Symptoms like a racing heart, dizziness and shortness of breath can be scary — especially when you experience them all at once. While they could be your body’s reaction to a high level of anxiety, don’t dismiss these symptoms as nothing serious: They could also point to a more serious heart condition called atrial fibrillation.
Learning more about the similarities between anxiety and atrial fibrillation can help you understand when you should get help from your trusted doctor. Both conditions can be treated with success to help you live your best life.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a feeling of nervousness, fear or worry. If you’re in a stressful situation, such as preparing for an important event, it’s normal to have some anxiety. In fact, it helps you be alert and cope with challenges.
But when symptoms interfere with your everyday activities or happen unexpectedly and for no apparent reason, it can be difficult to know whether they’re truly a result of your anxiety or a more serious health condition.
Symptoms of an anxiety attack include:
- Fatigue or weakness
- Rapid or pounding heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
Anxiety disorders are very common, and they sometimes run in families. The most extreme form of anxiety is panic disorder, which can make you feel like you’re having a heart attack or even dying.
- Anxiety disorders are caused by excessive worry or fear
- Anxiety can cause restlessness, irritability, worry and sleep problems
- Panic disorders can cause panic attacks, which bring more intense symptoms
- Panic attacks may cause trembling, sweating, feeling short of breath and a fast heartbeat
What is Atrial Fibrillation?
Atrial fibrillation, or AFib, is one of the most common types of irregular heartbeats. If you have AFib, your heart beats much faster than normal. It also beats irregularly, which means your body doesn’t get enough blood.
Atrial fibrillation can happen for just a few hours or last up to a week or longer. For some people, atrial fibrillation lasts more than a year. It causes symptoms such as:
- Chest pain
- Dizziness or fainting
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
- Shortness of breath, especially when lying down
If atrial fibrillation isn’t treated, it can lead to serious health problems such as stroke, heart failure or heart attack.
I Have Symptoms—What Should I Do?
If you have any of these symptoms, you should see your doctor. Whether anxiety or AFib is the cause, both conditions can be treated. More importantly, the consequences of AFib are too severe to take chances with your health.
Your doctor may ask if you have any close relatives with an anxiety disorder or a heart arrhythmia. Both these conditions can sometimes run in families. You’ll also have a physical exam and you may have imaging or other tests that can diagnose AFib.
You can help your doctor make the most accurate diagnosis by paying attention to how you feel during an episode. Keep track of these aspects of your symptoms:
- How long they last
- If they start and end suddenly
- If your heart beats erratically
- When they occur
Your age can also be a clue — AFib is more likely as we get older, while anxiety attacks can begin in childhood.
Lowering Your Risks
Anxiety and atrial fibrillation have something else in common: You can lower your risks for both with similar steps. Follow these guidelines to help avoid these conditions and stay healthy overall:
- Avoid drinking alcohol
- Don’t smoke
- Don’t use illicit drugs
- Eat healthy foods
- Get regular exercise
- Manage your stress
Trust Your Primary Care Doctor
If you have symptoms that could point to anxiety or AFib, seek medical advice right away. Your primary care physician (PCP) can help you determine the cause of your symptoms, get you started with treatment or refer you to a specialist who can help. If you don’t have a personal physician, the primary care doctors at AdventHealth are ready to care for you with skill and compassion, setting you on the path to recovery and whole health.