Average heart rates vary widely. During stress, the body releases hormones that trigger a “fight or flight” response. A person’s heart rate may increase and exceed 100 beats per minute (bpm). Long-term stress can lead to various health problems.

“Heart rate” refers to the number of times a person’s heart beats in 1 minute. During times of stress, the heart rate can increase beyond a healthy range, which may contribute to certain health complications.

This article discusses what a normal heart rate is, why stress may increase it, and what a rapid heart rate feels like. It also looks at the health effects of stress, tips for managing it, and when to contact a doctor about stress.

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A normal resting heart rate, which is how quickly the heart beats during times of relaxation, is between 60 and 100 beats per minute (bpm).

In some cases, a heart rate lower than 60 bpm is not problematic and is common in people who exercise often or take certain medications, such as beta-blockers.

During times of stress, a person’s resting heart rate may exceed 100 bpm.

When a person is stressed, their body releases the hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline, also called epinephrine and norepinephrine. The hormones signal the body to temporarily increase the heart rate, blood pressure, and respiratory rate.

The physical changes that occur during stress are the body’s way of preparing a person for a situation that it perceives as threatening.

One such change, called the fight or flight response, can help prepare a person to defend themselves against a physical threat or flee to safety more effectively.

A variety of biological processes occur that help improve how an individual responds to a stressful event. This includes increasing heart rate and blood flow to muscles to provide more oxygen and thus energy, which can help them perform better.

The fight or flight response was essential for our hunter-gatherer ancestors who faced real threats in the wild. Modern humans experience the same response in situations that are not necessarily life threatening, but the body interprets feelings of stress in the same way.

Learn about the difference between stress and anxiety.

A fast heart rate may cause palpitations, which can feel like thumping, pounding, or fluttering in the chest, or as though the heart is racing.

A rapid heart rate can also cause other symptoms, including:

Other symptoms of stress

Stress can cause various symptoms, including:

Learn more about stress symptoms.

Prolonged or chronic stress can negatively affect a person’s health. Elevated levels of stress hormones, which force the body into a heightened state on and off for long periods, can cause physical responses that may be harmful over time. Chronic stress may cause:

These physical responses can increase a person’s risk of heart attack and stroke. Stress can also increase the risk of mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety.

Stress can also contribute to damaging health behaviors, which in turn may contribute to illnesses such as:

Harmful health behaviors that experts associate with stress include:

  • overeating
  • having an unhealthy diet
  • not taking medication as a doctor prescribes
  • smoking
  • avoiding physical activity

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), healthy ways to manage stress include:

  • Setting aside time to de-stress: People may wish to make time for activities they enjoy and stress-relieving activities such as yoga or breathing exercises.
  • Eating a healthful diet: Eating lean protein, fruits and vegetables, and whole grains while avoiding salt, sugar, and unhealthy fats can provide energy for managing stress.
  • Limiting intake of alcohol: A person experiencing stress should try to avoid alcohol or drink in moderation.
  • Avoiding the use of illegal drugs and the misuse of prescription drugs: During times of stress, a person should be aware that they are more likely to engage in harmful behaviors.
  • Connecting with people: Talking with friends, family, support groups, or others about their feelings and concerns can help a person cope with stress.
  • Taking breaks from the news: A person should take regular breaks away from news about negative events, including on social media.
  • Getting enough good quality sleep: Adults require at least 7 hours of sleep per night.
  • Doing physical activity: Even small amounts of exercise can help relieve symptoms of stress.
  • Continuing to attend health appointments: During times of stress, a person may be more likely to neglect their physical and mental health. Attending regular health appointments can help reduce symptoms and potential complications of stress.

It is best to contact a doctor if a person experiences a rapid heart rate from stress and any of the following:

  • recurring heart palpitations that worsen over time
  • a heart condition
  • a heart rate that does not return to normal within a few minutes or soon after a stressful situation has passed
  • a history of heart problems in their family
  • fainting or experiencing feelings of faintness
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain

If someone experiences stress regularly, they may wish to contact a doctor or mental health professional to help them find ways to manage stress and treat any underlying conditions or complications related to stress.

Stress causes the body to release certain hormones that trigger several physical responses, including an increased heart rate. These physical changes are part of the fight or flight response, which allows the body to become temporarily more capable of responding to threatening situations.

Prolonged or regular stress can lead to various health problems, such as inflammation and increased blood pressure. Stress can also increase the risk of stroke and heart attack by making a person more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors.

A person can manage stress in various ways, such as making time for stress-relieving activities, disconnecting from sources of negative news, and connecting with people they trust to talk about their feelings and concerns.