Anxiety And Its Connection To Your Heart Rate

Anxiety creates physical and mental reactions to stressful situations, such as heart palpitations. When a person is nervous, their heart rate rises as this is a natural response to fear.

According to the (NAMI) National Alliance on Mental Illness¹, these palpitations can be a  symptom of an anxiety disorder. In some cases, it may be a symptom of a particular type of anxiety disorder known as panic disorder.

Anxiety is a typical stress response². It's a coping technique that helps the body stay aware of stressful situations, even though the response may not be warranted. 

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Why does anxiety increase your heart rate?

Anxiety disorders cause the body to overreact to stress, and a person may experience continual uneasiness or dread, along with unexpected anxiety episodes.

Anxiety triggers an instinctive response in the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS governs heart rate, respiration, and digestion, and includes the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems.

When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, body activities like digestion are suspended, and heart rate and blood pressure rise. This is common in a stress response, where muscles tense, breath shortens, and heart rate increases. When a person is resting, the parasympathetic nervous system runs basic activities like digestion.

The parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems collaborate to keep the body in a condition of homeostasis or balance.

How does it feel to have a rapid heart rate caused by anxiety?

Because there are various types of anxiety disorders, symptoms vary depending on the person and the type of anxiety they experience. However, all forms of anxiety share a set of common symptoms.

Physical symptoms include:

Emotional symptoms include:

  • Tenseness

  • Anticipation

  • Irritability

Seek out a professional diagnosis

While not generally the case, palpitations can be a cause for concern if they are related to abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia). It is always important to seek out a professional medical opinion from your doctor.

A doctor will use a screening questionnaire to diagnose anxiety palpitations. It will help them in identifying patients who are prone to anxiety-related palpitations. They will then refer anyone who achieves a particular score to a specialist for further evaluation.

Anxiety-related palpitations appear often in people who have multiple daily stressors and are generally sensitive to bodily sensations.

If a person has palpitations regularly, a doctor may recommend using a Holter monitor. A Holter monitor is a simple ECG gadget that records a person's heartbeat over 24–48 hours. During the monitoring time, the user must wear the Holter device and keep track of any symptoms.

A transtelephonic event monitor is a smaller version of a Holter monitor that does not run continuously. Even though the wearer wears it all the time, the monitor is operated manually. Some transtelephonic monitors require the user to hold the device to their chest only when they believe they are having palpitations.

If the results of these tests rule out all other causes for palpitations, then a doctor may connect the palpitations to an anxiety-related issue.

How can an increased heart rate from anxiety impact your physical health?

While anxiety is most commonly associated with behavioral changes, it can also have a significant impact on the body.

Anxiety problems can cause a racing heart, palpitations, chest pain, and a higher risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. What’s more, anxiety disorders may raise your risk of coronary events if you already have heart disease. Anxiety attacks can produce substantial, transitory increases in blood pressure.

If you have those transient spikes regularly, your blood vessels, heart, and kidneys may be subject to long-term damage.

Anxiety has been linked to the following heart conditions and risk factors:

  • In some cases, anxiety can cause increased heart rate (tachycardia), interfering with normal heart function. In serious cases, it can increase the risk of sudden cardiac arrest.

  • Coronary artery disease can in some cases be exacerbated by anxiety. This could result in muscle weakness and an increased risk for heart failure.

  • Reduced heart rate variability: chronic anxiety³ is linked to an increased risk of death following a heart attack.

Techniques to manage anxiety and lower your heart rate

Regular exercise, deep breathing techniques, and mindfulness meditation can help you lower your heart rate when you're anxious. Here are some steps to get you started:

  • Take a deep breath and relax

  • Close your eyes, sit or lie down

  • Inhale slowly through your nose

  • Slowly exhale through your mouth

  • Do this as many times as necessary

The lowdown

Anxiety can have a noticeable effect on your body, particularly your heart. Increased heart rate and palpitations are common side-effects of anxiety, especially in those with panic disorders.

If you are concerned, see a medical professional for a diagnosis. For sufferers of anxiety, meditation, mindfulness, and light exercise can help you relax and keep your heart rate low. In turn, this can help negate the impact on your long-term health.

  1. Anxiety Disorders | National Alliance on Mental Illness

  2. Anxiety disorders | OASH: Office on Women's Health

  3. Anxiety disorders and cardiovascular disease (2017)

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