The signs of atrial fibrillation (AFib) and panic attacks often overlap, making it incredibly difficult for people to figure out why the tachycardia is happening. Here is how experts tell the difference is it because of Afib or anxiety.
We compiled all the practical information on anxiety and heart rate, you should know about. So, the next time you experience an AFib episode, you won’t mistake it for a panic attack or vice versa.
What Makes AFib and Panic Attacks So Similar?
According to the CDC, up to 6.1 million people in the U.S. are living with AFib. That’s almost 12% of the country’s population. While 4.7% of American adults experience a panic attack at least once in their lifetime, published the National Institute of Mental Health.
Both of these conditions have a complex relationship. Researchers estimate that patients with AFib are highly more affected by anxiety and depression, which can pose a serious threat to their health if they experience a panic attack.
With these debilitating mental stressors, anxiety and depression can decrease the quality of life and aggravate AFib symptoms. That’s why it is vital to understand the similarities between AFib and anxiety.
The typical AFib symptoms that closely resemble panic attacks are:
- Pain in the chest
- Tension in the muscles
- Sweaty palms
The perfect example is what experts refer to as adrenaline rush. Luckily, regardless of what you are experiencing, whether it is AFib or anxiety, these symptoms last a very short time. But, for the body to get back on track and avoid any serious health complications, it’s essential to distinguish both of these conditions. Here, we will show you exactly how to do that.
6 Ways to Tell AFib and Panic Attacks Apart
The quivering heartbeat and irregular heart-related changes are notoriously difficult to spot on their own. And when you pair it up with a panic attack, it becomes even trickier to recognize. But, there are a few ways you can differentiate the two. You just need the right tactics.
The first thing to have in mind is that both AFib and panic attacks emerge from unique sources. For example, AFib is a typical case of electrical disturbance in the heart caused by a physical stressor. At the start of an episode, the heart will send various signals through the ventricles and atria (the heart chambers).
A panic attack is different. Instead of getting triggered by a physical stressor, it happens as a result of a mental one.
Like during a stressful occasion, setting, or when in contact with other people. For some individuals, there is no cause, but they still experience a panic attack.
Here are a few telltale signs you can use to spot the difference.
1. Type of Heartbeat
Did you know there are different types of heartbeats? That’s right; the heartbeat rhythm can have a different pattern, which can help you figure out what you are going through.
The heart rate during a panic attack is constantly rapid, while during an AFib episode, it is erratic.
If the heart feels like it skips a beat, quickens, and then slows down, you are probably experiencing an AFib episode. But, if the heartbeat is constantly quick without fluctuating at all, you are most likely having a panic attack.
This is a typical outcome for anxiety and heart rate.
2. Frequency Decline
Watch out for the rate of declining and building symptoms. For example, AFib is trigged by chaotic electrical signals or a physical event. That’s why the symptoms of an episode appear suddenly. When the signs dissipate, so does the episode. However, the process will repeat itself unless the patient receives proper treatment.
With a panic attack, the irregular heartbeat anxiety gradually worsens. First comes the discomfort, then the quickened heart rate, and the rest of the symptoms, like chest pain and muscle tension. It will take time before the signs dissipate, but when they do, there is no guarantee they will come back.
3. Different Pains
It’s true that both panic attacks and AFib can make your chest hurt. The quicker the heart rate, the tenser the muscles become. People experience a dull pain in the chest, but most of them feel the pain on different levels.
For AFib patients, the pain is centered, intense, and specific. It targets a certain spot on the chest that shouldn’t be ignored.
Anxiety is closely linked to feelings, events, and experiences. When there is something troubling you, you would have to deal with that stressor so that the signs subside. The pain affects the entire chest and feels like a pressing sensation as if something is holding on to the entire chested area.
If you experience this type of pain, no matter if it is AFib or anxiety, get medical assistance immediately. You might be dealing with a more serious health issue.
4. Emotional Triggers
Emotions have a major role to play in diagnosing the problem. First of all, people who experience a panic attack usually describe it as a feeling of doom. A pressuring feeling that puts a lot of weight on the chest. It is also accompanied by helplessness and fear, both of which serve as fuel to the panic.
Aside from the quickened heartbeat, an AFib episode is not that closely associated with emotional responses.
Afib is more of a physical problem rather than an emotional one.
5. Medical History
Your medical history can come in handy when trying to differentiate AFib from panic attacks. If you’ve been diagnosed with any psychiatric difficulty, like depression or anxiety, you might have higher odds of experiencing panic attacks. Also, having a history of panic attacks can be another clue.
According to Dr. Stephen Sobel, an expert psychiatrist from San Diego, if you have experienced panic attacks before, you might be prone to developing another one. But, AFib is different.
AFib usually runs in the family, particularly for individuals with a history of arrhythmias or cardiac illnesses.
Another telltale sign people usually ignore the age. Age is a prominent factor in developing heart conditions.
In younger individuals, it is more likely that the quickened heart rate is the result of a panic attack rather than a chronic condition.
Panic attacks or anxieties usually develop in the early stages of life, especially during the teenage years. In some individuals, they can appear as late as their 30s. If a healthy woman were to experience tachycardia, doctors would often recognize it as an anxiety disorder or a panic attack.
But, if someone in their 60s, 70s, or 80s, is admitted to the hospital for tachycardia, they will most likely get treatment for AFib.
How to Manage AFib?
Even though an AFib episode won’t put your life in danger, you need to know the right ways to manage it. Otherwise, it can lead to a series of health complications, like stroke or heart failure, advises Medical News Today.
There are many ways you can stop an episode. It’s best to try all of them and see which one will work ideally for your health condition. Here are some of the more practical solutions to keeping the problem in check:
- Taking deep and slow breaths. This kind of slow and steady breathing gives the mind enough time to relax. The key is to inhale through the nose all the way to the stomach. Then, count to 4 before you slowly exhale through the mount.
- Drinking plenty of water. Water is an excellent way to stay hydrated, but it’s also efficient for keeping the heart rate steady. If your episode is the result of dehydration, drinking water can help stop the symptoms.
- Practicing aerobic. Aerobic seems to be a practical way of engaging the muscles and stopping an AFib episode. It’s a low-impact activity that’s easy on the heart and can help keep the blood flow pumping.
- Yoga stretches. Many people underestimate the importance of yoga. But, these kinds of stretches are more than capable of stabilizing breathing and preventing an AFib episode. Regular yoga sessions can significantly reduce heart rate, blood pressure, and improve quality of life. All of these effects are necessary when dealing with AFib.
- Keeping a healthy weight. Obesity and overweight are known contributors to heart conditions, which is why they can also cause an AFib episode. But, as long as you keep your weight within the healthy ranges, you will less likely experience one.
How to Manage Panic Attacks?
Panic attacks are slightly more difficult to manage than AFib. Depending on the triggers, they can leave a lasting impact on someone’s emotional health. Here are some of the most efficient ways you can try to manage the symptoms, as advised by the NHS.
- Be open to communication. If you are experiencing panic attacks, it’s critical to be open about it. Consult with a counselor, friends, and family, and let them know of your health problem.
- Practice soothing breathing techniques. Breathing regularly and gently can come in handy. Breathe in and breathe out by counting to 5. Don’t hold or pause your breath. The key is to breathe slowly and steadily and focus on each breath—that way; the mind puts all its attention on breathing rather than the panic attack.
- Do active exercises. The heart rate during a panic attack can get really wild. Exercise is known to calm the nerves and soothe mental distress. In many cases, it can calm the panic attacks. Any kind of activity will do, as long as you find it pleasing.
- Listening to calm music. Music is a powerful tool for controlling emotions. It influences the nervous system and can relieve the unsettling triggers. To calm the panic, you would have to pick any music that you find cheerful and calming. Not the one that will make you feel angry or alone.
How to Turn the Negative Experience Into a Positive One?
Both panic attacks and AFib can be terrifying. They send the blood pumping incredibly fast and make your mind jump. That’s the moment you start focusing on the worst-case scenario. But, even the negative incident can be turned into a positive one.
What you need is to find a way to calm the anxiousness with pure will.
Instead of letting fear cloud your judgment, you should think of all the positive things in life. Anything that can make you laugh. While the symptoms won’t disappear from positive thinking, they will be much easier to manage.
Confidence, dedication, support, and relaxation can help you achieve that. As long as you focus on these factors, you can regain your control.
When to See a Doctor?
Don’t underestimate either of these conditions. If you are experiencing uncomfortable chest pain, whether it is from a panic attack or AFib episode, it’s vital to call for medical aid immediately. In many cases, the chest pain could be a sign of a more serious health condition. Therefore, you have to make sure you are safe and receive proper treatment.
If you have a medical history of heart problems, try to get regular check-ups. That way, the doctor can constantly monitor your health state and come up with a way to manage the problem safely. However, it doesn’t mean that you need to visit your doctor all the time. Now you can make everyday check-up with portable electrocardiogram devices and your smartphone anywhere and anytime.
Most people think panic attacks and AFib are impossible to differentiate. But that’s not true. In fact, there are more ways than one you can use to your advantage. Whether you decide to pay attention to Afib or panic attack the triggers, pains, or medical history, you will quickly notice the difference.
All the tips we listed here can help you stay on track. Once you figure out what you are dealing with, you can select the right management method. Then, you can try and turn the negative experience into a positive one.
Did you find our guide helpful? Have you tried any of these methods before? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.