Heart skipping a few beats? Or is it more like a racing, pounding or fluttering feeling in your chest that’s caught your attention?
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Our heartbeat isn’t something we’re usually aware of, so it’s only natural that when your heart goes off beat, it can catch you off guard.
There are a lot of reasons for heart palpitations, and many of them aren’t anything to worry about too much. Maybe you overdid it on the coffee. Or you’re low in magnesium. Or you’re experiencing some extra stress these days.
Most heart palpitations that are short-lived and don’t come with other symptoms, like a high heart rate, dizziness or feeling “off,” can usually be managed at home.
“Always trust your gut,” says cardiologist Tamanna Singh, MD. “If you’re worried that something dangerous is happening, call 911. If you feel a change in your heartbeat but it doesn’t worry you much, you can try some things at home and see if you can get it under control.”
We talked with Dr. Singh about ways you can stop palpitations from home — and when to see a healthcare provider STAT.
Stop your palpitations fast
If your heart is fluttering, there are a few home remedies you can try to slow things down. The idea is to calm your body and give your heart a chance to catch up.
Some of the most common triggers for heart palpitations are related to situations that activate that “fight or flight” response (also called your sympathetic nervous system). That means your body is being triggered to think it’s in danger and is gearing up to defend you from whatever it perceives as a threat. Things like too much caffeine, nicotine, stress and anxiety can kick your fight or flight mode into high gear.
You can help calm your racing heart by downshifting into the more cozy “rest and digest” response (the work of your parasympathetic nervous system).
Dr. Singh shares her advice for what to do when your heart beats to its own tune.
1. Try not to panic
Let’s say it again. Oftentimes, a random heart palpitation is nothing to worry about. And worrying about what’s happening is likely to make it worse.
“When we worry and stress, our heart rate speeds up as your body enters a ‘fight or flight’ response,” Dr. Singh says. “If you’re having palpitations and you tense up and your mind races with worry, it’s probably going to make the palpitations worse.”
2. Take some deep breaths
Deep breathing is one of the best ways to calm your mind and your racing heart.
“When we fill up our body with oxygen, it helps to let our system know that we’re OK. There’s no danger here and we don’t need to be on guard for attack,” Dr. Singh explains.
She suggests the box breathing technique, also called 4×4 breathing.
- Inhale as you count slowly to four.
- Hold your breath for a count of four.
- Exhale as you count slowly to four.
- Hold your breath for another count of four.
- Repeat that pattern a few times.
You can try for a higher number than four, too, if it feels good. The idea is that you inhale, hold, exhale and hold again for the same amount of time.
3. Try these vagal maneuvers
Another route to calm your heart and activate your parasympathetic nervous system are actions called vagal maneuvers. These physical actions activate your vagus nerve — a long nerve that connects your brain to your belly. It works as your heart’s natural pacemaker. And it helps control your heart rate. When it’s activated, it helps slow your heart rate and take you out of that fight or flight response.
How do you activate your vagus nerve? Try these actions:
- Tense up your muscles and bear down like you’re trying to have a bowel movement.
- Form your mouth like a letter “O” and exhale hard, like you’re trying to blow through a straw.
- Splash cold water on your face.
Depending on your health and your condition, it’s possible a healthcare provider may recommend your try vagal maneuvers that are more intense — putting your face in a bowl of cold water, rather than giving it a splash, for instance. These more extreme vagal maneuvers should only be done after talking with a healthcare professional. Keep the intensity down if you’re doing them on your own.
Keep palpitations from coming back
Identifying any triggers that are leading to your heart palpitations can help you get to the heart of the matter. Once you know what the cause may be, you can take steps to avoid your triggers.
Some common causes of palpitations include:
- Low electrolyte levels.
- Magnesium deficiency.
- Alcohol use.
- Feeling stressed, anxious or nervous.
Dr. Singh suggests that if you have frequent palpitation, keep a journal and write down when they happen and what you’re doing to see if you can identify potential causes. You can also keep track of patterns that way. Note the intensity of the feeling, how long they last and so on. That way, you can provide your healthcare provider with some details about what’s going on.
When to see a healthcare provider
In a lot of cases, your random pounding, fluttering or racing heart is perfectly normal. But if you’re experiencing any other worrying symptoms, like a high heart rate, pain or dizziness, it’s time to see a healthcare provider.
“If you’re having palpitations and you feel very unwell, it’s best to get emergency care,” Dr. Singh states. “But if you feel OK and are just having some on-and-off racing or pounding episodes, it’s usually something that you can manage at home. But it’s probably worth it to bring it up to a healthcare provider at your next visit just to be sure.”