- Brooke Aggarwal, EdD, MS, FAHA, assistant professor of medical sciences in cardiology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center and AHA volunteer
- Erich G. Anderer, MD, chief of neurosurgery at New York University Langone Hospital
- Heather Martin, DO, family medicine physician at K Health
- Maureen Wang, MD, cardiologist at New York-Presbyterian/Brooklyn Methodist Hospital and Medical Group Brooklyn
To start, it’s helpful to understand what a typical heart rate looks like, and why your heart might speed up in the first place. In healthy adults, a normal resting heart rate—which refers to the frequency at which your heart beats when you’re resting—will fall somewhere between 60 and 100 beats per minute (bpm). And if yours naturally falls at the higher end of that range, it might tick up to a faster, racing speed more readily in response to your emotions or environmental stimuli (more on that below).
How can I effectively measure my heart rate?
To assess whether your heart may be racing (and to what extent it’s in need of some slowing down), it’s important to know how to reliably measure your heart rate.
First, a lesson on the heart: An electrical signaling system controlled by the pacemaker is what tells the heart when to contract (and pump blood throughout the body) and when to relax, says Maureen Wang, MD, cardiologist at New York-Presbyterian/Brooklyn Methodist Hospital and Medical Group Brooklyn. Your heart rate is a measure of how many of these contractions happen per minute (when you’re resting, active, or sleeping, respectively).
To measure your heart rate, put your index and middle fingers together so they’re touching, and place them on the pulse point on your wrist, just below the heel of your palm, says cardiologist Suzanne Steinbaum, DO, volunteer medical expert for the American Heart Association (AHA). Next, set a timer for 30 seconds, and count every beat you feel; multiply the number you get by two to get your heart rate in beats per minute.
You can also use devices like a smartwatch or heart rate monitor to measure your heart rate, plus the cadence of these beats (aka your heart rate variability).
Measuring your heart rate when you’re active is also an important indicator of what’s happening with your ticker. Whether you’re smashing a hardcore HIIT workout or doing some low-impact strength training or Pilates, the heart quickens its pace when you put your muscles under stress (they need more blood flow to repeatedly flex, after all). You can pause to take your pulse the same way as above right after engaging in physical activity for at least a few minutes.
Here's how to calculate your target heart rate during physical activity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: First, subtract your age from 220 to reveal your maximum age-related heart rate. Your target heart rate during a workout is between 64 and 76 percent of your maximum heart rate. For example, if you're 43 years old, your maximum heart rate is 177, and your target heart rate while exercising is between 113 and 135 beats per minute.
Why is my heart beating so fast while resting?
At a baseline level, your resting heart rate may be higher or lower than the average above depending on your age and level of activity. “People who exercise regularly tend to have a lower heart rate than people who do not,” says Dr. Wang. And resting heart rates on the lower end of the spectrum are generally associated with better cardiovascular health. “This implies that the arteries are healthy and dilate easily, and the heart doesn't have to work too hard to deliver oxygen,” says Dr. Steinbaum.
"[A lower resting heart rate] implies that the arteries are healthy and dilate easily, and the heart doesn't have to work too hard to deliver oxygen."—Suzanne Steinbaum, DO, cardiologist
That said, a low resting heart rate (bradycardia) still isn’t the end-all, be-all of good health; certain medications and thyroid or hormonal changes can cause a lower heart rate irrespective of your heart health. And in much the same way, a higher resting heart rate (tachycardia) isn’t necessarily problematic, either. While, yes, it may indicate that the heart has to work relatively hard to pump the necessary blood throughout your body—pointing to lower cardiovascular health—a higher resting heart rate may also just be your personal baseline, given everyone’s heart rate is unique to them, says Dr. Wang.
It’s also possible to experience a sudden spike in heart rate when resting if your environment or emotions change—for example, if you experience a moment of stress, anxiety, fear, or anger; or if you enter an emotional environment, like a job interview or first date. Drinking coffee (ever feel the caffeine jitters?) or alcohol can also trigger a rise in heart rate or heart palpitations, as can lying down to sleep at night, due to the change in body position and the common tendency to ruminate on stressful thoughts before bed.
Separately, the medications and supplements you take, as well as health factors like anemia, dehydration, fever, sleeplessness, and anxiety, can all affect your heart rate, as can various more serious heart conditions. “If there are problems with your pacemaker, or if there is a short circuit in the electrical system it controls, then the heart rate may be abnormally fast or slow,” says Dr. Wang, referring to a cardiac arrhythmia or heart block. If you find that your resting heart rate regularly exceeds 100 bpm or dips below 60 bpm, it’s a smart idea to see a doctor, who can perform an electrocardiogram (EKG) to assess your heart health.
In general, following a heart-healthy lifestyle by getting enough sleep, making exercise a part of your regular routine, managing your stress levels, avoiding smoking, and limiting alcohol intake can set you on the path to good cardiovascular health and a lower heart rate in the longer term.
6 ways to slow down a racing heart
Sometimes, you might find yourself trying to figure out how to slow down your heart rate right in the moment, whether it’s racing in response to stress or caffeine or some other stimulus entirely. To do so, it’s important to employ methods that help calm the central nervous system, like the below.
1. Move to a cooler place
According to Brooke Aggarwal, EdD, MS, FAHA, assistant professor of medical sciences in cardiology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center and AHA volunteer, one way to combat heart palpitations is to drop the temperature of your surroundings. “I would suggest moving to a cooler environment, if possible, as a high surrounding temperature can sometimes cause the heart rate to rise,” she says.
2. Go on a gentle walk
Walks are proven mood-boosters1, and in shifting your mental state to a more positive place, walking may also help to calm a racing heart. “Stress is related to elevated heart rates, and walking can help lower your stress and calm the mind,” says Dr. Aggarwal. Skip the treadmill if possible, and walk outside to reap the additional soothing benefits of time spent in nature.
3. Get a breath of fresh air
Even the simple act of stepping outside can help to slow a racing heart. “If you're in a stressful situation or a loud place, try to find a way to step out and get some fresh air,” suggests Dr. Wang.
4. Sip on water
Reach for your water bottle when you want to slow your heart rate—particularly if you’ve been chugging a caffeinated beverage without otherwise hydrating; as noted above, caffeine can raise your heart rate while also acting as a diuretic (meaning, it can trigger dehydration), making it especially important to drink water if your heart is racing from the coffee or tea jitters, says Dr. Aggarwal.
5. Take a quick shower or bath
Water can be especially helpful and calming during heart-pumping moments. Dr. Aggarwal recommends taking a quick shower or bath (or even just splashing water on your face), and letting the soothing effects of water take over.
The water running over your face can stimulate the vagus nerve, which runs down either side of your neck and when activated, sends a signal to the brain that it’s time to relax, thus slowing down your heart rate2 and reducing your blood pressure.
6. Practice a relaxation technique
Don’t have enough time for a full session? Take a moment to do a sun salutation pose, or surya namaskar, to ground yourself when your heart is beating on overdrive. Or, try a short meditation sequence, also called a micro-meditation, which taps breathing or visualization cues to help you quickly access a moment of presence.
Can you slow down your heart rate with breathing?
Insomuch as breathwork can promote relaxation, certain breathing exercises can also help slow your heart rate in the moment. Because of the connection between the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, breathwork can actually help counteract the process that elevates your heart rate in the first place when you’re feeling stressed out.
“Stress and anxiety can activate the sympathetic nervous system, which causes the release of neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine and epinephrine,” says Heather Martin, DO, family medicine physician at telehealth platform K Health who specializes in hypertension (aka high blood pressure). “These chemicals trigger the ‘fight or flight’ response, which is designed to prepare you for reacting to a dangerous situation, primarily by increasing heart rate and breathing, and dilating the eyes.”
As the sympathetic nervous system ramps up, there’s a simultaneous “decrease in parasympathetic activity—aka the calm 'rest and digest' processes—which also contributes to a faster heart rate, often felt as racing,” says Erich G. Anderer, MD, chief of neurosurgery at New York University Langone Hospital. But when the parasympathetic nervous system is dominant, the heart typically only beats about once per second, he adds.
That’s why any breathing exercise to lower heart rate will be geared toward activating the parasympathetic nervous system. And that typically happens with deep, slow breaths, says Dr. Martin. Breathing this way also forces you to focus on the exhale part—which often falls by the wayside when you’re stressed and your heart is racing and you’re all but hyperventilating.
That kind of shallow breathing can actually make your heart beat faster because of the relationship between breathing and heart rate, says Dr. Anderer. “In healthy people, we see a temporary increase in heart rate with inhalation followed by a decrease with exhalation,” he says. So, the lengthier exhalations of slow breaths are key for slowing down your heart, too.
“Slow breathing can also have direct influence on pressure receptors in the vascular and pulmonary systems and promote a state of relaxation.” —Erich G. Anderer, MD, neurosurgeon
And that’s just one pathway by which slower breaths can physiologically calm the heart. “Slow breathing can also have direct influence on pressure receptors in the vascular and pulmonary systems and promote a state of relaxation, which tends to enhance the parasympathetic response throughout the body and allow you to better ‘rest and digest,’” says Dr. Anderer.
How do you breathe to lower your heart rate?
Though there isn’t current evidence that one particular breathing exercise is best for lowering heart rate, Dr. Anderer notes that many breathwork practices, largely originating in India and dating back centuries, are “belatedly being actively researched and recommended to patients by many in the medical community for conditions as varied as high blood pressure and depression.” In particular, deep and controlled breathing exercises—and their use for calm and meditation—have their roots in pranayama, one of the eight limbs of yoga.
One adaptation of this measured breathing is called “square breathing,” which can be utilized anywhere, anytime to help slow down the heart rate, says Dr. Martin. Below, she outlines the steps:
- Start by exhaling completely.
- Gently inhale through your nose while counting to four.
- Hold your breath in for a count of four.
- Gently exhale through your mouth for a count of four.
- Hold your breath out for a count of four.
The even repetition of inhaling for four, holding for four, exhaling for four, and then holding again for four is what gives this breathwork practice its square name. You can repeat it as many times as you’d like, says Dr. Martin, allowing your heartbeat to return to its usual speed.
If this breathwork exercise doesn’t resonate with you, there are certainly others you can try, too. “There are practices based on a set time or set number of breaths, on equal effort through inhalation and exhalation, on single-nostril breathing, and on focused diaphragmatic breathing,” says Dr. Anderer. Dr. Steinbaum also suggests a simple breathing exercise where you breathe in through the nose for four counts, hold it, and then deeply exhale for six counts (putting more emphasis on that exhalation). Because everyone’s physiology is a little different, different breathwork exercises can be equally effective for a racing heart in different people.
When to see a doctor or go to the hospital about your heart rate
If your heart rate won’t go down even after trying the above techniques, or your racing heart is accompanied by dizziness, lightheadedness, a feeling of passing out, or chest pain, you should go to the hospital to get an EKG as soon as possible in order to diagnose any rhythm problems, says Dr. Wang.
While the specific number of your heart rate is often less important than the underlying mechanism at play (remember, everyone’s heart beats differently at a baseline level), Dr. Wang also notes that if your heart rate is abnormally high or low for you, you should be evaluated by a doctor (hence the importance of regularly measuring your own heart rate). That’s also the case if you determine that your resting heart rate is regularly above 100 bpm or below 50 bpm, according to Dr. Steinbaum.
—reviewed by Jennifer Logan, MD, MPH
- Edwards, Meghan K, and Paul D Loprinzi. “Experimental effects of brief, single bouts of walking and meditation on mood profile in young adults.” Health promotion perspectives vol. 8,3 171-178. 7 Jul. 2018, doi:10.15171/hpp.2018.23
- Capilupi, Michael J et al. “Vagus Nerve Stimulation and the Cardiovascular System.” Cold Spring Harbor perspectives in medicine vol. 10,2 a034173. 3 Feb. 2020, doi:10.1101/cshperspect.a034173
- Shohani, Masoumeh et al. “The Effect of Yoga on Stress, Anxiety, and Depression in Women.” International journal of preventive medicine vol. 9 21. 21 Feb. 2018, doi:10.4103/ijpvm.IJPVM_242_16
- Zou, Liye et al. “Effects of Mind⁻Body Exercises (Tai Chi/Yoga) on Heart Rate Variability Parameters and Perceived Stress: A Systematic Review with Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials.” Journal of clinical medicine vol. 7,11 404. 31 Oct. 2018, doi:10.3390/jcm7110404
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