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Can Anxiety Cause a Slower Heart Rate?

Micah Abraham, BSc

Written by

Micah Abraham, BSc

Last updated November 25th, 2020

Can Anxiety Cause a Slower Heart Rate?

Almost everyone with anxiety has suffered from a rapid heartbeat at some point or another. A rapid heart rate is an extremely common anxiety symptom, and one that - when severe - causes many people to worry about the health of their heart. One of the first steps towards treating anxiety is learning not to overreact to an elevated heartbeat because the stress of overreacting can escalate it even further.

What many may not realize is that anxiety can cause the heartbeat to slow down as well. It's not that common, but it is possible, and in some cases the issue may not be a slow heartbeat at all but your own mind telling you that your heart rate is abnormal even when this isn’t necessarily the case. 

Slow Heartbeat and Anxiety

If you suffer from anxiety symptoms generally and you also have what appears to be a slow heart rate, it is entirely possible that the two are related. 

The causes of slow heart rate in the case of anxiety are not entirely clear. However, here are some possible causes: 

  • Fatigue Anxiety can cause significant fatigue. Living with anxiety can be immensely difficult, and often drains the body and mind of energy. For this reason, people with anxiety may experience a resting heart rate that’s lower than others. 
  • Inactivity Sometimes those with anxiety find themselves spending large amounts of time being inactive. This might be a result of fatigue or in the case of social anxiety, a reduced desire to leave the house and interact with others. Being inactive for prolonged periods, however, may lead to a lower resting heart rate, as the body adjusts to such a low rate of overall activity.
  • Medical Conditions There are some medical conditions that may be linked to a lowered heart rate as well. Talk to your doctor about hypothyroidism, for example. Hypothyroidism is a condition that often leads to anxiety and panic attacks, and may be related to low heart rate1.
  • Incorrect Evaluation Often, the main problem is not actually a slow heart rate. The problem is that people incorrectly interpret their heart beat as being slowed. For example, when you check your pulse multiple times a day it's not uncommon to miscount or simply be incorrect with the interpretation. The vast majority of those that complain about a slow heart rate from anxiety have no irregular heart rate at all, and are simply prone (due to their anxiety) to thinking that something is not right. 

Stop Checking Your Pulse

You should see a doctor if you're concerned about a low heart rate. But once the doctor rules out medical symptoms, you need to stop checking your pulse unless instructed to do so by a doctor. Persistent pulse checking is a symptom of anxiety, and it's a symptom that serves to fuel and reinforce your existing anxiety problem.

This behavior is self-sustaining. For example, when you check your pulse multiple times a day, you'll never be satisfied with a normal result. You'll instead keep checking until you finally have the anomaly you've been waiting for, which will then reinforce the idea that you need to keep checking your pulse constantly.

On the other hand, every time you check your pulse and you see that it’s normal, this gives you a bit of a buzz, temporarily alleviating your anxiety and giving you a sense that everything is ok. That positive feeling reinforces not just the pulse taking, but also the anxiety that precedes the pulse-taking. You’ll soon find yourself becoming anxious and taking your pulse again, allowing the cycle to repeat. 

In either case, the take-home message is that repeatedly checking your pulse is not a helpful behaviour.

Other Methods of Reducing Heart Rate Fears

It's can be challenging to directly control your heart rate. But you can control the way that you react to it. One helpful coping strategy is to exercise. Being physically active actually lowers your general resting heart rate in the long term, but in such cases your heart becomes much more efficient overall. Exercise is also a great-way of combating anxiety. With exercise, therefore, you'll be less likely to have a slowed pulse that’s anxiety related; and you can be more confident that your low resting heart-rate is actually a sign of your physical health, rather than any possible problem. 

Seeing a doctor is obviously a good idea as well. Ruling out the most likely medical causes of a low heart rate may not calm you down completely - especially if you still struggle with anxiety - but it may well give you some peace of mind that your low heart rate is not related to any medical concerns.

Beyond that, try to stop searching on the net for ways to make sense of your low heart rate. Online, you'll find countless explanations for a low heart rate and you may convince yourself that you're suffering from a more serious issue, even if you’re medically healthy and well. 

Finally, learn to control your overall anxiety. The less anxiety you experience, the less you'll focus on your heart. The less time you spend worrying about your heart, the less likely you are to experience a low heart rate as a result of anxiety.

Questions? Comments?

Do you have a specific question that this article didn’t answered? Send us a message and we’ll answer it for you!

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Question:

Where can I go to learn more about Jacobson’s relaxation technique and other similar methods?

– Anonymous patient

Answer:

You can ask your doctor for a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional who uses relaxation techniques to help patients. Not all psychologists or other mental health professionals are knowledgeable about these techniques, though. Therapists often add their own “twist” to the technqiues. Training varies by the type of technique that they use. Some people also buy CDs and DVDs on progressive muscle relaxation and allow the audio to guide them through the process.

Ask Doctor a Question

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