The fear of a heart attack can be so intense that you may experience symptoms of one — this condition is called cardiophobia.
The beating of a person’s heart is one of the key vital signs that indicate they’re alive, so of course, the thought of it stopping is scary for anyone.
But the fear of heart trouble can become more problematic in some cases.
It’s possible for any fear to snowball to the point where it interferes with a person’s daily life. At that point, it becomes known as a phobia — an intense and irrational fear of an object or situation that involves anxiety and avoidance symptoms.
Cardiophobia is a little-known anxiety disorder where a person becomes obsessed with fears relating to their heart.
There are several possible causes of this anxiety. Perhaps you’ve witnessed someone having a heart attack or even been told that you have a chance for a cardiac event. And sometimes, as with many phobias, there’s no clear trigger for the condition.
Cardiophobia is an anxiety disorder where a person becomes fixated on the possibility of having cardiac problems, particularly a heart attack.
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With cardiophobia, a person may also seek constant reassurance from loved ones and medical professionals, often making repeated visits to doctor’s offices. But they’ll then continue to fear the worst, even after testing has proven that their heart is fine.
Like most phobias, the fear is irrational and so can’t be easily soothed even by concrete evidence.
Cardiophobia isn’t as widely known or studied as many other phobias, and it’s not clear how common it is. But according to a 2008 analysis, it affects hundreds of thousands of people across the United States.
Cardiophobia shouldn’t be confused with hypochondria, which is a separate and seemingly more common condition.
Hypochondria is an outdated term for what’s now called illness anxiety disorder and involves an intense preoccupation with becoming seriously ill, which is excessive or disproportionate based on the situation.
You have fear of a heart attack because you’re experiencing one or more symptoms that might mimic it. The preoccupation with those symptoms then is called somatic symptom disorder.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR), cardiophobia falls under the category of “specific phobia,” which is classified as an anxiety disorder.
The criteria include:
- intense fear or anxiety about a specific object, situation, or activity
- the fear or anxiety is disproportionate to the actual danger posed
- the fear or anxiety causes clinically significant distress or affects the person’s ability to function
- the person makes active attempts to avoid the situation
- shortness of breath
- rapid heartbeat
- pain or tightness in the chest
- feelings of numbness or pins and needles
- feeling faint
Cardiophobia, like any phobia, activates the sympathetic nervous system, which directs the body’s involuntary response to a dangerous or stressful situation.
Known as the fight, flight, or freeze response, this is a natural reaction to a perceived threat. But in a person with a phobia or other anxiety disorder, this reaction can become over-active, triggering panic attacks.
There’s some significant overlap between symptoms of a panic attack and those of cardiac arrest. Specifically, pain and tightness in the chest, shortness of breath, dizziness, and sweating can all be indicative of a heart attack but may also be part of the fight, flight, or freeze response.
This overlap can cause significant distress for a person with cardiophobia and lead to a vicious cycle. The more anxious they become, the more their heart races and their chest tightens, which in turn heightens their fear that they’re experiencing a cardiac episode.
Without medical testing, there’s no way to know whether a given symptom is caused by a heart condition or anxiety.
If you believe that you may be having a heart attack, it’s crucial to seek medical attention immediately. But if you have a history of intense fear about your cardiac health, and medical testing has ruled out any underlying physical illness, then consider speaking with a healthcare or mental health professional about the possibility that you may have cardiophobia.
There’s no specific treatment for cardiophobia, but several treatment options are available for phobias.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective treatment for many phobias, including cardiophobia, according to a 2020 case study.
CBT focuses on identifying unhelpful or self-destructive thought patterns and replacing them with more positive ones. For someone with cardiophobia, this approach could help them untangle the mental link they’ve made between harmless symptoms (for example, an increased heart rate) and their worst-case scenario (having a heart attack).
Exposure therapy is another option. This approach is often used in treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and involves gradually introducing a person to a stimulus they fear under a trained professional’s supervision. It can help them regain control over their fear and manage triggers more effectively in everyday life.
People with cardiophobia often go out of their way to avoid activities that might exacerbate their symptoms, such as cardiovascular exercise. So, exposure therapy might involve moderate physical activity, with the intensity gradually increasing as the person becomes more able to tolerate the symptoms.
Over time, weakening the mental link between physical symptoms (such as an increased heart rate) and the feared outcome (a heart attack) is possible.
Systematic desensitization is a tool that may be used in the course of exposure therapy. With this tool, you may be gradually exposed to the feared object or situation while simultaneously practicing relaxation techniques to combat your physical anxiety symptoms.
A 2020 study shows that systematic desensitization can greatly reduce phobia-related anxiety.
If you think you may have cardiophobia or know someone who’s affected by the condition, there are several places you can go for support.
Here’s a list of resources and articles that you may find helpful, ranging from general information to personal stories about life with the condition:
- National Alliance on Mental Illness — Anxiety Disorders
- The Doctors – What Is Cardiophobia and How Common Is It?
- Ireland Baldwin Opens Up About Cardiophobia, “A Fear of My Own Heartbeat”
- Good Housekeeping – After Heart Surgery at 35, My Family’s History Has Me Terrified for the Future
- National Alliance on Mental Illness – How I Cope with Health Anxiety
Cardiophobia can be a frightening and intense condition to live with. Though it shares symptoms with many other phobias, cardiophobia can be especially challenging to deal with because the symptoms of anxiety and cardiac problems can mirror each other, leading to a vicious cycle of physical agitation and anxious thoughts.
Like most phobias, cardiophobia can be treated with approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy and systematic desensitization.
By learning to recognize the symptoms as they arise and disentangle them from your anxiety about your health, you may start to see an improvement both physically and psychologically.