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How to Slow a Fast Heart Rate

by 
author image Dr. Tina M. St. John
Tina M. St. John runs a health communications and consulting firm. She is also an author and editor, and was formerly a senior medical officer with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. St. John holds an M.D. from Emory University School of Medicine.
How to Slow a Fast Heart Rate
Breathing exercises can help slow your heart rate. Photo Credit: skyNext/iStock/GettyImages

Your body possess a complex, sophisticated system that controls your heart rate from moment to moment. Various nerves throughout your body continuously monitor your blood pressure, oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, blood pH, body position and other parameters that reflect your current physical and emotional state.

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Cardiovascular control centers in your brain collect and integrate the input from these nerves, and transmit signals to your heart's pacemaker to maintain, increase or decrease your heart rate. All of this occurs outside your conscious awareness.

However, you can often voluntarily slow your heart rate by taking measures to influence signals sent to your brain's cardiovascular control centers. If your heart is beating too fast because of a medical problem, medications and other interventions can be used to slow your heart rate.

Reduce or Stop Physical Activity

Your level of physical activity serves as one of the strongest influences on your heart rate. As your level of physical activity increases, so does your heart rate. This adjustment ensures that your active muscles receive the increased blood flow they require without shorting blood and oxygen delivery to your brain and other organs.

Reducing or stopping physical activity typically results in fairly rapid slowing of your heart rate. You can observe this response in real time if you use a fitness or activity tracker than monitors your heart rate.

Slow Your Breathing

Your circulatory and respiratory systems work collaboratively, and the activities of one influence those of the other. The closely intertwined relationships between your breathing, heart rate and blood pressure is known medically as cardiorespiratory coupling.

Slowing your breathing normally reduces your heart rate. This is true even if you are not breathing faster than a typical rate, as noted in a December 2017 review article published in the journal Breathe.

Several mechanisms are thought to contribute to this effect, including an increased volume of air taken into your lungs with each breath and more efficient gas exchange in your lungs, among others. Practicing diaphragmatic breathing or slow yogic breathing exercises, or pranayama, can help you learn to slow both your respiratory and heart rates.

Relax

Your mental state and emotions influence your heart rate, sometimes in a dramatic way. Fear, anxiety, worry, nervousness and stress activate a part of your involuntary nervous system called the sympathetic branch. This arm of your nervous system triggers the fight-or-flight response and controls the cardiovascular and respiratory adaptations that take place when you exercise.

As you might expect, increased sympathetic nervous system activity in response to mental or emotional stress commonly leads to a fast — sometimes racing — heart rate. Relaxation can help reduce your sympathetic system's exaggerated response to psychological or emotional stress.

Discovering what relaxation technique works and suits you best might take some experimentation. Popular techniques include meditation, visualization, progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing and prayer.

Other Considerations, Warnings and Precautions

A fast heart rate sometimes indicates a short- or long-term health problem, some more serious than others. Certain types of heart rhythm problems, or arrhythmias, and anxiety disorders associated with a rapid heart rate can often be successfully treated with medication. More serious arrhythmias frequently require placement of a pacemaker to control the heart rate.

See your doctor as soon as possible if you notice your heart rate is frequently or persistently fast without an obvious cause, such exercising. This is especially important if you have existing heart disease, experience a decrease in your exercise capacity, notice a lump in your neck, or are unintentionally losing weight.

Seek emergency medical care if you experience a fast and/or irregular heart beat accompanied by any warning signs or symptoms, including:

  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting
  • Chest pain, tightness or discomfort
  • Chills, unusual sweating or cold, clammy skin
  • High fever
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