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What is the Connection Between Heart Palpitations and Anxiety?

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  • Written By: H. Colledge
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 13 November 2018
  • Copyright Protected:
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    Conjecture Corporation
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A palpitation is the sensation of an abnormal heartbeat. Typically experienced as a change in the normal heart rhythm or rate, palpitations may occur singly or in a series, and may or may not be associated with other symptoms such as dizziness. Heart palpitations and anxiety are linked because anxiety is one of the most common causes of this type of unusual heartbeat sensation, along with what are known as cardiac arrhythmias. Cardiac arrhythmias are a group of heart conditions in which abnormal beats occur. In cases where heart palpitations and anxiety occur together, the irregular heartbeat is generally harmless and reduces with treatment of the anxiety.

There are a number of different types of anxiety during which palpitations may occur. Panic attacks, which occur as part of panic disorder, commonly involve both heart palpitations and anxiety. Up to around a third of cases of palpitations are connected with panic disorder.

A panic attack is a sudden, severe anxious episode which last for up to an hour and typically recurs. As well as palpitations, where the heart may feel as if it is thumping wildly, symptoms of breathlessness, feeling faint, shaking and numbness may be experienced. Sometimes panic attacks are associated with agoraphobia, a condition in which the person is afraid of being in open spaces or crowded public places, where it might be difficult to obtain help or return to the safety of home.

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Physical symptoms can occur as part of psychological conditions such as anxiety because of the body's normal response to stress. For this reason, heart palpitations and anxiety are linked. During the stress response, the brain triggers nerve impulses which act on parts of the body such as the heart and lungs, causing them to work harder, and hormones such as adrenaline are released.

Adrenaline causes the heartbeat to accelerate and the rate of breathing to increase as part of what is referred to as the fight or flight response, the body's natural reaction to a perceived threat. Sometimes this response is normal but, in an anxiety disorder, it may go on too long, occur without any reason, or be out of proportion to the situation. The treatment of anxiety aims to reduce symptoms so they no longer interfere with everyday life. As it is normal for people to experience anxiety some of the time, it would be unrealistic to expect to prevent all anxiety.

Non-drug treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy can be effective in treating heart palpitations and anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy aims to change behaviors and thoughts which may be contributing to an anxious state. Medications such as antidepressants can be beneficial, and lowering the consumption of caffeine and alcohol may also help reduce heart palpitations and anxiety.

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