Are you tuned into your heartbeat?

You’ve probably been there – waiting for an interview, palms sweaty, heartbeat pounding… or perhaps not, maybe you don’t tend to hear your heartbeat. It’s increasingly being recognised that people differ in how much attention they pay to their internal bodily sensations, and that people who suffer from panic attacks probably pay more attention than most.

To explore this theme, Rachel Pollock and colleagues recruited 136 participants and identified 34 of them who reported being particularly afraid of anxiety-related symptoms and 31 who were unbothered by them. They played the participants the sounds of either normal or abnormal, palpitating heartbeats against varying degrees of background white noise.

In trials containing normal heartbeats only, the more anxious participants were, as expected, just as good at detecting them, but crucially, they also tended to report hearing a heartbeat when there wasn’t one – far more often than the non-anxious participants did.

Less expected was the observation that the more anxious participants were actually poorer at detecting abnormal heartbeats – the researchers think this might be because the sound of an abnormal heartbeat triggered a fearful response in the anxious participants, thus compromising their performance.

Finally, given a mixture of normal and abnormal heartbeats, the anxious participants showed a greater tendency to mistake a normal heartbeat for an abnormal one.

Prior research has suggested panic attacks can be triggered by the catastrophic misperception of a normal heartbeat. Given this, the researchers said the current findings suggest people who fear anxiety symptoms may have a particular vulnerability for panic because of the way they perceive heartbeats.

Pollock, R.A., Carter, A.S., Amir, N. & Marks, L.E. (2006). Anxiety sensitivity and auditory perception of heartbeat. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44, 1739-1756.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.