Heart palpitations. Don’t these two words make you shudder with anxiety?
Well, maybe the words don’t, but the sensations caused by heart palpitations certainly do scare people.
In fact, it’s the main topic of emails that I get from people who contact me with questions.
And given that this anxiety symptom is so common among anxiety sufferers, I thought it would be helpful to do a “how to” article on palpitations.
First, a few basics. A heart palpitation is an abnormal beating of the heart AND your heightened awareness of your heart beat. Palpitations can cause your heart to beat fast (tachycardia), slow (bradycardia), flutter, or to even have ‘skipped’ heart beats (PVCs).
Heart palpitations can be caused by electrolyte imbalances, adrenaline, anemia, heart disease, arrhythmias, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), and of course, anxiety disorders. There are more causes, but the ones listed are common.
Now, because heart disease could be involved, it’s always a good idea to see your doctor if you’re experiencing new or ongoing heart palpitations.
No need for fear, this is mainly a precaution to safeguard your health and your sanity. When you go to your doctor he/she will run an ECG and take some blood. If the results come back negative, then you can start your efforts to stop your heart palpitations without having to worry about having a heart attack.
How Palpitations Work
When related to anxiety, heart palpitations are triggered by the fight or flight response. If you’ve had problems with anxiety for any length of time then I highly recommend that you get acquainted with this term.
This is because the fight or flight response is the source of much of your misery, and a detailed understanding of it can help you to reduce stress. Because with knowledge comes less guess-work, more facts, and less anxiety.
So then, the fight of flight response is essentially your sympathetic nervous system gone wild. When you become scared, nervous, and worried, your brain will trigger a fear response, which, in turn, causes your body to undergo a few changes, like:
- Cold/Hot flashes
- Dilated pupils
- Urge to urinate
- Tunnel vision
- Muscle tension
It’s also important to point out that palpitations are almost always accompanied by anxiety and panic.
Part of what also happens when the fight or flight response is triggered is that the brain signals the body to release stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, in preparation for violent action. But, in your case, there is no action to be taken.
The adrenaline and cortisol however still get injected into your bloodstream, where it acts on the nerves of the heart and causes palpitations. So, in most cases, it’s adrenaline causing all the havoc but, there could also be other causes.
These elements are important in maintaining proper voltage levels in the body, and are also critical to muscle function. The heart, as we all know, is a big muscle. If these electrolytes become imbalanced then palpitations can occur.
This is because electricity and contraction are what makes your heart beat and keep a rhythm. If there is a disruption in the electrical impulse, or the contraction of your heart muscle, then you get things like a fast, slow, or weak heart beats.
How to Stop Heart Palpitations
There are several ways to stop palpitations. If you’ve been cleared of heart disease by your doctor the following techniques can be effective.
1. Balancing electrolytes: When it comes to matters of the heart, the four most important electrolytes are potassium, calcium, sodium, and magnesium. If any of these electrolytes become too high or too low then palpitations may result.
A simple blood or urine test will tell your doctor if this is the case. If you have excessive/deficient levels of electrolytes then you can speak with your doctor about how to bring them back into balance.
In general, this would mean taking supplemental vitamins or increasing/decreasing the consumption of certain foods.
List of foods rich in the four major electrolytes include:
Potassium – See full list here.
- Orange Juice
- Wheat bread
Calcium – See full list here.
- Dairy Products
Sodium – See full list here.
- Dairy products
- Frozen foods
- Snack foods
- Canned food
Magnesium – See full list here.
- Cooked soybeans
- Peanut butter
2. Diet: Diet is an important part of any anti-palpitation strategy. Here are a few more examples.
Foods that you want to eat more often would include:
- Fresh fruit and Vegetables
- Whole wheat foods
Foods and activities that you should try to avoid include:
- Foods that contain caffeine like chocolate, soft drinks, etc.
3. Hydration: Water is a fundamental part of what you are. If you don’t drink enough water then even mild dehydration can create palpitations. You don’t need to go overboard and start walking around with a gallon of water, either. Many of the foods you eat already have water in them, but it’s still a good idea to drink about 5-8 8 oz cups per day.
4. Medication: You may also want to talk to your doctor about medications. Doctors will usually prescribe beta blockers, which block the effects of adrenaline on the body. This would be a good option after experiencing palpitations for a prolonged period of time.
5. Valsalva Maneuver: This technique can be used to stop a fast heart beat. First, pinch your nose and close your mouth. Next, breath out forcibly. The idea is to strain as if you were trying to defecate while holding your breath. This will cause a quick spike in heart rate, followed by a slowing of the heart rate. If you have heart disease, or are advanced in age, please do not try this maneuver.
6. Coughing: Coughing vigorously causes pressure to build in your chest, which “squeezes” your heart back into a normal rhythm. This is not a preventative measure, so do it when you’re actually having a palpitation.
7. Cold Water: Splash cold water on your face. This technique works well for palpitations and panic attacks. The idea behind this is that the cold water shocks your nervous system back to normal. The water should be as cold as possible.
8. Relax: Palpitations can strike at anytime, even while you sleep. As a result, they tend to startle you and make you feel as if you’re going to die at any moment.
This is why it’s important to not rush around in a panic, thereby adding stress to your racing heart. It’s best to have a seat, breath deeply from your stomach, and chill out for a moment.
9. Exercise: Exercise might sound like the opposite of what you want to do when you know that palpitations can occur. But after a good workout your blood pressure and heart rate will generally decrease.
This is why it’s not unusual for highly conditioned athletes – like Lance Armstrong – to have very low resting heart rates. A normal resting heart rate is between 70-80 beats per minute. People that have conditioned bodies, on the other hand, can get their heart rates down in the 50’s or lower.
Let’s not forget that the heart is a muscle, and if it is worked, it will get stronger and more efficient and what it does. So despite the apparent contradiction, exercise is a great way to cope with palpitations absent any heart disease.
Caution: If your palpitations are accompanied by dizziness, blurred vision, chest pain or shortness of breath, then it could be something more serious. The unfortunate reality is that panic attacks and intense anxiety can mimic symptoms of a heart attack.
One of the tell-tale signs of something serious is severity and duration. If you have chest pain or the like continuously for more than a few minutes, and if the pain is severe, you likely have a problem. Always err on the side of caution though and get checked out if you’re just not sure.
If, on the other hand, you’ve already been screened for heart disease and nothing was found, wait. Be patient and wait about ten minutes and the symptoms will usually die down on their own.
I know that heart palpitations can be frightening, but they are usually not dangerous. That’s why I encourage you to see your doctor if you haven’t already. Because once you’re cleared medically, you will have the confidence needed to cope with the fear tied to palpitations.
Understand that heart palpitations are a very normal part of having an anxiety disorder and stress in general. When they happen don’t over think things and start jumping to conclusions. Instead, try some of the techniques outlined above and try the best you can to not shock yourself with fear. I hope this helps.