To ease your fear, consider seeking therapy, learn the difference between anxiety and heart attack symptoms, and practice stress reduction techniques.

Many people, particularly those with a history of heart problems, often worry about the possibility of having a heart attack.

But when your fear of a heart attack is greater than the risk of having one, you might have cardiophobia — an anxiety disorder centered on fears around heart-related issues. People with and without heart problems can experience this condition.

Anxiety over heart attacks, also called “heart-focused anxiety” or “cardiophobia,” is relatively common, especially among people with high stress levels or risk factors for heart disease.

Research from 2018 suggests that heart-focused anxiety may be a major factor of non-cardiac chest pain (NCCP), a common occurrence that results in 2%-5% of emergency department (ED) visits.

What is cardiophobia?

Cardiophobia is an anxiety disorder marked by excessive fear related to the heart and the belief of having a heart condition, even when there’s no medical evidence.

The disorder may also occur in people who have had a heart attack or other heart-related health issues and then developed anxiety and fear related to their heart health.

For people with cardiophobia, their fear and anxiety outweigh actual physical health concerns.

Cardiophobia is similar to other anxiety-related conditions, including illness phobia, health anxiety, and panic disorder.

Managing cardiophobia can be challenging, but here are some tips that may help:

  • Seek professional help: Reach out to a mental health professional who specializes in anxiety disorders. They can provide therapy and strategies tailored to your needs.
  • Educate yourself: Learn about the physical symptoms of stress, anxiety, and panic attacks to differentiate them from heart issues.
  • Practice relaxation techniques: Deep breathing, mindfulness, and progressive muscle relaxation may help calm anxiety and reduce physical symptoms.
  • Gradual exposure: With the guidance of a therapist, slowly confront situations that trigger your fears and learn to manage them.
  • Physical activity: Regular exercise can help reduce anxiety and improve your overall well-being. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise most days of the week.
  • Medication: In some cases, medication may be prescribed to alleviate severe anxiety symptoms.

A case study published in 2020 highlights the potential benefits of brief, strategic exposure therapy for cardiophobia. The study involved a 64-year-old man with heart palpitations and anxiety about a heart attack. He was treated using brief strategic therapy in an outpatient cardiac rehabilitation unit.

The therapy aimed to address behaviors like constant heartbeat checking and seeking reassurance. After three sessions, his symptoms improved significantly.

The causes of cardiophobia, or the fear of having a heart attack, can be complex and may involve a combination of factors.

Here are some potential causes and contributing factors:

  • Anxiety disorders: Around 20% of people with non-cardiac chest pain seeking help in EDs have panic disorders. Research from 2016 suggests that mental health disorders, particularly anxiety and somatic symptom disorders, are common among people with heart palpitations.
  • Physical symptoms: The same 2016 research suggests that benign (non-serious) palpitations can lead to major distress and impairment in people due to the anxiety and discomfort associated with palpitations. Also, anxiety can cause heart palpitations or shortness of breath and be misinterpreted as signs of a heart attack.
  • Previous traumatic experience: If you’ve experienced a heart attack, witnessed a loved one go through one, or had other traumatic cardiac events, you may be at greater risk of developing cardiophobia.
  • Family history: A family history of heart disease or heart attacks can heighten concerns about personal risk, even in the absence of symptoms.
  • Stress and trauma: High chronic stress, unresolved trauma, or major life stressors may contribute to cardiophobia. Stress hormones can affect heart function and heighten anxiety.
  • Personality traits: Specifc personality traits, such as neuroticism or a tendency to catastrophize, can make people more prone to developing cardiophobia.

Distinguishing between anxiety and a heart attack can be challenging because anxiety can mimic the physical symptoms of a heart attack. However, some key differences may help you separate the two:

  • Pain characteristics: Heart attack symptoms usually involve persistent and severe chest pain or discomfort and other symptoms like shortness of breath, nausea, and cold sweats. Anxiety-related symptoms include fleeting sensations of rapid heartbeat, sweating, and tension that improve when stress levels go down.
  • Duration: Heart attack pain lasts for several minutes or longer. Anxiety-related discomfort is shorter and linked to stress.
  • Triggers: Heart attacks can occur without warning. Stress often triggers anxiety-related symptoms.
  • Response to medication: Heart attack pain does not respond to anxiety medications.
  • Medical history and risk factors: Heart attack risk increases with heart disease and related factors. Anxiety can be linked to a personal or family history of anxiety.

Persistent anxiety over a heart attack can severely affect your quality of life and relationships. To alleviate this fear, consider learning about anxiety and stress symptoms and how they differ from those of a heart attack.

Also, therapy or counseling, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), could be options to address anxiety and learn to develop coping strategies.

Mindfulness, regular physical activity, and adopting a healthy lifestyle may help you manage stress. By following these steps, you may be able to gradually reduce anxiety about a heart attack and enhance your overall well-being.