Have you ever worried about the feeling of your heart thumping in your chest? I know I have. Sometimes, after exercising or running to catch a train, I wonder whether it’s normal that my heart races so much. It turns out, it totally is, says Mariell Jessup MD, FACC, FACP, FAHA, cardiologist and American Heart Association (AHA) Go Red for Women staff expert. In many ways, your heartbeat is simply information—and there are numerous situations where it’s 100 percent normal for it to race. Below, Dr. Jessup breaks down six instances so that you can have some peace of mind even when you’re in any of the following heart-rate-boosting situations.
1. When you go from resting to rushing
Suddenly ramping up what you’re doing requires more energy, which requires more oxygen, which is why you breathe harder and feel a faster heartbeat, Dr. Jessup says. It’s also possible you’re experiencing emotional distress if you are about to be late, and this can impact your heart as well.
Stress hormones, like adrenaline, spike in rapid-response situations, which increases heart rate and breathing, Dr. Jessup says. However, once you’ve sprung into action and completed your task, your adrenaline doesn’t lower immediately. So you may find your heart is still pounding even though you’re calm.
2. When your environment is stimulating
“Stress, fear, arousal, and anxiety can cause your heart to race, which can happen when you’re in a new situation. This is a normal and natural response from the body,” says Dr. Jessup. This could range from taking a test, auditioning for a role, or leaning in to kiss a date for the first time.
Taking some deep breaths in the bathroom can help, if you feel like your heart is doing flips. Diaphragmatic breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system which can decrease the “fight or flight response” initiated by the sympathetic nervous system, according to the Mayo Clinic. As your breath becomes slower, your brain registers that it’s time to relax and slows fight or flight functions like your heart rate.
3. When you’re angry or stressed
Strong emotions like anger and stress can also trigger your “fight or flight” response in the body’s sympathetic nervous system, Dr. Jessup says. Adrenaline will raise your heart rate, similar to how it raises it for intense physical activity. There’s nothing wrong with experiencing occasional anger or stress; however, chronically elevated stress levels can negatively impact your mental health and heart health, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), so it is important to make sure that your stressors aren’t constantly raising your heart rate.
4. When you lay down for the night to sleep
Your cardiovascular system responds to changes in gravitational forces that come with shifting positions: whether that’s lying down, standing, or sitting. As a result, some folks experience heart palpitations when lying down due to their specific position, hydration levels, or stress.
If your heart races at night, it isn’t usually a cause for concern unless accompanied by fainting, dizziness, chest pain, or shortness of breath. If you have any of those symptoms in tandem with heart palpitations, you should reach out to your doctor immediately, Dr. Jessup says.
5. When you drink coffee or caffeinated beverages
Caffeine consumption is one of the most common reasons why the heart races because it’s a chemical that directly stimulates receptors in the heart to beat faster, according to the Mayo Clinic. Dr. Jessup also says that caffeine can cause the heart to contract with more force. If you’re experiencing heart palpitation, it’s helpful to drink water when coffee is a staple in your diet, she adds. Why? Because coffee is a diuretic, meaning that it makes you pee more frequently, and dehydration can raise your heart rate.
6. When you consume alcohol
Consuming too much alcohol can cause the heart to race – the more you drink, the faster your heart beats. Alcohol makes blood vessels dilate, which means the heart has to pump more blood to keep the same amount circulating through the body, Dr. Jessup says.
Alcohol is also a diuretic. (Remember what we said about dehydration and heart rate?) So water can help your heart and hangover risk when you’re drinking. Alcohol impacts the body in the short term by raising the heart rate, but long-term heavy alcohol consumption can impact your heart health by raising your blood pressure, which can put you at risk for heart diseases like heart attack and stroke.
At the end of the day, this is an incomplete list—there are many reasons your heart races. It makes sense to worry about what is and isn’t normal, but listening to your body is the best way to make sure something worse isn’t going on. For instance, any chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness, fainting, or nausea accompanied by irregular heart beating is a sign you should seek immediate medical care. In the long term, Dr. Jessup recommends managing mental health, substance use, diet, and water intake, to keep your heart steady and strong.
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