How to Calm Your Anxious Heart

How to calm your anxious heart

Symptoms of anxiety are often mistaken for a heart attack, and it’s easy to see why. Anxiety triggers a release of stress hormones that act on the same parts of the brain regulating cardiovascular functions. These include heart rate and blood pressure. You may experience physical symptoms of anxiety as a result, such as those below.


Physical symptoms of anxiety

  • Headache
  • Lightheadedness
  • Heart or chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling hot and sweating
  • A slow heart rate (bradycardia)
  • Stomach problems, such as gas or diarrhoea
  • An irregular heartbeat, such as skipping beats
  • Palpitations, like a fast fluttering or pounding sensation

If you are experiencing palpitations due to anxiety, they may come on and stop quickly, lasting a few minutes. Palpitations lasting longer than a few minutes may be due to a heart condition, such as atrial fibrillation or arrhythmias.

Other symptoms

  • Feeling tense
  • Sleeping issues
  • Nervousness or trembling
  • Intrusive traumatic memories
  • Difficulty relaxing or concentrating


Difference between stress and anxiety

Stress is the way your body responds to a particular trigger or situation. Under normal circumstances, it is a short-term state that subsides naturally. Anxiety is a sustained long-term feeling that can affect many aspects of your life, including your work and social life.

Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) is a common non-cardiac cause of chest pain. It can cause excessive or persistent worry for six months or longer. You may also experience sleep problems, feelings of tension, irritability or restlessness, and problems concentrating.


Anxiety and its impact on your heart

People with GAD are more likely to suffer from heart attacks and other heart problems. If you already have heart disease, anxiety symptoms increase your risk of a heart attack. Scientists believe there may be several reasons for this. 

Prolonged anxiety can alter your body’s stress response and cause inflammation. This damages the linings of the artery and can cause a build-up of coronary plaque.

Stress hormones can disturb your heart rhythm, cause high blood pressure and a greater risk of a heart attack. Studies show that people with anxiety have low levels of omega-3 fatty acids, linked to a higher risk of heart disease. Additionally, the platelets become more viscous (thick) when a person has anxiety or depression, making the blood likely to clot.

A diagnosis of heart problems can also lead to increased anxiety which may increase the risk of further heart problems. People may develop unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as smoking, drinking or eating unhealthy food, which can also damage heart health.


How to treat anxiety

There are many ways you can help yourself if you suffer from anxiety. GPs run a scheme called Reading Well Books on Prescription that gives you free access to beneficial books.

It’s vital to take good care of your physical and mental health, as feelings of stress and anxiety can significantly impact your life. Stress, anxiety, and depression caused 50% of all working days lost to ill health in 2020/21. This shows the need for more awareness on managing stress and anxiety in our daily lives before it becomes a bigger problem. The following techniques may help you learn how to slow your heart rate when you’re anxious. 


Self-help therapies

A way to do this might be to dedicate a particular time of the day to focus on what is worrying you. You could write your worries in a notebook or on paper pieces and put them in a jar. That way, they are not going round and round in your head. 

Simple breathing exercises can help with anxiety, such as taking slow, deeper breaths can calm the body’s stress response. Mindfulness and meditation can be helpful ways to cope with anxiety.

If self-help treatments aren’t enough, other treatments are available.


Professional help

Talking therapies, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, focus on how your thoughts, attitudes and beliefs affect your behaviour and feelings. It teaches you new coping skills for dealing with your problems. Applied relaxation therapy teaches you how to relax your muscles during stressful situations.

Medication can be helpful for some people. You may require antidepressants if you have depression or a drug called pregabalin for GAD.

We sometimes use beta-blockers to treat physical symptoms such as palpitations and a rapid heartbeat. In the case of severe anxiety, a benzodiazepine tranquilliser may be necessary, but these can be addictive. A low dose and short course of drugs are normally recommended.


Panic attacks

Many people with anxiety experience panic attacks. A panic attack is an exaggerated fear response to a perceived danger or stress. Your symptoms may come on rapidly. Your heart may feel as if it is racing, and you might struggle to breathe.

You may also feel:

  • Faint or dizzy
  • Nauseous
  • Very hot or cold – trembling or shaking
  • Disconnected from your mind, body or surroundings

If you are experiencing panic attacks, speak to a healthcare professional. Certain heart problems can be mistaken for panic attacks, leading people to seek help later.


Book an appointment

Long-term anxiety can lead to problems with your heart and vice versa, leading you to experience various concerning symptoms. Your symptoms may seem unconnected to you, though a heart specialist can help determine the cause of your problems.

Our cardiologist offers a thorough consultation and assessment process to identify the cause and recommend the most appropriate treatment. Book an appointment today to get started.

About the author

Dr. Syed Ahsan
Dr. Syed Ahsan,

Dr Syed Ahsan is a Consultant Cardiologist and Heart Rhythm Specialist at the Bart's Heart Centre. Having previously worked as a consultant at the Heart Hospital, University College London he has moved to the Bart's Heart Centre, the largest cardiac centre in Europe, following the merger of the two hospitals. He is one of the leads for Atrial Fibrillation here. He is also a consultant at North Middlesex University Hospital where his practice encompasses all aspects of adult cardiology. In his current role, Dr Ahsan sees and treats many different cardiology conditions. He is a high volume operator who routinely implants all types of cardiac pacing resynchronisation and defibrillator devices, performs ablations for arrhythmia and coronary angiography. He also sees and treats patients with blackouts, chest pains and high blood pressure.

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