Can Anxiety Cause You To Have Atrial Fibrillation?

If you regularly experience anxiety, have an anxiety disorder, or experience anxious tendencies, you may find yourself worrying about a plethora of things. Excessive worrying is a common symptom of anxiety, according to Mayo Clinic. Anxiety can make worrying seem insurmountable at times, so figuring out how to minimize how often you worry and what you worry about is a goal of successfully managing life with anxiety. 

In addition to the stress and tension that worrying can bring about, are there other effects of worrying that you should know about? Should your heart health be something you legitimately worry about if you experience anxiety? In short, the answer is that being informed about your health and keeping unwanted health conditions at bay is an important part of maintaining overall well-being.

Anxiety and heart health can certainly go hand-in-hand. Johns Hopkins Medicine reports that anxiety can potentially contribute to the development of heart disease, while the stress and trauma of a heart attack or other heart condition can be the catalyst for anxiety. Understanding how anxiety and heart health affect each other can help you manage your overall health. For example, anxiety can negatively impact sleep due to restlessness, intrusive anxious thoughts, and insomnia, which in turn can place stress on the heart and cardiovascular system. Because people who experience anxiety often live in a fight-or-flight mode, additional strain on the heart can occur. When the heart is placed under stress, conditions like atrial fibrillation can occur.

A rapid heart rhythm can be dangerous

Atrial fibrillation, or A-fib for short, is a heart condition characterized by an irregular heart rhythm that is generally unusually fast, otherwise known as an arrhythmia, per Mayo Clinic.If left untreated, atrial fibrillation can result in blood clots forming in the heart and arteries, as well as potentially leading to other heart conditions and more serious complications like stroke. When A-fib occurs, the heart's upper and lower chambers beat out of sync with one another. Typically, the heart's atria, which consists of the two upper chambers, will experience an irregular and highly chaotic beating rhythm when A-fib is present. A lot of people experiencing atrial fibrillation don't have any symptoms, while others with A-fib report having rapid, pounding palpitations of the heart, difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, and general weakness. Some people may have episodic A-fib that comes and goes, but others experience frequent, continuous episodes of the condition. Atrial fibrillation on its own traditionally isn't life-threatening, but managing a rapid, pounding heartbeat is essential to prevent the onset of graver health conditions.

Of the heart conditions to which anxiety is believed to be a contributing factor, atrial fibrillation is one of them (via MedicalNewsToday). There are many reasons why anxiety is believed to be a potential cause of A-fib, including their mutual link with inflammation. Like other heart conditions, anxiety and atrial fibrillation can each provoke the other and create a cycle of negatively compounding each other.

How anxiety and atrial fibrillation are related

Anxiety and atrial fibrillation have been found to be linked in several ways. A 2019 study published in Cardiology Research and Practice examined the relationship between the two conditions and found that they share the commonality of inflammation, particularly systemic inflammation and oxidative stress. Anxiety has even been found to make a person more prone to atypical blood clotting, which could be a potential link to A-fib. The study found that approximately 1%-2% of the population is affected by atrial fibrillation, with a rising incidence rate as people age. The presence of anxiety can increase the risk of developing A-fib; but, likewise, an atrial fibrillation diagnosis can lead to a rise in anxiety.

In addition to inflammation, the increased activity of the sympathetic nervous system that often comes with anxiety, the component of the mental health condition that instigates a person's fight-or-flight response, can lead to an overproduction of a stress-causing chemical in the body called catecholamine, reports MedicalNewsToday. When its levels are high, catecholamine can induce a heart condition called cardiomyopathy, which can make the heart vulnerable to atrial fibrillation. 

To compound A-fib caused by anxiety, depression, which is commonly co-morbid with anxiety, has also been linked to increased rates of the heart condition. However, there is good news in that antidepressant medication can possibly lower both anxiety and depression, and in turn, reduce the risk of atrial fibrillation.

Managing anxiety and preventing atrial fibrillation

The best way to prevent anxiety from leading to atrial fibrillation, and vice versa, is to take key steps to lower stress and manage episodic rises in hormones that cause a fight-or-flight reaction, per Mayo Clinic. Effective ways to manage stress and lower anxiety include practicing meditation, mindfulness, and deep breathing. Doing yoga and incorporating relaxation techniques into your daily life are also productive ways to lower stress, anxiety, and cortisol. Aim to engage in regular exercise, which can be as minimal as a light walk each day or a short bike ride.

Eating a healthy and balanced diet can also help your body stay in peak condition, which in turn can improve both your mental health and heart health. 

Lastly, utilizing a support network of family, friends, and medical professionals is key in managing both anxiety and cardiovascular health.

Medications can also be used to manage rapid heart rhythms and control anxiety (via MedicalNewsToday). Antidepressant medications have been studied and found to be effective in lowering the risk of developing atrial fibrillation if a person experiences anxiety alongside cardiovascular concerns. Additionally, medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) have also been proven effective in reducing inflammation and anxiety while protecting heart health. 

Always consult with your doctor or healthcare professional if you have concerns about your health.