Why are Heart Palpitations sometimes Caused by Anxiety?

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When people say they are having palpitations, what they usually mean is that they are consciously aware that their heart is beating harder and/or faster than usual.

It is normal for our hearts to speed up like this at times such as playing sport, doing a dance routine, exercising on a rowing machine, and so on. 

Whenever we take exercise our heart rate speeds up. We may not be aware of it whilst we are moving energetically but when we stop, the heart continues to thump for a while before it slows back to its normal resting rate.

People who indulge in physical activity are not usually concerned about this, but expect it and tend to think they haven't exercised hard enough if it doesn't happen.

Therefore we can conclude that a heart that is working harder is considered normal and even desirable when caused by increased physical activity.

So why does a thumping heart as a result of our thoughts concern us so much?

When the survival instinct is triggered, the body prepares for fight or flight. In order to act to save ourselves from the danger, we need to fight or run away. The heart beats faster to pump extra blood and oxygen to the large muscles to help us do this.

This is what anxiety sufferers call 'palpitations'.

Not all increased heart rate caused by our thoughts is bad. Consider how you would be feeling if you were holding your lottery ticket whilst hearing the draw. As each number is called you realize it's one of yours. I have no doubt that your heart would be thudding harder with each call, but you would accept that as normal for excitement.

So increased heart rate can be caused by our thoughts just as readily as by physical exercise. It is usually a normal bodily response. When people become afraid of a faster beating heart, however, this symptom can become linked to danger and so when it happens, instead of accepting it as normal, the person becomes afraid something bad is happening. Sometimes they see it as the first sign of a panic attack. Others, who may also develop chest pain, may become afraid they are having a heart attack.

The way in which fear becomes linked to a normal physical symptom such as this is described on the page about chest pains

Just as you can reduce your physically increased heart rate by resting your body, you can lessen a mentally increased heart rate by calming your mind. 

What to do about heart palpitations

Please note that palpitations can also be due to various physical causes and you must always get checked out by your doctor before assuming that it is due to anxiety alone.

Provided you know that these are caused by anxiety, you can slow these by refocusing your thoughts elsewhere. This is easier said than done.

Your survival instinct is making your heart race because it thinks you are in danger so it is increasing the blood flow around your body so you can run away (the fight or flight response).

Generally just the desire to think about other things in a situation such as this is impossible - that is, until you have first practised techniques for doing so.

The rationale, however, is that if you are able to refocus your mind away from the possible consequences of the heart palpitations using techniques such as those described in the section on Techniques, your heart rate will return to normal by itself because your survival instinct no longer believes you are in danger.

A full understanding of how and why to do this can be found in the section describing how to overcome anxiety the Feelgood Way.

Common Symptoms of Anxiety

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  1. Overcoming Anxiety
  2. Anxiety Symptoms
  3. Palpitations