Heart Health Begins with Taking Control of Your Anxiety
Understanding Anxiety’s Impact on the Heart
Anxiety is the mind and body’s reaction to stressful, dangerous or unfamiliar situations. Whether caused by work, finances, social interactions, relationships, or purely situational, anxiety can manifest itself physically and cause many involuntary and uncomfortable physiologic responses, including heart palpitations.
The effects of anxiety on the body
Anxiety triggers the autonomic nervous system (ANS), the part of the nervous system responsible for the control of the unconscious bodily functions, such as breathing, heartbeat, and digestion. When anxiety is triggered by a stressor, the sympathetic neurons of the ANS activate, with an aim of regaining homeostasis, the body’s state of stability. When this happens, senses are heightened, the heart rate increases and muscles stiffen – the body is ready to respond. This phenomenon, commonly referred to as “fight or flight”, can result in an increasing heart rate, releasing stored energy, widening the airways, and increasing muscle strength.
Stimulation of the ANS also increases the body’s production of cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugar (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues. While a short-term triggering of the ANS and an increase in cortisol levels are necessary to survive in a dynamic world, long-term activation can cause unintended cardiovascular problems, including an increase in high blood pressure, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. High cortisol levels may also contribute to an increase in appetite, and direct the body to shift metabolism to store fat, causing weight gain. Finally, it can cause lack of energy and difficulty sleeping, which can indirectly contribute to heart disease.
While heart palpitations derived from stress are not typically a cause for concern, defining the stressor and identifying a solution plays a key role in alleviating this and other stress-related symptoms.
Healthy coping mechanisms for anxiety
If you are experiencing heart palpitations caused by anxiety, you’ll likely feel like your heart is racing, pounding or skipping a beat. The clinical term for a racing heart is tachycardia and occurs when heart rate is over 100 beats per minute. If you begin to feel your chest tighten and heart race, try the following techniques to slow your heart rate:
- Breathing: Regain control of your heart rate by taking slow and deep breaths, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth, for six seconds at a time. Repeat this pattern for a few minutes or until the palpitations subside.
- Hydrate: Dehydration and low electrolytes can heighten heart palpitations caused by anxiety. Try swapping your coffee, which can increase palpitations, for a glass of water or a sports drink with electrolytes.
- Refocus: To settle anxious thoughts causing heart palpitations, meditate by focusing on a place, image or mantra that brings you peace.
- Exercise: Going for a brisk walk or a jog/run, ideally outside for fresh air, will help increase the heart rate in a controlled manner and help minimize palpitations due to anxiety.
Tips for managing anxiety
Chronic stress can seem overwhelming, and a person may feel unable to regain control over their life. However, a number of strategies can help to reduce stress levels and improve well-being.
6 coping skills for anxiety:
- Understanding the signs and symptoms. Learning to recognize the signals of stress can help one become better equipped to manage them.
- Speaking to friends and family. Lean on your loved ones to provide emotional support and the motivation to take action.
- Identifying triggers. While it’s not always possible to avoid triggers of stress, taking note of specific triggers can aid in the development of coping and management strategies, which may involve reducing exposure to triggers.
- Exercising regularly. Physical activity increases the body’s production of endorphins, which are chemicals that boost the mood and reduce stress. Exercise can involve walking, cycling, running, working out, or playing sports.
- Trying mindfulness. Try regularly practicing meditation by using breathing and thought techniques to create an awareness of their body and surroundings. Research suggests that mindfulness can have a positive impact on stress, anxiety, and depression.
- Improving sleep quality. Poor quality sleep can contribute to stress. Aim to sleep 7-8 hours every night, and set a regular bedtime and wake-up schedule. Avoid caffeine, eating, and intense physical activity in the hours before bed.
When to seek help for anxiety
Anxiety-related symptoms often subside on their own with the passing of the triggering situation; however, if the heart palpitations continue or are recurring, you may be experiencing a panic attack, have a panic disorder or have another underlying condition. Studies suggest a relationship between heart conditions and untreated generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), which affects 6.8 million adults, or 3.1% of the U.S. population. Therefore, if you are experiencing chronic anxiety, you should consult with your primary care provider who can advise on treatment options.
Getting support from the Health Center at Hudson Yards
The care team at the Health Center at Hudson Yards is equipped to help you navigate all health concerns. If you are experiencing heart palpitations or other symptoms caused by anxiety, connect with a Personal Health Navigator to schedule a visit to be seen by one of our experienced medical providers.
Health Center members can contact a Personal Health Navigator by chat through the member portal or call us at 646-819-5100 to schedule an appointment.
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