AFib or Anxiety?

Is it atrial fibrillation or a panic attack?  In people with anxiety or depression, it may be difficult to determine if a racing heart or breathlessness is a symptom of AFib, a risk factor for stroke and heart failure, or a result of anxiety.  And to complicate matters, research out of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine has found that people with AFib as well as anxiety or depression are more likely to misperceive their heart symptoms.

Patients with AFib in addition to a diagnosis of anxiety or depression may believe vague symptoms such as a fluttering in the chest, anxiety or fatigue are symptoms of atrial fibrillation which only worsens their anxiety and increases the likelihood of actually going into AFib.  A panic attack can create a rapid heart rate and the stress induced by anxiety can in turn trigger AFib. 

Treating mental health conditions like depression and anxiety is important for all adults, but especially for patients with atrial fibrillation.  Having AFib increases the risk of a stoke by four to five times and strokes caused by AFib tend to be more severe.   Advancing age, high blood pressure, obesity, a European ancestry and diabetes are among the leading risk factors for AFib. 

In addition to treating AFib with medications or surgery,  a healthy lifestyle can also help patients manage their symptoms and risk factors.  Researchers suggest that in addition to medically treating depression and anxiety, patients with AFib should consider starting a regular yoga practice which can help reduce stress and in some cases has been found to put atrial fibrillation into remission. 

With the help of a mobile ECG (electrocardiogram)app, a home monitor and a doctor’s prescription, patients with AFib can quickly determine if their heat rate is normal or abnormal.  Technology like the ECG Check app from Cardiac Designs can help patients with anxiety or depression get quick results about their heart health, halting the cycle of increased stress leading to increased risk for AFib and in turn, worsening anxiety.  Talk with your doctor about devices available in your area. 

Common Symptoms of AFib

(Some people with AFib have no symptoms and are unaware of their condition.)

  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Heart palpitations (rapid, fluttering, or pounding)
  • Lightheadedness
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain

Source:  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention