Anxiety About Irregular Heartbeat

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Reader’s Question

My wife is a 56-year-old mental health nurse who has been going through menopause and has recently become somewhat obsessed with her health. In particular, she has been experiencing periodic, daily heart palpitations for four to six months. She doesn’t sleep properly, hates her job, is always down and isn’t able to control her thoughts. To describe her personality: she is someone with OCD tendencies who has always run somewhat ‘hot or cold’, so to speak.

I’ve tried to convince her that if she could put her obsessive thoughts aside and dwell more on the positive things in her life she would feel a lot better. She says that if it weren’t for the palpitations she could deal with everything else; that they are wearing her down.

She has had various tests and, other than the palpitations and a couple of small nodules on her thyroid, her health appears normal; her doctors are not concerned. She feels that either her doctors have abandoned her or they are not knowledgeable enough to find the true problem. Her father died of prostate cancer after years of worrying and suffering, telling his doctors that there was something wrong with him. When they finally diagnosed him it was too late. I think the memory of his situation plagues her thoughts.

Is it possible that all the negativity she deals with daily (her client’s problems) is starting to rub off and she needs some psychological assistance herself?

Psychologist’s Reply

Dealing with the problems of others is very difficult to manage and mental health professionals can sometimes develop what’s called secondary trauma. That’s one reason why seeking our own counseling is a good idea. So yes, getting some psychological assistance may be helpful. However, it sounds like her problems are about more than just her clients’ negativity. Your wife is dealing with a lot of stressful things, including her job, a major life transition (menopause can be quite challenging both physically and emotionally) and some health concerns, so I wouldn’t be surprised if she were depressed, anxious or both. Counseling could help with these conditions too.

It appears that your wife’s main focus right now is the heart palpitations. Although nothing may be wrong with her heart, whenever you become aware of a vital bodily function that should be unnoticeable (like your heartbeat or breathing), it is worrisome. I understand her concern but it is possible that her anxiety surrounding the palpitations may be making things worse. Perhaps she would feel more confident of her doctor’s conclusions if she did her own research. There are a lot of reasons for irregular heartbeats, including such easily treatable factors as stress and diet. Reading a bit more on the subject may help your wife feel like she’s covered all of her bases. She also may feel more in control of her body if she learns calming techniques for anxiety and/or specific exercises that help control irregular heartbeats.

However, it may be that nothing she does controls the palpitations. In this case, she has a choice. She can choose, as many people do, to not allow her health condition to significantly impact her quality of life. Or she can choose to be miserable by focusing constantly on what she cannot control. Whether or not she allows her heart to give her joy or sorrow is entirely up to her.

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