or chest pain.
When listening to your heart, your doctor may hear a murmur or other sound suggesting a problem with one of the heart’s valves, which can cause palpitations. Testing may also reveal a thyroid imbalance, signs of anemia, low potassium, or other problems that can cause or contribute to palpitations. Your exam may also include electrocardiography (ECG) and echocardiography, an ultrasound of the heart, to assess your heart’s electrical activity and pumping ability.
However, since palpitations tend to come and go, there’s a good chance they won’t turn up during your doctor’s visit, and your doctor may need to do more detective work. A portable ECG recorder (called a Holter monitor or an event monitor) that you wear continuously from 24 to 48 hours or up to one month captures episodes of abnormal heart activity as you go about your daily routine. There’s even an implantable recorder that can invisibly monitor the heart for a year or more. This device may be needed if your bouts of irregular rhythms are particularly sporadic.
When treatment is needed
Once serious causes have been ruled out, most people who have isolated palpitations simply need reassurance that nothing dire is happening, says Dr. Stevenson. If you’re still bothered by unexplained palpitations, start with simple things first. Low blood sugar can trigger palpitations, so make a point of eating regularly. Drinking plenty of fluids and getting enough sleep may also help. Since stress and anxiety are a source of palpitations in many people, breathing exercises, meditation, or other relaxation techniques may do the trick. Nicotine can cause palpitations, as can alcohol and over-the-counter decongestant medications that contain pseudoephedrine or phenylephrine.
When self-care measures aren’t enough, certain drugs may help. Beta blockers that quell the effects of adrenaline on the heart can successfully combat most types of fast heart rhythms. Some people may get relief with anti-anxiety medicines.
If your ECG shows a particular type of abnormal heart rhythm, your doctor may suggest a procedure called catheter ablation to correct it. A thin tube (catheter) is guided into the heart, and a jolt of radiofrequency energy is applied to destroy a faulty electrical pathway in the heart muscle that is responsible for the erratic signaling. For potentially fatal rhythm abnormalities coming from the ventricles, an implantable cardiac defibrillator that resets those rhythms can be a lifesaver.
Possible palpitation triggers
Stress, anxiety, or panic
Low potassium or magnesium
Low blood sugar
Too much alcohol or caffeine
Street drugs such as cocaine and amphetamines
Medications such as diet pills, some cough and cold remedies, some antibiotics, thyroid hormone, digoxin, or asthma remedies
Dietary supplements such as ephedra, ginseng, bitter orange, valerian, or hawthorn
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
Exercising With Heart Flutters: Is It Dangerous?
Presented by: Main Line Health
Photo credit: Todor Tsvetkov/iStock
Lots of us experience heart flutters—it’s that brief flip-flop feeling we get in our chests. And most of the time, the sensation is fleeting and we forget about it almost immediately. However, when they occur while we’re exercising, they instantly become more disconcerting, and we’ve never been quite sure what to do when they happen. So, to find out why heart flutters occur during exercise, and what to do in response, we consulted Colleen M. Hanley, MD of Main Line Health’s Lankenau Heart Institute.
Are heart flutters during exercise cause for concern? Could it be dangerous?
Many people experience palpitations before and after exercise, but not during exercise. When most people start to exercise, their own heart rate increases and the palpitations, or extra beats, disappear at this higher heart rate. After exercise, the body’s adrenaline level remains high for a period of time while the heart rate decreases back to normal. Due to the higher adrenaline level in this time period, the palpitations can occur at an increased rate or frequency. As the adrenaline level decreases, the palpitations should decrease as well. If there are no associated symptoms, there is usually no cause for concern. If, however, palpitations occur during or following exercise and are accompanied by shortness of breath, chest discomfort, severe lightheadedness or loss of consciousness, further evaluation is necessary.
It almost feels like our heart stops when we experience a heart flutter. What is anatomically happening?
Heart flutters or palpitations are a perception of irregularity of the pulse, frequently described as a faster heartbeat than normal, a skipped beat, an extra beat, a flip-flop in the chest or a sensation that the “heart stopped.” The heart has a complex electrical system that stimulates it to beat. If the normal electrical pattern of the heart is disrupted a person may experience palpitations.
What causes heart flutters?
There are numerous causes for palpitations. Some common reasons a person may develop palpitations include:
-Stress, anxiety, fear, lack of sleep
-Caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, certain over the counter or prescribed medications
-Low levels of oxygen in the body
-Hormone changes associated with pregnancy or menopause
-Diseases of the heart muscle, valves, coronary arteries or electrical system
Is there a way to stop them?
Depending on the type of heart flutter or palpitation, there are different treatment options. Often times, the most appropriate way to treat palpitations is to avoid triggers- i.e. reduce stress/anxiety, avoid stimulants, and lack of sleep.
If your palpitations are caused by an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia), there are some maneuvers that you can perform at home that can stop the abnormal heart rhythm. These maneuvers include deep breathing, bearing down, or splashing cold water on your face.
If these techniques do not work, you may need a medication to treat your abnormal heart rhythm. Sometimes a medical procedure called a catheter ablation is necessary. In this procedure, radiofrequency energy is delivered to the abnormal electrical signals in the heart to destroy the targeted tissue and eliminate the abnormal heart rhythm.
Heart flutters seem particularly common in pregnant women. Is that true?
During pregnancy, most palpitations that occur are benign. In a normal pregnancy, the heart rate increases by 25% and some women may perceive this increase as fluttering. Additionally, in the pregnant state, there are significant shifts in blood volume. This increase in blood volume can put stress on the heart, which may then trigger palpitations. These fluctuations, as well as hormonal changes, can lend to physiologic changes that may render a pre-existing condition capable of sustaining an abnormal heart rhythm. If palpitations are experienced during pregnancy, you should bring it to the attention of your physician.
For more information about women’s heart disease and other cardiac health risks, visit Lankenau Heart Institute here.
This is a paid partnership between Main Line Health and Philadelphia Magazine’s City/Studio
Q. For the last 10 years, I have had an irregular heartbeat brought on by an episode of pericarditis. Can a long-term irregular heartbeat cause damage to my heart? Do I have a higher risk of heart failure because of this condition?
–Pine Island, Minn.
A. If your heart has been beating irregularly or racing for weeks, months or years, it does pose increased health risks. Think about the family car running at 100 m.p.h. all day. It takes a toll on the engine because it’s not designed to work that way. The same principle affects your heart. If unchecked, an irregular or racing heartbeat could contribute to problems, including premature death.
One such condition where your heart can beat out of rhythm is called atrial fibrillation. Pericarditis, an inflammation around the heart, could cause atrial fibrillation. Pericarditis is an acute condition, usually the result of a virus or bacteria. The inflammation often goes away on its own in one to two weeks, or it can be treated with medication.
Atrial fibrillation can be caused by many other factors, too, such as high blood pressure, abnormal heart valves, congenital heart defects, overactive thyroid, emphysema or other lung diseases, and previous heart surgery.
Stroke is the top health risk for most people with atrial fibrillation. The chaotic heart rhythm can cause blood to pool and form clots in the atrium, the smaller chamber of the heart. If a clot dislodges from your heart and heads to your brain, it can block blood flow and cause a stroke. Generally, the older you are, the greater your risk of stroke with atrial fibrillation. If the heart rate in atrial fibrillation isn’t controlled, your heart could weaken over time, increasing the risk of heart failure–in which your heart can’t pump enough blood to meet your body’s needs.
If your irregular heartbeat lasts only a few moments and occurs rarely, it’s not likely a serious health concern. If it is more frequent and lasts long, see your doctor or a cardiologist for an evaluation.
If you are dealing with atrial fibrillation, treatment to manage the condition can reduce your risk of stroke and heart failure. There are several treatment options, including medications to thin the blood, medications to slow the heart and procedures to restore normal rhythm.
–Gregory Altemose, MD, cardiology, Mayo Clinic, Scottsdale, Ariz.
Flab isn’t inevitable
Getting “old and flabby” does not have to happen–at least the flabby part.
Some loss of muscle mass and strength is common as you get older. The medical term for this is sarcopenia. Your muscle strength generally peaks in your 20s and starts to slowly decline in your 30s. A rapid decline then begins after age 60.
Lack of muscle tone and strength can lead to increasing difficulty with everyday tasks, increased risk of falls and decreased bone density. It also may lead to slower metabolism, causing weight gain.
It’s never too late to fight flabbiness. Much, if not most, of the decrease in muscle mass that occurs with age appears to be related to reduced physical activity. If you exercise, you can maintain significant muscle mass well into your later years.
Your doctor or a fitness expert can provide exercise options to strengthen all muscle groups. At home, exercises with elastic resistance bands, small dumbbells or even cans of vegetables can be effective. Weight training using equipment at a health club is beneficial too.
In addition to exercising, aim for nutritious, well-balanced meals. Don’t forget to include sources of protein–lean meats, legumes and nuts–which are key to building strong muscles.
Medical Edge From Mayo Clinic is an educational resource and doesn’t replace regular medical care.
How Tachycardia Affects Healthy People with Anxiety
Many physical symptoms of anxiety can cause further anxiety as mimic serious health problems. One of the most common is tachycardia, also known as “rapid heartbeat.” A healthy heartbeat is generally between 60 and 100 beats a minute. Tachycardia is a heartbeat described as over 100 beats per minute in a healthy adult, and it is often followed by other symptoms due to the way tachycardia affects your body.
Tachycardia often causes a considerable amount of fear because when it feels like it is occurring randomly it can make you think that something is wrong with your heart. But often it’s anxiety that causes the symptoms, and in most cases that tachycardia is completely harmless.
How Anxiety Causes Tachycardia
There is more than one type of tachycardia, and more than one cause of tachycardia related to stress and anxiety.
There are two primary causes/types of tachycardia with anxiety. These include:
The vast majority of experts in the anxiety field focus on one type of tachycardia: sinus tachycardia, which is caused by activation of the fight or flight system. This is the response that is most active during anxiety, triggering the nervous system to react. Normally your body rushes with adrenaline during times of intense fear to trigger a series of responses that prepare your body to fight or run..
Those with anxiety are thought to have an overactive fight or flight system that is active throughout the day even when there are no immediate dangers. This floods adrenaline into your bloodstream which causes your heart to speed up as a response. Those with severe anxiety and anxiety attacks may experience this sensation even when they’re not aware of having anxious thoughts.
When people talk about their heartbeat increasing because of anxiety, and when experts refer to anxiety tachycardia, this is almost always what they’re talking about.
However, it is not the only type of tachycardia that is related to anxiety. An often forgotten type of tachycardia is supraventricular tachycardia, a heart arrhythmia that can trigger tachycardia during periods of anxiety, especially when that anxiety causes hyperventilation.
Rapid breathing is very common for those with anxiety, and hyperventilation itself plays a prominent role in panic attacks. Some people develop hyperventilation syndrome, which is a tendency to hyperventilate even without anxiety.
When you hyperventilate, you expel too much carbon dioxide and take in too much oxygen. This throws off your body’s balance and causes your blood vessels to constrict. When your ventricles constrict, this makes your heart need to work harder to get blood around your body, and that’s what triggers the tachycardia.
Is Tachycardia From Anxiety Dangerous?
It’s difficult to say whether tachycardia is dangerous. The reality is that it is not usually dangerous on its own. The fight or flight system is something your body is prepared to handle – something it has to handle, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to stay safe in danger – and so your body can handle these adrenaline rushes fairly easily.
Tachycardia isn’t “safe,” however, because it can be a risk if you already have a heart condition. That is why even though anxiety is likely to blame for your rapid heartbeat, it’s always a smart decision to see a doctor and get everything checked out. If your heart is healthy, then tachycardia is unlikely to be dangerous.
Try to make sure that you feel confident in the doctor’s assessment. If they tell you that your heart is in good health, you need to avoid overthinking whether they have missed something. Doctors are well trained to spot heart problems and are very likely to know whether or not there is something to worry about.
Tachycardia and Heart Attack Fears
Another issue that many people struggle with is in how they respond to tachycardia. It’s not uncommon for those with panic attacks to know that their heart is fine in general, but when they experience tachycardia they feel as though they’re having a heart attack, or that one is coming.
That’s because in addition to a rapid heartbeat, anxiety attacks are associated with “catastrophic” thinking, in which they may conclude that something terrible is about to happen (for example, a heart attack). Hyperventilation also causes other symptoms that mimic heart attacks, like chest pains and leg weakness.
You do need to recognize the way you react to tachycardia, because often your anxiety can grow more intense if you interpret it as an emergency. Anxiety tachycardia is not a heart attack, and though they can feel the same it is important to recognize the difference.
How to Stop Anxiety Tachycardia
Stopping this type of rapid heartbeat is sort of a waiting game. Once your body is flooded with adrenaline (or if you’re hyperventilating) your heartbeat won’t slow until it gets back to its normal balance. Even if your heartbeat was under your control (which it isn’t), you wouldn’t want it to slow right away as it is needed to pass blood through the body. You will need to wait it out.
The best thing you can do for yourself is learn to control your anxiety and stop your anxiety from becoming unmanageable. There are relaxation strategies that can help you stay calmer at the moment, and several tips and techniques to overcome your anxiety forever.
For example, deep breathing is a good way to calm the body when you are struggling with anxiety. By slowing down your breathing, you are able to control your hyperventilation and your anxiety at the same time.
Cognitive behavioral therapy and medication can also be useful, as can many self-help techniques. Anxiety is treatable and manageable, so taking these steps is a good way to regain some control over the way your heart feels.