How Can I Tell if My Palpitations are Due to Stress or a Heart Condition?

By Dr Reginald Liew

Heart Rate

Felling your heart beat abnormally is an unnerving sensation. You may be tempted to make an appointment with your doctor immediately. If you have other alarming symptoms, this might be a good idea, but if this is your first time experiencing a palpitation, it may be nothing. Heart palpitations can be caused by something as simple as drinking too much coffee, but it can also be a sign of a severe health concern. The following article will give you information on the causes of heart palpitations and if yours could be caused by stress or a more serious heart condition.

What are palpitations?

Heart palpitations feel different depending on the person and what causes the palpitation. To some, it may feel like their heart skips a beat. Others may feel like their heart is flitting or fluttering. Still, others may just feel like their heart is beating extra hard or extra fast. Additionally, some people feel the palpitations in different areas of their body besides the chest, such as the neck or back. Some people may not even notice it’s their heart that is causing their discomfort and only feel uneasy, anxious, or sweaty.


With as many ways that palpitations can feel different to different people, there are as many causes for their palpitations. Ingesting too much caffeine is a common cause, as are stress, anxiety, and overexertion. Some other factors that can cause palpitations that may be unrelated to serious health concerns are:

  • Dehydration
  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • Low blood sugar
  • Low blood pressure
  • Fever
  • Low potassium levels
  • Excessive excitement
  • Overeating chocolate

Conditions and diseases that may be more serious and can cause heart palpitations include:

  • Diabetes
  • Anemia
  • Heart valve problems
  • Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy
  • Congenital disabilities
  • Overactive thyroid
  • Hypotension

How do you tell the difference?

Now that you know how many things can cause palpitations, how do you tell if yours are being caused by something serious or if you just need to cut down on coffee? If the palpitations are few and far between, you probably have little to worry about concerning your heart health. Be sure to be aware of what you are doing when the palpitations occur. Did you just finish an intense workout? Have you drunk enough water during the day? It could be something simple, so being aware of the circumstances surrounding your palpitations can give you valuable insight.

Additionally, be sure to document what the palpitations feel like and if you have any other symptoms. Click a pen or tap a finger to be aware of what your heart rhythm is doing. Is there anything else abnormal about your body’s functioning? You might feel dizzy, sweaty, or confused? Be sure to note your heart rhythm and symptoms so you can better describe to your doctor the way you feel.

Diagnosing Heart Palpitations

As with any concerning health symptoms, see your doctor about heart palpitations if you can’t rule out any common issues, like alcohol or exercise. Several tests can be run to diagnose or rule out certain health conditions. Your primary physician will start by listening to your heart through a stethoscope for any irregularities. They will also check your blood pressure and usually run blood tests to check for anemia, potassium levels, and sugar levels. Chest x-rays may also be ordered to provide imaging of your heart and lungs. Depending on the results of these tests, they may send you to a specialist for further testing.

Specialists will usually start with an electrocardiogram. This test measures your heart patterns for irregularities, but it only lasts for a few seconds. Because this is such a short measure, your doctor may fit you with a device that can be worn for a single day up to a few weeks. The device records your heart rate and rhythm through sensors placed on your chest that feed your vitals to a recording device you keep in your pocket. Your doctor will then analyze the data for any irregularities. If your condition needs more long term monitoring, some devices can be implanted in your body that will record heart-related data for a year or more.

What can I do to stop palpitations?

Your doctor may prescribe you medication or therapies to help reduce the frequency of heart palpitations or stop them altogether. If your palpitations aren’t due to a severe condition and happen infrequently, there are some measures you can perform to help prevent these irritating events.

  • Deep breathing, yoga, and meditation - all of these actions help keep your focus on controlling your body and breathing, which helps regulate your heartbeat.
  • Cold water - Splashing cold water on your face, putting your face in a basin of cold water, or placing a cold towel on your neck will lower your body temperature, which helps to slow your heartbeat.
  • Limit or eliminate stimulants - caffeine, alcohol, many drugs, and nicotine all increase your heart rhythm, so cutting out these substances can reduce palpitations.

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