When it comes to your body, the area that causes the most anxiety is your heart. Your heart is what gives you life and keeps your body moving, and as you get older your heart is the organ you need to worry about most for a longer lifespan. While every organ is important, your heart is the only one that is crucial at every moment of every day.
So when you have an irregular heartbeat, known as arrhythmia, it can cause significant fear and anxiety. What makes this more complicated, however, is that anxiety can actually cause arrhythmia. The two have a complex relationship that may lead to significant stress and health worries.
Is Anxiety Causing Arrhythmia?
Severe anxiety can make it feel like something is wrong with your heart. See a doctor, and take our free 7 minute anxiety test to score your anxiety severity, compare your anxiety to others, and learn more about how to treat it.
Doctor First and Anxiety Second
You should never leave your heart health up to chance. Always visit a doctor and tell them about your concerns. They'll be able to listen to your heart and discover if there are any concerns they need to worry about. They'll also be able to test you for high cholesterol, and possibly X-ray your heart for heart disease.
But when they find nothing, you need to trust that your heart is in good health. Heart symptoms are a very common problem with anxiety. Take my free 7 minute anxiety test to find out more about heart symptoms and related anxiety issues.
An arrhythmia from anxiety is when your heart feels like something happened that caused it to overcompensate and beat very quickly. The cause might be described as:
- Skipping a beat.
- Heart squeezing.
- Rapid/Galloping heartbeat.
While you may "feel it coming," the arrhythmia generally comes out of nowhere, and all of the sudden it feels like something is terribly wrong and your heart speeds up rapidly as a result.
Arrhythmia and Panic Attacks
Arrhythmia's are often harmless. Only a doctor can rule out heart disease, but rest assured that many arrhythmias have little to no effect on your heart and can occur in those that are extremely healthy.
But arrhythmias are often a trigger for an anxiety condition that directly relates to heart fears: panic attacks. Arrhythmias are extremely common panic attack triggers, and unfortunately anxiety and stress increase the likelihood of arrhythmias. One of the theories for how people experience their first panic attack is that during times of stress, their heart suffers from arrhythmia and the person - who has never experienced a panic attack before - thinks something is terribly wrong and suffers from extreme anxiety and panic as a result.
Then, over time, they become more likely to have a panic attack even without arrhythmias, and may cause arrhythmias themselves over their panic anxiety.
Anxiety Can Cause Arrhythmia
The key thing to realize is that anxiety can actively cause arrhythmia. But despite that it's not clear why. It's known that a person's heartbeat may speed up during times of stress as a result of the fight or flight system, but an arrhythmia tends to be much more sudden and doesn't always come during times of intense anxiety.
Most likely an arrhythmia occurs as a response to sudden and unexpected adrenaline that your body creates when it's stressed. It may also be due to tense muscles or nerve firings that may react to the way you feel mentally. Studies have shown that somehow those with anxiety are more prone to extra muscle contractions of the heart, leading to arrhythmia. Unfortunately, there are few studies of the exact mechanism for how this occurs.
It should also be noted that hyperventilation, which occurs during panic attacks, may also lead to arrhythmia.
Arrhythmia Can Cause Anxiety
Anxiety and arrhythmia is not a one way street. Arrhythmia can also cause significant anxiety. Many things can lead to benign (not dangerous) arrhythmia, including exercise, dehydration, diet/caffeine, etc. Also, those that suffer from very minor stress or those that are thinking about their heart too often may be more prone to arrhythmia - even when they're not suffering from anxiety at the time.
Unfortunately, those with anxiety are highly prone to suffering from extreme anxiety and panic attacks when an arrhythmia occurs as they worry about the health of their heart. After suffering from an arrhythmia, many with anxiety are also more prone to worrying about the arrhythmia again, thus causing further anxiety and greater risk of arrhythmia.
As you can see, it can create a very troubling cycle that can make it harder and hard to cope. Often arrhythmia is one of the primary reasons that an individual's anxiety starts to get out of hand.
What to Do About Arrhythmia From Anxiety
You cannot completely control your heart, no matter how much you want to. If your heartbeat speeds up rapidly, it is going to cause you some discomfort and stress. A pounding heartbeat will almost always cause some degree of stress because your heart is such an important part of your health.
There are a few things you can do to try to decrease the amount of fear you experience during a pounding heart rate. The first, of course, is to see a doctor. Have them rule out any underlying heart condition so that you can be at least a bit more confident that you are healthy. It's important to realize, though, that when you suffer from arrhythmia you are likely to try to convince yourself that the doctor is wrong. Don't expect seeing a doctor to help calm your worries completely.
You can also try the following to reduce anxiety during arrhythmia:
- Walking Walking helps with blood flow and ensures that you are actively moving in a way that will help your heart feel more natural. Sitting in one place often makes arrhythmia feel worse because the heartbeat has no "explanation." If you start walking during an arrhythmia, you'll have an easier time calming your heart down and burning away some of that extra adrenaline.
- Talk to Someone Remember that much of what you experience is in your own mind. It's extremely common to have significant fears going through your head and finding yourself overly focused on your heart. If someone's around you or if you can call someone, try to do it immediately. Talking to someone takes you out of your own head and should provide you with enough of a distraction to help you feel more comfortable.
- Be Cognizant Make sure that you are also noticing what you are doing to contribute to your arrhythmia. Are you thinking about every beat of your heart? Are you paying too much attention to you and your health? If you notice when you are fearing you are heart health, you may find it a bit easier to control your anxiety if arrhythmia occurs.
- Take Slow, Calm Breaths Rapid breathing is the cause of hyperventilation, and unfortunately many people try to take fast, deep breaths that their body doesn't need during an arrhythmia. Hyperventilation leads to further arrhythmia and also causes other scary symptoms like chest pains and lightheadedness. Take slow, calm breaths no matter how worried you are to reduce the likelihood of hyperventilating.
You'll also need to work on your anxiety from the ground up, teaching yourself how to control your anxiety reactions so that you are at less of a risk of suffering from arrhythmia altogether.
Take my free 7 minute anxiety test to learn more. The test will show you exactly what it takes to control your anxiety and reduce the likelihood of an arrhythmia, as well prevent some of the fears that occur because you suffer from arrhythmia.
Lampert, Rachel, et al. Emotional and physical precipitants of ventricular arrhythmia. Circulation 106.14 (2002): 1800-1805.
Watkins, Lana L., et al. Anxiety and vagal control of heart rate. Psychosomatic medicine 60.4 (1998): 498-502.
Suzuki, Shin-ichi, and Hiroshi Kasanuki. The influences of psychosocial aspects and anxiety symptoms on quality of life of patients with arrhythmia: investigation in paroxysmal atrial fibrillation. International journal of behavioral medicine 11.2 (2004): 104-109.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.