Similarities, differences, and links between AFib and anxiety attacks
So many common symptoms of atrial fibrillation resemble classic anxiety symptoms that characterize panic attacks: heart palpitations, chest pain, muscle tension, and sweaty palms that come with an adrenaline rush are good examples.
Luckily, these symptoms are generally short-lived, whether it’s an AFib episode or a panic attack. However, in order to treat your body properly and sidestep potential complications down the road, it’s important to distinguish the two conditions.
Looking out for the telltale signs
AFib is notoriously tricky to diagnose on your own, but there are some signs that can help you tell panic attacks and AFib episodes apart. It’s important to keep in mind that the two syndromes stem from different sources: AFib is an electrical disorder that sends a mess of signals through the chambers of the heart, but a panic attack typically won’t have a physical cause. Rather, it’s triggered by events in your environment, stressful situations, or sometimes happens for no apparent reason at all.
Here are a few markers that can help you tell the conditions apart:
Rate of decline. Pay attention to the rate of building and declining symptoms. Since AFib is triggered by a sudden physical event (overactive electrical signals), AFib episodes typically hit suddenly. When the episode subsides, so will the symptoms, but the cycle tends to repeat until treatment is administered. With a panic attack, heart rate can start to creep up as other discomforts manifest, and after the attack hits a peak, heart rate will gradually return to normal as the other symptoms dissipate.
Nature of the heartbeat. The pattern or rhythm of a heart beat can also tell you what’s going on: a panic attack typically brings a constant rapid heart rate, while AFib causes an erratic heart rate. If your heart seems to be skipping beats, or speeding up then slowing down and speeding up again, it’s more likely that AFib is to blame.
Related emotions. Panic attacks often bring what people describe as a sense of doom: a heavy and urgent feeling like something very bad is about to happen. This fear and helplessness is tough to shake and can feed the panic that brought it on. While an erratic heartbeat isn’t pleasant, AFib doesn’t usually bring such a severe emotional response.
Type of pain. AFib and panic disorders can both bring on chest pain as the heart races and muscles tense. A dull chest pain is not uncommon, but everyone experiences pain differently. When AFib hits alongside another heart disorder, the pain can be more specific and intense – and it’s never a good idea to ignore. If you get any chest pain during an attack or episode, see your doctor to investigate further.
Anxiety is a very personal experience, and can be troubling, but take comfort in the fact that it will subside. Unfortunately, AFib may not go away without some help, so you’ll want to make sure you know what you’re dealing with as soon as possible.
Relieve anxiety, reduce AFib
Anxiety and AFib play off each other, and that’s no good for your body or your mind. If you know that anxiety triggers your AFib, make it a priority to get the stressors in your life under control as you craft a more heart-healthy routine.
If anxiety is too much to bear, don’t suffer alone – talk to your doctor about adding anxiety medication to your health management. You may not need to take it every day, only when things get very bad, but knowing that you have something on hand for emergencies can go far to reassuring yourself that you’ll get through the panic should it strike again.
Next, add exercise. Workouts don’t need to be strenuous, but they do need to be regular: you’ll see more positive physical and psychological results when you commit to exercising several times a week. If you’re not sure where to start, you may first want to meet with your doctor and a trainer to measure your current level of fitness, so you can choose an appropriate workout that respects your limits.
Turning a negative into a positive
A panic attack or an AFib episode can bring a rush of frightening energy, as adrenaline courses through your body and your mind jumps to worst case scenarios. You could try to wait it out and distract yourself with an activity, but sometimes it’s impossible to calm your anxious response by sheer will.
Instead, you might try to turn the rush of fear into a rush of excitement: force yourself to think of an exciting event or possibility, or simply start dancing and laughing. It sounds counterintuitive, but you may be able to flip the nature of your feeling from bad to good, and although this probably won’t make your symptoms go away, they will become easier to handle.
Relaxation, support, confidence, and commitment – these are the ingredients of a smart and effective management plan for AFib and for anxiety. If either set of symptoms begins to take over your thoughts and lifestyle, it may be time to seek a new perspective or professional guidance. The good news is that there are plenty of techniques that can interfere with the AFib-anxiety cycle, and help you regain some control.