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Stress, Anxiety and Atrial Fibrillation

When you’re stressed or anxious, the effects cast a much wider net than an overactive brain and influence your physical health, especially your cardiovascular health. This connection is evident with many heart conditions, like high blood pressure and certain arrhythmias, such as atrial fibrillation.

To give you a better idea about the complex relationship between stress, anxiety, and atrial fibrillation, Dr. Van De Bruyn and our team here at Heart Rhythm Associates pulled together the following.

The physical effects of stress and anxiety

To paint the best picture of the intricate relationship between stress, anxiety, and atrial fibrillation, let’s take a closer at each side of the equation before we connect them.

When you have anxiety or stress, your body goes into a fight-or-flight response that’s initiated by your sympathetic nervous system. As a result, hormones are released (such as adrenaline) that cause physiological responses in your body, including:

This change of blood flow is designed to help you fight or flee as it diverts blood from the surface of your skin to your muscles, legs, arms, and brain.

As you can see, many of the physical side effects of stress or anxiety stem from your cardiovascular system, which explains why higher-than-normal levels of stress can burden this same system.

Behind atrial fibrillation

There are many types of arrhythmias, but atrial fibrillation is the most common. AFib, as it’s called, occurs when the two upper chambers of your heart — your atria — beat irregularly. AFib can occur in episodes or remain a constant problem.

 AFib doesn't always cause symptoms, but when it does, these symptoms may include:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the prevalence of this type of arrhythmia is expected to reach more than 12 million people in the United States by the year 2030.

The link between AFib and anxiety

Research is ongoing as to whether anxiety or high levels of stress can directly cause AFib, but we do know that they can exacerbate an arrhythmia. In fact, studies have found that negative emotions such as anger, as well as stress, can trigger atrial fibrillation.

As we saw with our review of the fight-or-flight response in your body, it’s little wonder that relaxation techniques like yoga and deep breathing are part of an overall treatment plan for many cardiovascular issues, including AFib. 

By calming your sympathetic nervous system, you can better regulate your heart rate and breathing, leaving your heart less vulnerable to irregular heartbeats.

The other link between anxiety and AFib is one that’s blurred. The symptoms of an anxiety, or panic, attack are very similar to those that come with AFib. The two are so alike that scores of people go to the ER thinking they’re having a heart attack, when, in reality, anxiety is the culprit.

Ultimately, there’s much we still have to learn about the connection between your brain and your heart, but we are beginning to appreciate the potentially large role that your mental health can play in your cardiovascular health.

If you’d like to learn more about the relationship between stress, anxiety, and atrial fibrillation, please contact our office in Little Rock, Arkansas, to schedule a consultation.

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