One of the most common traps people who suffer with physical anxiety fall into is measuring their physiological responses, most notably heart rate and blood pressure. In this post I'll explain why doing so causes increased physical symptoms, potentially many more panic attacks as well as a rapidly-developed obsession over your body’s physiological state.
Please note: This post assumes that you've been examined and cleared by a medical professional for any other ailments besides anxiety for your symptoms. I am not a physician or a professionally trained therapist, I speak from experience of my own previous panic disorder/health anxiety and from my time spent helping others to overcome their own.
A Quick Note on Palpitations and High BP
As most of us know by now, if we are anxious, our heart rate increases dramatically along with our BP. Less of us know that these physical responses are completely harmless. It's important to remember that whilst experiencing a fast heart rate or high blood pressure, your body isn't telling your mind anything other than "You're panicking" or that you think something is wrong, rather than there actually being something wrong.
“If you've been checked and given the all-clear by the doctor, palpitations aren't telling you the doctor made a mistake or missed something; they're telling you that you think they made a mistake or missed something. There's an enormous difference.”
You can also experience palpitations even when you’re calm. Even when they appear seemingly "out of the blue", they still aren't dangerous. They don’t mean anything other than your heart is beating fast because it needs to at that given moment to pump more blood around the body, whether due to exercise, fatigue, caffeine, anxiety or any other reason. Therefore, if you're "only anxious because of the palpitations", that anxious response is why they last for so long, why they get faster and why they keep happening. There is also a great chance you are anxious even when you don't think you are, and this is what's causing your palpitations.
Why does Measuring Make it Worse?
1. It creates more palpitations and higher BP...
That’s right, by measuring your pulse/BP, you're telling yourself you need to keep an eye on your body which is as good as saying "I am in danger of illness or death". What does this do? This gives you anxiety in the physical form of palpitations and high BP, the exact things you are measuring!
“Measuring leads to more palpitations which leads to more measuring which leads to more palpitations...”
This is a completely pointless and absolutely terrifying loop which is 100% avoidable.
2. It creates more anxiety and more panic attacks.
All those palpitations and high BP readings that you've just given yourself create more anxiety, and thus panic attacks, about palpitations and high BP. This is simply because you're experiencing palpitations more often (and they're scary) but it's also down to what you're "telling yourself" by measuring.
A) If you measure your HR and it’s not within a “healthy range", you're telling your mind you're having a heart attack, which in turn gears your body for a panic attack. By measuring your HR and BP, you’re effectively giving yourself reasons to have many more panic attacks. (For some people, this can be 5+ extra panic attacks every day than if they didn't measure.) If you do this, you are telling yourself the following:
“Every time I check my Heart rate/BP and it’s not within a "healthy range", I am going to create anxiety/a panic attack.”
B) If you measure your HR and it is within a "healthy range", what have you just done? 1. You’ve strengthened the incorrect belief that a certain range of pulse/BP is "healthy", and a certain range is "dangerous". 2. You have laid out all the necessary ingredients to have a panic attack next time when the reading isn't "healthy". 3. You could also, reading it's normal, start to worry immediately about when the palpitations are coming back, then a minute later you end up checking your pulse again but this time it's not normal, cue the resultant panic attack. In summary, you're telling yourself the following:
“Every time I check my HR/BP and it’s "normal", I’m cementing the incorrect belief that a certain range is "healthy" and a certain range is "dangerous", planting the seed for a panic attack next time.”
It’s an awful loop and once you start, it can be difficult to stop.
3. Measuring is the opposite of acceptance
In order to recover from physical anxiety, a person has to practice acceptance. They have to fully believe and accept that their whole physical experience is anxiety, nothing else. Measuring is the polar opposite, you are evaluating your symptoms because you don't believe anxiety is the issue and you are searching for answers, which as I mentioned above, actually creates more anxiety, much more. It's impossible to recover without total acceptance, of which can take months of therapy to achieve. Measuring BP and Pulse is blocking your own recovery.
4. Measuring leads to obsession and addiction
By measuring your BP and pulse, you are practicing obsession. You are teaching yourself to obsess about your body. Obsessing about your body causes more anxiety and therefore, more physical symptoms and therefore, more anxiety due to the scary symptoms. It's a viscous cycle (Googling symptoms works in much the same way). Also, re-training your mind afterwards to not obsess about your body can take a long time to undo, speaking from experience! (but certainly not impossible, by any means!)
Obsession can then lead to addiction. I've come across people who habitually measure their heart rate and blood pressure because in the moment it makes them feel safe, even though they know it's detrimental to their anxiety and is preventing their recovery. They have developed an addiction to measuring that they can't seem to kick. (Again, this is reversible but it could make recovery longer!)
Benefits of Not Measuring
On the flip side, if you don’t measure your HR and BP, you won’t even know if it's high or low a lot of the time, and if you don’t know, you can’t have a panic attack about it, it’s that simple. i.e. If you don’t know that your heart is fast, then you cannot panic about your heart being fast (in fact, it probably isn't fast because you're not worrying about it being fast). What you don’t know certainly won't hurt you. In fact, the less you “know”, the better. When you do still experience palpitations, If you don't measure your HR/BP, this is what you're telling yourself:
“Even though these palpitations are physically uncomfortable, they are not dangerous.” (A correct belief)
“I am training myself to accept the palpitations as symptoms of physical anxiety preventing more anxiety/panic attacks in the future.”
Over a period of time this will make palpitations less frequent and shorter in duration, resulting ultimately in less panic attacks, all because you spend less time obsessing and worrying about your body. Over a longer period of time, it can even be enough to prevent anxiety-palpitations from happening altogether. i.e lose the fear, lose the symptom.
Having read this post hopefully you now believe that palpitations/high BP are indeed physical symptoms of anxiety and can see why measuring worsens them. This should allow you to begin to accept those symptoms, stop measuring them and move one step closer to recovery.
So, give it a go! Initially, this may be extremely daunting as measuring your responses has likely given you a sense of control as you know what's going on inside your body (although it's really control disguised as fear and/or obsession). Without that knowledge, initially you'll think "Oh god, how will I know if my heart is beating really fast?!" but remember, that's the whole point, you don't need to know! The first period will be the most difficult as you try to adjust; however, over time, as you begin to see the benefits, in terms of less palpitations, less time spent worrying about your body and less panic attacks, you'll likely promise yourself to never measure your pulse/BP ever again!
Thanks for reading.