Have you ever felt so nervous that it felt like your heart was about to come out of your chest? In this case, chances are you have suffered from anxiety tachycardia, a fairly common, though not easy to diagnose, problem that can be alarming. In fact, a study conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital revealed that one in three people will experience non-cadiac chest pain and palpitations caused by anxiety at some point in their life.
Functional arrhythmias are a physiological disorder characterized by sudden heart rate reactions, for no apparent reason and without an organic injury. They tend to intersect with high levels of anxiety and heart rates can reach between 160 and 200 beats per minute, although no cardiac abnormalities are found in clinical examinations. For this reason it refers to a functional disorder.
Tachycardias of anxious origin may be accompanied by anxiety-induced chest pain, a feeling of difficulty in breathing, profuse sweating, nausea, and even dizziness from anxiety.
How to recognize anxiety tachycardia?
Anxiety tachycardia can become so intense that the person believes they are having a heart attack, although cardiologists have assured them that they do not suffer from heart disease. Either way, the palpitations are so intense that the person believes they are dying, which further increases anxiety and, therefore, tachycardia.
After being exposed to a stimulus that scares us in some way, it is normal for our heart rate to increase.
But if we are afraid and think we are losing control, our body will react as if it were a real emergency by further increasing the heart rate. In turn, this increased heart rate will scare us even more, creating a vicious circle in which the more fear increases, the faster the heart will beat.
Anxiety tachycardia is usually the result of exposure to a stressful, distressing, frightening, or extremely sad situation. But sometimes just remembering or anticipating such situations can be enough to trigger the tachycardia. Even a thought or emotion can trigger palpitations, as well as an unconscious connection with some stimuli that we consider dangerous.
In fact, anxiety tachycardia can be a learned response when a certain topic is activated in the mind that worries us or a stimulus that is present in different situations, although these are not in themselves threatening.
Since anxiety tachycardia is not always the direct and appreciable result of a stressful event, it is sometimes difficult to make the connection. Therefore, it is important that you focus on analyzing your environment and your thoughts. Only then can you identify the triggers of anxiety. Then, you can activate them in your mind and you will notice how the palpitations are activated. This confirms that it is anxiety tachycardia.
This situation can become enormously disabling because, due to fear, the person is led to isolate himself to avoid any type of new stimulus or that could escape his control, this will increasingly reduce the threshold in front of which the anxious response is unleashed, generating a vicious circle.
Why does anxiety cause rapid heartbeat?
There are two key areas of the brain responsible for processing anxiety: the amygdala and the hippocampus. The amygdala is a real communication center between the different parts of the brain that process incoming sensory signals and the areas that interpret these signals. It can alert the rest of the brain that a threat exists and trigger a fear or anxiety response.
In the hippocampus, on the other hand, many of the memories related to past experiences that are negative, stressful or anxious are stored. Its task is to encode threatening events by transforming them into memories.
When the brain encounters a threat (real or perceived), it releases a surge of neurotransmitters, such as cortisol and norepinephrine. These give us an extra boost, improve our perception, reflexes and speed to make us safe if necessary.
These neurotransmitters also cause blood vessels to constrict so our heart has to pump faster to circulate more blood and oxygen through the body. Basically, we enter "survival mode". Our sympathetic nervous system is activated, which acts as a kind of accelerator.
When the situation that generated this activation response disappears, the hypothalamus, another brain structure, should order all systems to return to normal. Then that's when the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, which acts as a retarder and helps us relax and slow our heart rate (discover the relationship between vagus nerve and anxiety).
Indeed, the increase in heart rate has a functional value and is not harmful, but if activated excessively it can end up causing physical damage. If our systems don't return to normal or fire up all the time, we have a problem.
Are anxiety palpitations dangerous?
Anxiety tachycardia is usually not dangerous, although it is bothersome. But if the problem persists over time and you react anxiously to more and more situations, your cardiac coherence is likely to end up being affected.
Harvard University scientists concluded that "when anxiety occurs often or for long periods of time, it is considered harmful to mental and general health." Anxiety has been associated with a higher incidence and, in some cases, with the progression of cardiovascular disease.
The mechanisms of action of anxiety that can pose a risk to cardiovascular health are manifold.
- Autonomic dysfunction. Disruption of cardiovascular autonomic homeostasis, particularly with regard to the body's ability to maintain heartbeat stability and constant blood pressure, is a factor that affects cardiovascular health and increases the risk of mortality. People with a history of cardiovascular disease and hypertension who have a reduced ability to maintain autonomic stability are at increased risk. People with anxiety disorders have also been shown to have greater difficulty regulating autonomic function.
- Inflammatory routes. Inflammatory pathways play a key role in both the development and progression of heart disease. Anxiety disorders precisely cause an increase in various inflammatory markers such as C-reactive protein, tumor necrosis factor alpha, interleukin-6, homocysteine and fibrinogen.
- Endothelial dysfunction. Anxiety is also related to changes in the vascular endothelium. The vascular endothelium plays a key role in the health and maintenance of the circulatory system through the regulation of platelet activity, thrombosis, vascular tone and leukocyte adhesion. Its dysfunction leads to the development of atherosclerosis. Greater endothelial dysfunction has been seen in people with an anxiety disorder.
- Platelet dysfunction. Furthermore, increased platelet activity and activation by inflammatory triggers has been shown to play a key role in atherothrombosis and myocardial ischaemia. People suffering from acute anxiety or stress also show increased platelet aggregation.
All of this indicates that while anxiety tachycardia does not directly cause a heart attack, it can have a detrimental effect on cardiovascular health in the long term, so it is important to remedy it as soon as possible.
How to eliminate anxiety tachycardia?
There are several ways to treat anxiety and thus eliminate the tachycardia it produces. The technique of detecting and dealing with the feared consequence is very effective because it focuses on detecting the triggers that cause anxiety and finding solutions to relieve symptoms, both physically and emotionally.
To apply it, it is necessary to understand that the discomfort persists when trying to avoid the feared consequences. In other words, the first step isn't trying to avoid those annoying sensations.
Basically, you need to understand that, while annoying, tachycardias aren't dangerous in and of themselves. Thus you break the vicious circle, calm the fear and reduce the anxiety. To achieve this, you need to look for alternative thoughts or behaviors:
- Breathing exercises. Deep breathing accompanies the heartbeat, generating a feeling of tranquility and well-being that will help you eliminate palpitations. Therefore, it is recommended to learn breathing exercises to apply in any situation.
- Relaxation techniques. The progressive muscle relaxation technique is one of the most effective exercises, because you will not only learn to relax, but also to notice the body tension that precedes the anxiety episodes, so you can stop them in time.
- Positve thinkings. It does not mean falling into naive positivism, but developing more rational and adaptive thoughts. When you feel the palpitations, instead of thinking that you are going to die or have a heart attack, just think that it is a fear reaction and that you are in control.
However, in some cases, when anxiety has been dragging on for years, psychological therapy is needed. Furthermore, it is always advisable to carry out a thorough cardiological examination to rule out an underlying pathology.