Heart Palpitations are feelings that your heart is skipping a beat, fluttering, or beating too hard or too fast. You may have these feelings in your chest, throat, or neck. Heart Palpitations can occur during activity or when you’re at rest. In a healthy, structurally normal heart, these sensations can be uncomfortable, but are generally considered benign. Most people with anxiety – severe or otherwise – have probably experienced this phenomenon at one point or another. If you have, then you know exactly how unpleasant it can be.
Heart Palpitations and Anxiety
In the case of anxiety, heart palpitations can be both a symptom and the cause. They are especially correlated with frequent feelings of anxiety and panic attacks. It’s widely believed that the main source of heart palpitations in anxious individuals is the combination of extreme awareness of one’s own heartbeat and surges of adrenaline that often occur as the result of the fight or flight response.
The fight or flight response is the body’s way of preparing itself for what it believes to be is an impending emergency situation. Regulated by the autonomic nervous system, the fight or flight response primes the body for action by raising the blood pressure, increasing the heart rate and constricting the blood vessels. While this mechanism is essential in potentially life threatening situations, individuals with anxiety often find themselves in fight or flight mode during common, everyday life.
The Autonomic Nervous System
The autonomic nervous system is responsible for numerous important bodily functions including respiration, digestion and your heart rate. These functions are performed without your deliberate input, meaning that they happen whether you think about them or not. This is the reason why you will continue to breathe while you are asleep.
The autonomic nervous system consists of three components, the parasympathetic nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system and the enteric nervous system. For the purposes of this discussion we will not be focusing on the enteric nervous system.
Fight or Flight vs. Rest and Relax
The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems work in conjunction with each other. They can essentially be thought of like the brakes and the gas peddle in your car. The sympathetic nervous system is the gas peddle that gets you revved up while the parasympathetic nervous system acts as the brakes to help you slow down and relax.
If you have ever been startled or found yourself in a dangerous situation, that sudden rush of adrenaline, dilation of your pupils and thumping in your chest are all caused by your sympathetic nervous system being called into action. This fight or flight response is an evolutionary trait designed to give you the best chance of survival when faced with an imminent threat. This was great of course when our ancient ancestors were fighting with wild animals on a regular basis, but in today’s world many people find themselves experiencing inappropriate or excessive activation of their sympathetic nervous system.
In a healthy individual the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems operate in balance. The sympathetic nervous system steps in when necessary, like during exercise, while the parasympathetic nervous system takes charge while you are eating, lying on the couch watching TV or trying to fall asleep. When this balance becomes disrupted, individuals can fall into a state of what is known as sympathetic dominance.
A person struggling with anxiety or stress can find him or herself constantly feeling on edge. This anxious, on edge feeling is a manifestation of inappropriate activation of the sympathetic nervous system. Your body thinks that you are in grave danger and activates all of the appropriate systems to keep you safe, when in reality you are really just sitting in traffic worried about an impending deadline at work. This leads to even greater feelings of anxiety and uncomfortable unrest as your body produces prodigious amounts of adrenaline that are not needed.
Because the sympathetic nervous system slows digestion, individuals in overdrive may find themselves experiencing frequent stomachaches and nausea. Over-activity of the sympathetic nervous system can also cause frequent heart palpitations amongst other symptoms.
What Can Be Done?
In order to bring the two branches of your autonomic nervous system back into balance and reduce anxiety and heart palpitations, you must focus on decreasing your stress levels and increasing parasympathetic activity. Here a few lifestyle practices that may help:
Don’t Over Exercise: While exercise is important to the health of your nervous system, over training can push you further into sympathetic dominance.
Practice Deep Breathing: Taking slow, deep breaths can help activate your parasympathetic nervous system and is wonderful for relaxation.
Cut Out the Stress: Stress and anxiety are the number one cause behind sympathetic dominance. Focus on taking better care of yourself, avoiding stressful situations and getting at least 8 hours of sleep each night.
Reframing Your Thoughts
Heart palpitations caused by anxiety can in turn lead to even greater anxiety or panic, which can lead to more heart palpitations. This vicious cycle can be devastating. It is important to break this cycle by reminding yourself that the heart palpitations you are experiencing are not harmful. By no longer viewing the palpitations as a dangerous threat to your wellbeing, you can slowly but surely reduce the anxiety associated with them. A similar technique can be applied to the anxiety itself.
A Positive Outlook
Heart palpitations caused by anxiety can be emotionally draining, frustrating and very uncomfortable. If you’re doctor has assured you that your heart is healthy, you have to keep reminding yourself that you are going to be fine! If heart palpitations are becoming an all too frequent part of your daily life, you can learn much more about them including ways to stop them in our comprehensive guide.