Signs and Symptoms

Chronic Stress: Dealing with Heart Palpitations

By Lara Schuster Effland, LICSW

When our hearts start doing funny things, it can feel scary and may even cause panic. We may fear a heart attack or that we have heart problems. More often than not, when heart palpitations or a "racing heart" are caused by stress or anxiety, they are harmless. Should you be concerned when your heart is racing?

In this blog, Lara Schuster Effland discusses how heart palpitations and a racing heart might be signs of stress and anxiety.

“My heart is running a 100-meter dash. My heart flip flops. My heart is pounding, and it won’t slow down.” These words are commonly said by my patients with anxiety.

When our hearts start doing funny things, it can feel scary and may even cause panic. We may fear a heart attack or that we have heart problems.

Here’s what might be happening, though: our bodies may be responding to current stressful situations in our lives, creating more adrenaline and cortisol to prepare us for action (the fight or flight response). This increases our heart rate when we feel anxious or overwhelmed. And, when our heart races, it makes us feel even more anxious and overwhelmed.

How Can You Know if Your Heart is Racing Because of Anxiety?"

More often than not, when heart palpitations or a “racing heart” are caused by stress or anxiety, they are harmless. So, should you be concerned if your heart is racing? 

  • At least one study has shown that less than half of those with heart palpitations had heart disease. 
  • One-third of the remaining cases were due to psychological causes, such as anxiety. 
  • No cause was found in 16 percent. 
  • The rest of the cases were triggered by thyroid overactivity, anemia, and drug ingestion, including caffeine.  

If you are concerned about heart palpitations, it’s important to consider the setting. Have you been under stress lately? Are you worried about something? When you feel stressed and have a racing heart, it is best to try stress-reducing activities to help communicate to your body that it’s time to calm down. Meditating, walking, exercising, knitting and other hobbies are all great options. Try anything that exerts some type of energy to use up the stress hormones, while also relaxing the mind.

However, if you are concerned about ongoing heart issues, please call your doctor. And, make sure that you are taking care of yourself and reducing stress.

Lara Schuster Effland is Regional Managing Director of Clinical Operations for ERC, Washington and Senior Clinical Director of ERC Insight’s Mood, Anxiety, and Trauma Related Disorders Program.

Related Reading

Reference: Weber, B.E. & Kapoor, W.N. (1996). Evaluation and Outcomes of Patients with Palpitations. Am J Med. 100 (2): 138-48.

Learn about World Mental Health Day

The intent of World Mental Health Day, sponsored by the World Health Organization (WHO) is to raise awareness of mental health issues around the world and to mobilize efforts in support of mental health. 

  • Half of all people with mental illness will show signs before the age of 14. Sadly, most of these individuals will not be identified as having a health problem. No treatment will be provided.
  • Drug and alcohol use among adolescents is prevalent in many countries. This is highly risky behavior as it can lead to unsafe sex and impulsive, dangerous driving.
  • In those between the ages of 15 and 29, suicide is the second leading cause of death. 

Drug/alcohol use and suicide are signs of mental health issues. Treatment and intervention for these issues is available and can be highly effective. It’s never too late to admit that you need help. It’s never too late to make a phone call to a therapist, a crisis hotline or even a friend. It’s never too late to make a change.

We offer these resources to you, to help you give yourself or a loved one a better experience in this life.

  • To speak confidentially with one of our Master’s-level counselors about treatment options for mental health issues, please call us at 1-877-711-1690.
  • If you are facing a life-threatening emergency, please call 911.
  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers free, confidential support to people in distress at 1-800-273-8255

The call you make may save a life.

Written by

Lara Schuster Effland, LICSW

Ms. Effland has been working in the field of eating disorders for 13 years in multiple levels of care throughout the country. Ms. Effland received her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Oberlin…