Can anxiety cause a slow heart rate

Can anxiety cause a slow heart rate?

Anxiety is a frightful experience which can manifest with many unpleasant symptoms, one of which is a slow heart rate, also known as bradycardia.

Not all bradycardia incidences are as a result of anxiety, and may even be a symptom of a more serious life threatening condition such as heart disease or even an underactive thyroid gland. It is important that you consult with your doctor first to establish the cause of your slow heart rate.

Many people can understand why you would experience a rapid heart rate during anxiety, but the reason behind a slow heart rate is not very clear. What makes a slow heart rate even scarier is the fact that it may cause you to faint which will only add to your embarrassment.  When this happens it is known as vasovagal syncope. A more commonly used name is emotional fainting.

Emotional stress like that which you experience during an anxiety or panic attack can cause your autonomic nervous system to malfunction. Your autonomic nervous system is responsible for maintaining a regular heart beat and normal blood pressure. During times of stress this nervous systems stops its influence on your body abruptly. At the same time your vagus nerve can become exited and then slow down your heart rate to induce a slow heart rate or bradycardia. Usually this is accompanied by a drop in your blood pressure (hypotension). Together these two events can cause you to faint, especially if you are in an upright position. Some studies have suggested that this response is due to some remaining primitive reflex system which responded to an attack by a predator. If you appeared to be dead (low heart rate, low blood pressure and fainting) chances are that the predator would not attack you and your chances of survival would be better.

The good news is that we are not food to predators anymore. The bad news is that emotional fainting can be very embarrassing, especially if it happens in public, which in turn can increase your anxiety which of course can raise the possibility of another vasovagal syncope attack. To stop this vicious cycle you seriously need to treat your anxiety. Treating your anxiety will make all of its associated, bad symptoms disappear.

Cognitive behavior therapy or CBT is a very effective form of psychotherapy and it is the one type of treatment that can offer you long term benefits. Its aim is to teach new ways of dealing with stress as well as challenging your pattern of thinking which can help you to view people or circumstances as less threatening.

You can also try some relaxation exercises on your own such as deep breathing exercises or meditation. These will however not offer you a permanent cure, but they may help you to deal with the challenges of life more easily.

While you are overcoming your anxiety, and there is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to, you can try the following simple steps to prevent you from fainting as a result of bradycardia:

  • Don’t fight your blood pressure and convince yourself that it will just go away.
  • The moment you feel the signs associated with emotional fainting like dizziness, nausea, disturbed vision or hearing, try to sit down or better yet lie down on your back with your legs in the air. If you can make a cycling movement with your legs in the air to improve your blood flow to your upper body.
  • If your symptoms are not too serious or you are unable to sit or lie down, cross your ankles and tense your calve muscles as well as your buttocks muscles tightly. This will also help to stimulate blood flow through your body.
  • Squat if you are unable to lie down.
  • Get up slowly. If you were lying down, first sit and then stand up very slowly, but only once you are feeling better.

Anxiety might be a scary companion to live with, but it does not need to be a permanent companion. With time, a little patience and some effort you can beat anxiety and lead a happy, fulfilled life.

References:

Shearer, Steven L. “Recent Advances in the Understanding and Treatment of Anxiety Disorders.” Elsevier Saunders. 2007. Anxietyandstress.com. (November 22, 2012) http://www.anxietyandstress.com/imglib/anxietyreview.pdf

“Reflex Syncope (Neurally Mediated Syncope/ Vasovagal Syncope).” STARS. 2012 Stars-us.org. (November 22, 2012) http://www.stars-us.org/files/file/STARS%20REFLEX%20SYNCOPE%20(Vasovagal%20Syncope)%20US%20Sheet.pdf

Medow, Marvin S; Stewart, Julian M; Sanyal, Sanjukta. “Pathophysiology, Diagnosis, and Treatment of Orthostatic Hypotension and Vasovagal Syncope.” Cardiology in Review. Vol 16, no 1. 2008. Utp.edu.co. (November 22, 2012) http://blog.utp.edu.co/internaumana/files/2010/10/Pathophysiology-Diagnosis-and-Treatment-of-Orthostatic-Hypotension-and-Vasovagal-Syncope1.pdf

“Neurally Mediated Syncope.” Vanderbilt Autonomic Dysfunction Center. Vanderbilt University Medical Center. 2010. Vanderbilt.edu. (November 22, 2012) http://www.mc.vanderbilt.edu/root/vumc.php?site=adc&doc=4789

“Bradycardia Prevention.” Mayo Clinic. 2011. Mayoclinic.com. (November 22, 2012) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/bradycardia/DS00947/DSECTION=prevention

“Vasovagal syncope.” Mayo Clinic. 2010. Mayoclinic.com. (November 22, 2012) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/vasovagal-syncope/DS00806

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