Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 1/1/2023
No two people who deal with an anxiety disorder experience all the same symptoms in all the same ways.
That said, there are some common symptoms that tend to affect many people with certain anxiety disorders. For example, heart palpitations are often experienced by those who deal with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), which is one of the more common anxiety disorders.
Heart palpitations feel like your heart is racing very fast or like it’s skipping a beat. Even if you know that it’s your anxiety that is causing your heart rate to spike, it can still be scary.
Learning how to manage heart palpitations can soothe anxious feelings and help you from getting tripped up when it feels like you have an irregular heart rate. Keep reading to figure out what to do about anxiety and heart palpitations.
When anxiety strikes, your body’s stress response jumps into action. Even if you are totally safe, your fight or flight response may kick in and your body may act as though it’s in actual danger.
When this happens, hormones flood your body and your blood flow may even increase. This can cause heart palpitations.
Anxiety is actually the second most common cause of heart palpitations, after actual heart problems. Even if you don’t have a diagnosed anxiety disorder (such as GAD or panic disorder), you may deal with moments of nervousness. Even these small moments can cause what feels like an irregular heartbeat.
So, why does anxiety cause heart palpitations? Anxiety jumpstarts your autonomic nervous system (ANS), which helps to regulate certain bodily functions like digestion, breathing and, yes, your heart rate.
When your ANS gets out of whack you may notice physical symptoms like tense muscles, sweating, trembling or shaking, fatigue and an upset stomach in addition to a racing heart.
While heart palpitations from anxiety can be scary and overwhelming, they don’t tend to last for very long. Generally speaking, they come on quickly and are over almost as quickly.
Anxiety and heart palpitations are both very normal. If you notice your anxiety is leading to a temporarily irregular heartbeat, you have nothing to worry about. It may be scary and you may worry it can lead to a heart attack — but it can’t. Anxiety-induced heart palpitations are not dangerous.
The only thing that could be dangerous is if you misdiagnose your irregular heartbeat as being connected to anxiety when they’re not. Because of this, you should let a healthcare provider know if you are noticing semi-regular heart palpitations. Even if they are connected to an anxiety disorder, it may ease your nerves to know that a medical professional is keeping an eye on things.
If you ignore heart palpitations that aren’t from anxiety or mistake them for an anxiety symptom, it can be dangerous. Beyond anxiety, conditions like arrhythmias (heart rhythm issues), thyroid disorders, myocarditis (inflammation of the heart) and valve disease (or other heart conditions) can all cause heart palpitations.
If you have heart palpitations, a medical professional will monitor them to try to find a cause. If it appears that they aren’t triggered by anxiety, they may order a chest x-ray, exercise stress test and other tests to get to the bottom of what’s going on.
If you ever feel intense chest pain or like your blood pressure has suddenly skyrocketed, seek medical help as soon as possible.
Anxiety and heart palpitations are closely connected. Many people who have GAD or other anxiety disorders will likely experience them at some point.
Thankfully, there are ways to deal with heart palpitations and anxiety in the moment. Here are two common ways you can steady irregular heart rhythms and calm yourself down:
Meditation: A 2014 study suggests that 20 minutes of mindful meditation can decrease anxiety by reducing overall brain activity. By decreasing your anxiety, you can ease heart palpitations. Not sure where to start? There are a number of apps that can guide you through various meditations. The next time you notice your heart beating out of control, open an app and start meditation to calm your system down.
Deep breathing: Similar to meditation, breathing exercises can help chill you out if anxiety and heart palpitations come about. This is because breathing affects how our body works and helps to regulate emotion. If you notice your anxiety has spiked and you feel like you have an abnormal heart rhythm, try to take a few deep breaths. After a few minutes, you should notice your anxiety going away.
While the above tactics can help you manage heart palpitations and anxiety while they’re happening, they aren’t necessarily long-term treatment options.
To get control of heart palpitations before they pop up, you’ll want to focus on techniques that can help keep anxiety at bay.
Psychotherapy (also called talk therapy) has been found to help people manage all sorts of mental health conditions, including anxiety.
More specifically, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is thought to be effective for treating anxiety. In this type of therapy, you’ll work with a mental health professional to figure out patterns of behavior that add to your anxious thoughts.
From there, you’ll work together to determine ways you can change these behaviors.
Another form of CBT is called dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). Research has also found it can help with anxiety.
Anti-anxiety medication is another option for managing anxiety. A medical professional will need to assess you and your anxiety symptoms to figure out what medication may help most. From there, they can give you a prescription.
Some of the medications commonly used for treating anxiety include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), beta-blockers and benzodiazepines.
Before taking any new medication, it’s important to disclose any other medications you are on or medical conditions you have so that a healthcare provider can make sure what they prescribe won’t cause an issue.
Whatever treatment you decide on, just know that you can get on top of anxiety attacks and panic attacks. As you figure out a treatment for anxiety that works, you should notice symptoms like shortness of breath and heart palpitations start to subside.
To discuss your heart palpitations and anxiety, consider scheduling an online psychiatry with a mental health professional.