What heart palpitations can mean for you
Imagine this: You've got a big presentation coming up and you're sweating too much, breathing too fast, and your heart might even be pounding. Sounds like simple anxiety, right? Unfortunately, these might also be signs of a heart rhythm disorder, otherwise known as heart arrhythmia.
If you're familiar with anxiety, then you know that it can sometimes manifest as a fluttering in the chest, a pounding or racing heart, or an irregularity in the heartbeat. These sensations are known as heart palpitations, and while they can often be a sign of anxiety, they can also sometimes be a sign of arrhythmia.
Heart arrhythmia is an umbrella term used to describe a wide range of disorders affecting the heart’s rhythm. Some examples of arrhythmias are atrial fibrillation, ventricular tachycardia, and sick sinus syndrome.
Truthfully, it can be difficult to tell the two apart, since anxiety and arrhythmias share quite a few signs and symptoms. However, it is important to be able to distinguish between heart palpitations brought on by anxiety, and those brought on by any heart arrhythmias. This is due to the fact that, left untreated, heart arrhythmias may result in more serious complications, such as heart failure and stroke.
While anxiety is a mental health disorder, it often results in physical sensations due to its relationship with your stress levels and your fight-or-flight response. Triggering either of these can often result in an increase in your heart and breathing rates, as well as elevated blood pressure. This can lead to heart palpitations, which generally subside once an anxiety attack has passed, and you are in a state of calm. However, if your heart palpitations continue to occur outside of anxiety attacks, this may be a sign of underlying heart disease.
One way to tell the difference between anxiety-related heart palpitations and those caused by arrhythmia is to look at the symptoms accompanying the palpitations, as well as the context in which they occur — for example, if you only get heart palpitations in stressful situations and your heartbeat is otherwise completely normal, there's probably nothing wrong with your heart. (Although you might still want to visit a cardiologist just to be safe.)
In terms of symptoms, an anxiety attack may bring about heart palpitations, but also:
In contrast, heart palpitations caused by arrhythmias may be accompanied by:
As a rule, you should seek emergency medical treatment if your heart palpitations are accompanied by shortness of breath, dizziness, fainting, or chest pain.
It should also be noted that heart palpitations can be caused by other factors, such as excessive consumption of alcohol or caffeine, or even as a side effect of certain medications.
When it comes to the heart, it is best to err on the side of caution. If you are unsure whether your heart palpitations are caused solely by anxiety, please visit a cardiologist who will be able to check for any abnormalities in your heart function. To do this, he or she may request that you undergo various diagnostic tests to determine the cause of your palpitations. Examples of such tests include:
If your tests come up negative, you can be assured that your heart is in good condition and your heart palpitations are not a sign of any underlying heart problems. Instead, they are simply a result of feelings of anxiety and stress. If so, it may help to understand your triggers for anxiety attacks and learn various strategies for managing your response to stressful situations. If you need help managing your anxiety, please do not hesitate to seek further help from a mental health professional.
It can be scary to experience heart palpitations, whether they are caused by anxiety or otherwise. If you are unsure about the cause of your heart palpitations, you should visit a cardiologist to rule out the possibility of any underlying heart conditions, which can result in more serious complications if left untreated.
As with all heart-related matters, there are certain steps you can take to reduce your likelihood of developing any heart-related conditions. In general, you should:
Additionally, if you are struggling with any mental health issues, please seek help from a trained professional who will be able to diagnose and treat such issues.
Dr Devinder Singh is the Medical Director of Cadence Heart Centre. He is an experienced Senior Consultant Cardiologist & Cardiac Electrophysiologist with over 20 years of clinical experience.
His expertise lies in clinical cardiology, cardiac rhythm disorders (arrhythmia), cardiac pacing (including cardiac resynchronisation therapy) and cardiac magnetic resonance imaging. He performs electrophysiology studies and radiofrequency ablation of cardiac arrhythmias, and is well versed in pacemaker and deﬁbrillator insertions.
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