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Anxiety and Atrial Fibrillation: Similar Symptoms but Not the Same

Anxiety and Atrial Fibrillation: Similar Symptoms but Not the Same

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc across the globe, eliciting emotions ranging from nervousness and fear to extreme worry. For some, simply turning on the local and national news has triggered stress and anxiety leading to racing, pounding hearts and shortness of breath. But what if these symptoms are indicators of something more?

When it comes to matters of the heart, experts caution not to ignore or dismiss any symptoms for they could be warnings of the most common type of irregular heartbeat: Atrial Fibrillation or AFib.

Anxiety or Atrial Fibrillation?

In stressful situations, anxiety can cause the body to mirror similar symptoms of AFib, but it’s important to note that both are different medical issues.

Anxiety is an intense feeling of worry or unease prompted by pressure or stress from an everyday situation. It can be brought on by fear of certain activities or thoughts that become all-consuming to the point they interfere with normal, day-to-day routines.

Symptoms of anxiety may include:

  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Rapid or pounding heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Trembling

An extreme form of anxiety is panic disorder, which can cause panic attacks that strike without warning and feel similar in experience to a heart attack. While extremely uncomfortable, panic attacks are not dangerous but if you experience them, you should be evaluated by a physician to ensure symptoms aren’t related to a more serious heart health issue.

AFib is an arrhythmia (or irregular heartbeat) that occurs when the upper chambers of the heart (the atria) beat out of rhythm with the lower chambers (the ventricles), causing blood supply for the body to slow down. Because of the atria’s rapid and irregular beats, blood may be more likely to clot in those with AFib. This causes concern for strokes, as according to the American Heart Association, 15 to 20 percent of people who have strokes have this arrhythmia.

For some, AFib, symptoms may not be apparent, leaving their condition to be diagnosed by a physician. Others may encounter similar symptoms to anxiety, including one or more of the following:

  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Fluttering or “thumping” in the chest
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Sweating

While it’s understandable that symptoms of AFib and anxiety may be mistaken for one another, there are differences. AFib, for example, originates from a physical action of different electrical impulses rapidly firing at once, causing the heart to fall out of rhythm with itself. Anxiety, such as a panic attack, is often caused by a source of emotion, such as stress or fear. It may start small and slowly build to where your heart beats faster (but in a steady rhythm), whereas AFib may be more of an immediate and intense experience with your heart feeling like it is fluttering or skipping a beat.

Additionally, the risk to develop AFib increases with age, specifically after 60, whereas bouts of anxiety can start at childhood.

Tips to lower your risk

While two distinct medical issues, the good news is that you can potentially lower your risk of AFib and anxiety by following one or more of these healthy tips:

  • Avoid drinking alcohol.
  • Limit your caffeine intake.
  • Refrain from smoking or using illegal drugs.
  • Maintain a healthy diet with regular exercise.

Experts also suggest lowering your levels of stress by performing breathing exercises or finding ways to relax. These simple actions can go a long way to enhance your mental and physical health. But, remember, if you do experience signs or symptoms of either anxiety or AFib, talk with your doctor about personalized treatment options that will help you live and experience your best life.