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How Tachycardia Affects Healthy People with Anxiety

Micah Abraham, BSc
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:

Sinus Tachycardia

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.

Supraventricular Tachycardia

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.

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