People with anxiety or depression may experience momentary feelings of their minds going “blank.” That’s a good time to ask yourself “Is it a panic attack or atrial fibrillation?” The difference and their reactions may save their lives.
The first step to awareness is knowing that an anxiety attack can trigger an episode of atrial fibrillation.
Likewise, people with a mood disorder may overestimate their atrial fibrillation symptoms. And, likewise, women (in particular) and patients with a diagnosis of atrial fibrillation may underestimate their symptoms.
In these cases, using a heart-event monitor as prescribed by your physician, or having an electrocardiogram (EKG) can help. And, these days, I can honestly say “there’s an App for that.” That will be the subject of our next article.
The aim of treating atrial fibrillation, the most common heart rhythm disorder, is to relieve symptoms.
➡ Your heart may race and you may feel out of breath during episodes of atrial fibrillation lasting for a minute or longer — even indefinitely.
However, some people who live with anxiety or depression disorders can overestimate what they’re feeling and confuse one with the other, according to the latest research.
A team of clinical investigators at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island as well as researchers from the University Of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, have published their findings in the journal Heart Rhythms.
458 patients were involved in the study and each wore a heart monitor for one week. The monitors showed their actual heart rhythms and then those were compared to their individual responses on questionnaires about symptoms.
➡ The results uncovered a major difference in 68 of the patients, who either overestimated or underestimated their symptoms.
According to the data obtained from the heart monitors, some individuals had atrial fibrillation less than 10 percent of the time, yet on their questionnaires, they stated that they were in “near-continuous atrial fibrillation” — more than 90 percent of the time.
➡ And, those with a diagnosed anxiety disorder or depression were the most likely to overestimate their heart symptoms, according to the study.
One possible explanation, according to the lead study author from Chapel Hill, is that very often symptoms of atrial fibrillation are vague and nonspecific, like a fluttering feeling in the chest, anxiety, and fatigue.
And all of these symptoms could be due to different causes.
But, as the lead author explains, “patients with atrial fibrillation and anxiety misperceive their anxiety as atrial fibrillation symptoms.”
As explained by him, a positive feedback loop occurs in a cycle:
➡ Patients have atrial fibrillation. ➡ This heightens their anxiety. ➡ Their anxiety increases their atrial fibrillation.
Panic attacks and tachycardia [a fast heart rate] can be difficult to distinguish. In many patients who have atrial fibrillation, their heart racing may actually trigger a panic attack.
➡ Depression, stress, and anxiety are powerful triggers of atrial fibrillation. Sometimes, it’s hard to figure out which came first, the panic or the tachycardia.
For those patients, wearing an event monitor (a Holter Heart Monitor), or even using their smartphone with one of the newer electrocardiogram apps and recording their symptoms at the time, can help determine if they’re really having an irregular heart rhythm as opposed to a panic attack.
What to Do When You Have a Mood Disorder and Atrial Fibrillation
➡ Stay aware of your heart rhythm, especially during times of stress or anxiety.
In addition to seeking professional help for anxiety, depression and other mood disorders, Yoga is highly recommended by many cardiologists.
➡ Yoga has been scientifically proven to help reduce atrial fibrillation episodes. For some patients, I have even seen that a regular yoga practice has been able to put their atrial fibrillation into remission.
Dangers of Underestimating Symptoms Of Atrial Fibrillation
Certain other patients in the study, who actually did have continuous atrial fibrillation according to the heart monitor, reported having symptoms less than 10 percent of the time.
➡ Researchers reported that those most likely to underestimate their symptoms were patients who had long-term, persistent atrial fibrillation and/or were older females—on average, aged 72 and up.
However, people with atrial fibrillation who don’t feel symptoms are still at risk for stroke and heart failure, which is why regular doctor visits are important.
Women, in particular, tend to underestimate atrial fibrillation. Many doctors speculate that heart disease in women is not recognized as quickly as it is in men because of a bias, people think it doesn’t happen to women.
The truth is that Atrial Fibrillation happens in women as much as, or more than, in men.
Women often underestimate their symptoms, particularly if they are caring for a sick loved one at home. Too often, they may be so self-sacrificing to take care of a parent, spouse, or child, that they neglect to care for their own health.
The Risks of Stroke and Heart Failure Persist
Having a diagnosis of atrial fibrillation increases your risk of a stroke five-fold, and can lead to complications like heart failure — even if you think you are having no symptoms.
Up to one-third of patients have absolutely no symptoms but are still at risk for stroke and heart failure.
➡ The biggest issue is to prevent a stroke, and that’s not affected by whether or not a patient feels symptoms. When blood clots form in the heart during an irregular heart rhythm, they sometimes travel to the brain causing a stroke
That alone is reason enough to make sure you have regularly scheduled doctor visits and report symptoms accurately to your physician…and never, ever, leave your doctor’s office without having every single question you have answered in a way you understand.
Your time matters. You matter.