When it comes to the part of your body that people worry about most, the heart is often the area that causes the most anxiety. 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, the heart is the only one that is crucial at every moment of every day.
Thus, when a person experiences an irregular heartbeat, known as arrhythmia, it can cause significant fear and anxiety. Complicating this matter is that anxiety can actually cause arrhythmia. The two have a complex relationship that play off one another, but ultimately often lead to significant stress and health worries.
Doctor First and Anxiety Second
It is never advised to leave your heart health up to chance. This means it is always important to visit a doctor and discuss any health concerns. Doctors can monitor the heart and determine if there are any concerns or irregularities. Doctors can also test for things such as high cholesterol, and even X-ray the heart for heart disease screening. Yet if no medical issues are identified, but you are still experiencing what feels like heart symptoms, it may be due to anxiety.
When a person has an arrhythmia from anxiety, it means something has caused the heart to beat in a way that feels abnormal. Often it involves rapid heartbeat that seems to arrive “out of nowhere.” Symptoms may include:
- Skipping a beat.
- Heart squeezing.
- Rapid/Galloping heartbeat.
While some people may actually feel the arrhythmia coming on, for most, it generally occurs rapidly and seems to appear out of nowhere.
Arrhythmia and Panic Attacks
Arrhythmias are often harmless, especially when related to anxiety. Most anxiety-related arrhythmias have little to no effect on the heart and can occur in individuals who are extremely healthy.
But arrhythmias often make anxiety symptoms worse and may trigger panic attacks. Arrhythmias may even be one of the more common panic attack triggers. In fact, it is very common for people to experience his or her first panic attack during a time of heart arrhythmia; and for that person experiencing his or her first panic attack, thoughts often arise around something being terribly wrong with the heart, thus increasing anxiety and panic.
While it is much more common for arrhythmias to trigger panic attacks, it can go the other way around, with ongoing panic attacks contributing to the development of arrhythmias.
Anxiety Can Cause Arrhythmia
As previously stated, anxiety can actively cause arrhythmia, but the reason why is somewhat unclear. It is 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 does not always come during times of intense anxiety.
Most likely an arrhythmia occurs in response to a sudden (and unexpected) surge of adrenaline that the body creates when it is stressed. It could also be due to muscle tension, hyperventilation, or nerve firings that may occur due to the anxiety. Studies have shown that those with anxiety are more prone to extra muscle contractions of the heart, which can also lead to arrhythmia. Unfortunately, while there are studies on this topic, none have been conclusive as to the exact mechanism of how this occurs.
Arrhythmia Can Cause Anxiety
Anxiety can lead to arrhythmia, and in the same respect, arrhythmia can lead to anxiety. Many things can trigger this benign form of 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. Once an arrhythmia is triggered, it is likely a person will experience anxiety.
Additionally, those with anxiety are far more prone to suffering from panic attacks when an arrhythmia occurs, along with resulting worries about the health of the heart. After suffering from an arrhythmia, it is common for those with anxiety to anticipate (and worry about) another arrhythmia happening, thus contributing to further anxiety and greater risk of arrhythmia. Clearly, this can become a vicious cycle.
What to Do About Arrhythmia From Anxiety
No one can completely control his or her heart, no matter how much they may want to. If a person’s heartbeat speeds up to a rapid pace, it often causes physical and mental discomfort. A rapid heartbeat tends to trigger some degree of stress, especially in those who already struggle with anxiety.
There are a few things a person can try in an effort to decrease the amount of stress and anxiety experienced during times of arrhythmia. If there is significant concern about one’s health, the first step, of course, would be to see a doctor. Have them rule out the possibility of any underlying heart condition(s). Don't expect seeing a doctor to help calm your worries completely, but it is still a smart decision to make sure that you are healthy.
Once any underlying medical conditions are ruled out, a person can try the following to reduce anxiety during arrhythmia:
- Walking - Walking helps with blood flow and ensures that a person is actively moving in a way that can help the heart beat at a more natural rate. If a person can begin walking during an arrhythmia, he or she may find they have an easier time slowing the heartbeat down and burning away some of that extra adrenaline.
- Talk to someone - Much of what a person experiences during times of anxiety and panic is a result of the mind/thoughts. It is extremely common to have significant fear-based thoughts and become overly focused on the heart if the arrhythmia is occurring. Reaching out to a supportive friend or family member can help stop these thoughts and provide a helpful distraction.
- Be cognizant - Those who suffer from anxiety and panic often contribute to the development of an arrhythmia, whether they know it or not. Becoming more and more aware of how one’s thoughts contribute to the anxiety, and thus the arrhythmia, can be helpful in starting to manage those thoughts.
- Take slow, calm breaths - Rapid breathing contributes to hyperventilation, which often occurs for people experiencing an arrhythmia. Not only can hyperventilation lead to further arrhythmia, but it can also cause other scary symptoms like chest pains and lightheadedness. Taking slow, calm breaths can help 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. Common treatments like therapy, medication, and self-help techniques may all help you control both your anxiety and your heartbeat, so that the arrhythmia is less likely to occur.
There are medical causes of arrhythmia that should always be ruled out first. But once those issues are ruled out, the next step is to determine if anxiety is causing your arrhythmia and using the above tips to help reduce it.