What’s Happening When Your Heart Beats Too Hard or Too Fast

By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.

If there’s a type of heart palpitation that tends to cause more worry than others, it’s when the heart starts beating unusually hard or fast, seemingly without reason.

One minute you’re going about your business, and the next your heart is racing and you can’t control it!

Fortunately, most episodes of racing heartbeat are not dangerous. To accurately assess your risk, it’s important to understand what causes your heart to beat extra hard and fast, and what complicating factors could make it more than just a passing event.

Why Your Heart Might Beat Too Hard or Too Fast

A sudden change in heart rate can occur under virtually any circumstance—whether you’re working outside or sitting at a desk, or laughing or crying—which is one reason an unexpected pounding or racing heart is such an attention-grabber. While the episodes may seem to have nothing in common, it’s been my experience that most can be traced to two causes:

Hidden emotions

Whether we’re consciously aware of it or not, our heart rate reflects our emotions. A heart beating too fast or too hard can be a messenger telling us that we need to acknowledge and own stressful or negative emotions lurking just below the surface.

For example, say you’re out with friends to celebrate a big promotion or retirement. It’s a happy occasion; still, your heart starts racing. Why? Perhaps beneath your excitement, you’re also fearful about what the future holds and how you’ll cope with it. Or maybe you’ve been struggling with one of your children. You brush aside the stress and tell yourself, “It’s their life.” But then out of nowhere, while you’re doing something completely unrelated, your heart starts pounding.

Despite what we tell ourselves about our lives, the heart never lies. Our brains rationalize our guilt, shame, fear, and anger, but the heart always knows our truth—and sometimes it will beat in unusual ways to bring our attention to those issues. So if you’ve been experiencing a racing or pounding heart, first ask yourself if you’re harboring untended emotions. An honest answer to that question often will begin to resolve the heart rate issue.

Environmental hazards, like EMF exposure

When spontaneous surges in the heart rate aren’t related to emotions, I look for environmental causes. Exposure to chemicals, poor air quality, specific foods and food additives, and EMF are all potential culprits.

EMF, especially, is high on my list. Though the studies are still producing mixed results on the degree to which EMF can affect heart rate, specifically, I hear anecdotal evidence in support of the fact that it does, just about everywhere I go. On my last trip to the west coast, I met a young mother who told me that her son frequently suffers from a rapid heartbeat while at school. Since the boy is fine while he’s at home, they think the problem is due to the fact that he’s exposed to wi-fi all day long.

Wi-fi isn’t the only source of trouble, of course. Cell phones and cell phone signaling towers, microwave ovens, baby monitors, and cordless phones all emit radiation that can potentially cause the heart to beat too hard or too fast. In fact, one study found that using a cordless phone caused a disturbance in heart rate variability in 40 percent of study participants, as well as a link between cordless phone use and both elevated heart rate and an increase in the number of irregular heartbeats.

Should You Worry About a Heartbeat That’s Too Hard or Too Fast?

If a pounding or racing heart happens to you repeatedly, by all means see a doctor and get it checked out. Don’t assume that because you’re in good health, nothing is wrong. Recurrent episodes could be the first sign of emerging cardiovascular concerns.

For others, your risk when your heart beats too hard or too fast depends on two things: your heart rate variability (HRV) and the structure and function of your heart.

In people who have good heart rate variability—that is, whose hearts beat with a wide range of speed and intensity—are at far lower risk than people whose HRV is more restricted. When a heart with poor HRV is suddenly pushed to its limit, more serious events can occur.

You also have more risk if your heart is compromised in some way, as a physical abnormality has the potential to disrupt the electrical signals that govern the heartbeat. Heart attack survivors, especially, are at risk because their hearts have areas of scar tissue. Not only must the normal electrical signals travel around these areas, but the scar itself can sometimes be a source of ectopic beats. Sudden increases in heart rate have the ability to scramble the electrical signals and excite the source of ectopic beats, leading to potentially fatal arrhythmia.

Minimize Your Risk From a Racing Heart

For everyone, the best way to minimize risk is to improve your heart rate variability. To start, work on managing your stress, and find ways to bring balance into your life, such as yoga, meditation, or prayer. I also highly recommend grounding, since it helps calm the autonomic nervous system. Finally, stay away from environmental pollutants—and limit time on your cell phone or other wireless device!

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