When we experience anything unusual to do with the heart it can be extremely worrying – after all it’s the pump that keeps us alive. This being said heart palpitations happen for a wide variety of reasons, and are mostly harmless, ranging from anxiety to smoking to dehydration to being a symptom of a larger condition. If you’re concerned about your heart palpitations it’s always best to consult with your doctor.
As with a lot of physical symptoms of anxiety, the triggers lie within our caveman brain. This is the survival-driven part of our brain that our newer, rational cortex grew on top of. Its primary concern is keeping us alive, so when our brain perceives a threat, it releases these stress chemicals and activates a response called the fight, flight or freeze response. The stress hormone cortisol or the chemical adrenaline are released and this puts our body on high alert, and as a result, our body prepares to either fight, flight or freeze.
Why Does Anxiety Cause Heart Palpitations?
There’s quite a few reasons as to why anxiety might cause heart palpitations, the main one being a sudden shift in heart rate dictated by our fight, flight or freeze response. Our survival-based response raises our heart rate so that there’s increased blood and oxygen flow to our muscles, allowing us to better deal with the perceived threat, but in doing so it causes something called hyperstimulation.
Hyperstimulation essentially makes our body super alert and aware of everything around us, which is great for staving off threats, but less great when it’s your anxiety getting the better of you. When changes in the body happen suddenly, especially the vital organs like heart palpitations, during hyperstimulation it can cause an emotional response that can cause us to panic further, prolonging the anxious episode.
Really, heart palpitations happen pretty frequently without us noticing too much, but when hyperstimulation is in play it seems like a much larger issue. In fact, other symptoms of anxiety have been linked with causing heart palpitations. For example, hyperventilation which is quite a common symptom of anxiety can lead to heart palpitations due to the irregular rate of breathing.
How Can I Stop This Symptom?
As this symptom stems from our fight, flight or freeze response and accompanying physical symptoms, the main thing that we can do to combat it is to focus on our breathing and keep moving. This should calm our central nervous system, distract our mind from the perceived threat, and begin to realign our heart rate and breathing to homeostasis, our natural balanced state.
Of course, in order to prevent the symptoms of anxiety occurring in the first place, you need to manage or build strategies to tackle your anxiety. There are several options available including CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), mindfulness, medication and group therapy. If you’re unsure, please contact your GP for more information.