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AFib and Anxiety

Anxiety and Afib: Know the Difference and Learn the Signs

It is an understatement to say that we live in uncertain times. Simply turning on the news can lead many of us to a pounding heartbeat or shortness of breath. It is important — now more than ever — to recognize these types of symptoms and understand what may be causing them.

Medically reviewed by Dr. Andy Manganaro, MD, FACS, FACC

Published on 7/21/2021

Part 1: Is that pounding heartbeat an anxiety attack or Afib?

Afib, or Atrial Fibrillation, occurs when the top two chambers of your heart beat erratically and out of rhythm with the lower two chambers. This can happen in short bursts or show up as a chronic condition. Afib symptoms are usually sharp and immediate. Those with Afib have reported feeling including dizziness, weakness, fatigue and chest pain.

What Are Afib Symptoms to watch for?

You may be experiencing atrial fibrillation if you feel:

  • Your heart skipping beats
  • A fluttering in your chest
  • Acute chest pain
  • Shortness of breath

People with anxiety will also recognize these signs, as they can also be signs of a panic attack. While the signs are similar, the causes are very different, so it is important to understand the differences between the two.

The Difference Between Afib and a Panic Attack

The main difference between Afib and a panic attack is what makes it happen. Afib has a physical trigger that sends a surge of electrical impulses through your heart, causing it to get out of sync with itself. In this case, there might be no external factors or warning signs to let you know you are about to have an episode.

Panic attacks, on the other hand, usually come from a source of stress or anxiety. This psychological pressure then results in the physical pain of an anxiety attack.

Understandably, it’s hard to tell what exactly is happening in the moment. However, knowing how to tell the difference between the two can make a big difference.

  • Gradual vs. Immediate – Afib comes and goes much more quickly and intensely than a panic attack. Panic attacks tend to start small, gradually build to a climax and then slowly ease off.
  • Emotional Response – Panic attacks start in your mind, so they often come with a strong emotional element such as fear or dread. Sometimes this happens before an attack while other times it’s a response to the physical distress. Afib, on the other hand, is a purely physical issue and won’t have any emotional warning signs to go along with it.
  • Heartbeat – Afib is in some ways similar to a muscle spasm, in that it causes your heart to beat erratically. This usually feels like a flutter in your chest or you might get the sensation that your heart is skipping a beat. Panic attacks are different. If you have a panic attack, you’ll feel your heart start to beat faster, but it should always stay in a steady rhythm. Think of a drummer beating faster vs. totally off-beat.

Afib Screenings: The Best Way To Diagnose Atrial Fibrillation

The first step in dealing with any issue is knowing exactly what’s causing the problem. In this case, there is a specific Afib screening that doctors can do to find out if it’s at the root of what’s causing you discomfort.

There are several ways that doctors can screen for Afib, including a chest x-ray, blood test or a stress test. However, the most popular is an EKG screening, which is painless, non-invasive, and doesn’t require the removal of any clothing.

The main benefit of an Afib screening is that once you know the source of your condition, doctors can put together a strategy to treat it. If you’re curious, there is plenty of information available on how to best prepare for a screening.

Part 2: How to Manage Anxiety When You Have Afib (And Vice Versa)

Can Anxiety Cause Afib?

While they are two separate issues, there are studies that suggest anxiety can trigger Afib episodes. This can be good news and bad news for those who suffer from anxiety.

It’s not the easiest thing to do, but those with AfIb can lower their chances of an episode by finding ways to keep their stress levels down. Anxiety can make Afib worse, so avoiding any kind of anxiety triggers is even more important than usual for people who have both.

Afib and Managing Anxiety

There are all kinds of methods and resources available to help people reduce stress and anxiety levels. Some of the ones you’re probably familiar with are healthy exercise, taking nutritional supplements and using a licensed therapist.

Those are great, but people who also have Afib should focus on methods that control and steady their heartbeat. Breathing exercises are particularly helpful, as well as simple things like listening to soothing music and always doing your best to remove yourself from stressful situations. If you’d like a guide, there are lots of excellent mindfulness apps you can try that are completely free.

If you suffer from chronic anxiety symptoms, you should definitely speak to your doctor if you haven’t already.

Lowering Your Risk For Panic Attacks

Lowering your risk for anxiety attacks is hard; stressful situations are just a part of life. But if you can find the things that work best for you and cut down on just a few sources of stress, you’ll be doing a lot better. And, of course, just being healthier, in general, is always going to make you feel better, mentally and physically.

Lowering Your Risk For Afib

Lowering stress levels naturally has a positive impact on your overall health and decreases your likelihood of developing atrial fibrillation. Besides that, there are lots of different lifestyle choices you can make to keep your heart healthy:

  • Don’t smoke
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Maintain healthy cholesterol levels
  • Manage your alcohol and caffeine intake
  • Stay physically active

Schedule Your Afib Screening

At Life Line Screening, we have 20+ years of experience helping people by providing vital early detection services, and we urge you to share the results of your screenings with your doctor. If you have any urgent concerns about your health, please go directly to your physician for examination.