Physical Symptoms
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Heart Pounding From Anxiety? Yes. Heart Attack? No.

Daniel Sher, MA, Clin Psychology
Heart Pounding From Anxiety? Yes. Heart Attack? No.

It's one of the first ways in which we learn about death as children: when people are sick or old, their hearts stop and they die. So, when you start to feel like there your heart is behaving a bit abnormally, it's no wonder that your mind thinks only the worst.

You may or may not have a heart condition, but you can still experience that scary sense of your heart pounding in your chest. Often, this happens during an anxiety attack and it's one of the most common, but also most frightening symptoms of anxiety.

The Cycle of Pounding Heartbeats

Most people have experienced an increased heartbeat as a result of nervousness. But there are times when you're convinced that something is wrong and you believe that this pounding heartbeat represents something more ominous. You may also experience other symptoms, such as chest pain or lightheadedness, and these further reinforce your belief that you're having a heart attack.

But that's what anxiety does to you - you’re led to believe that you’re in danger even when this isn’t actually the case. While only a doctor can rule out heart related disorders, the truth is that a pounding heartbeat is often the result of anxiety and is not going to cause you to drop down dead!

Anxiety - especially panic attacks - are a frequent cause of a rapid heartbeat. Unfortunately, they are also accompanied by a "feeling of doom." Your body erroneously tells you that something is seriously wrong, and so you experience profound fear and dread that you're about to die. This creates the following cycle:

This is a common cycle in people suffering from anxiety attacks and panic attacks. During a panic attack, it can also be made worse by how you breathe. When your heartbeat speeds up you may try to take more breaths than you need, as a way of trying to calm yourself down. 

This effect is caused by hyperventilation. It occurs when you feel as though you're not getting enough air (even though you are), so you take in more air. Your body then gets too much oxygen, and your heart has to pump harder, leading to other symptoms as well, such as chest pain.

Going to the doctor is important, but it doesn't always help. The experience of a pounding heartbeat, along with the feeling of impending doom, are both very real, so it becomes too easy to convince yourself that the doctor might have missed something.

Identifying that you experience panic attacks is an important step towards taking control; but that this is not always sufficient. People who experience panic attacks may develop a modified version of the cycle we described above: 

A rapid heartbeat is a symptom that is often self-sustaining unless you know how to handle it. When it is accompanied with that feeling of "something is wrong" that occurs during anxiety attacks, your heartbeat can escalate further in tandem with your anxiety, making you feel worse and worse. Often, however, all you need to do is take a simple step to interrupt this cycle. 

How to Control Pounding Heart From Anxiety

Controlling your pounding heart requires an understanding of what is causing it and what it takes to bring it under control. Remember that while an anxiety attack may feel like a heart attack, they're not the same thing; and suffering from a panic attack is not dangerous even if it feels very scary. In the midst of a pounding heartbeat, consider the following:

Panic attacks tend to peak about 10 minutes in and then begins a slow recovery process. So, the pounding heartbeat will usually subside on its own, but the severity can be reduced using the above tools and tips.

It is also useful to retrain your body. In order to make the above recommendations effective, it's necessary to practice the techniques we have discussed above so that they become second nature and can be employed automatically, no matter how much panic you’re sitting with.

Once you've reduced the severity of your panic attacks, the next step is to stop them from coming back. This is a process that involves a significant amount of practice because you essentially need to retrain your body to overcome the severe anxiety you experience during these attacks.

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