In the last few years I have become obsessed with checking my heart rate. When exercising or going to bed especially, I check my pulse to know it is beating. It is annoying to say the least, and keep me in a constant state of concern.
Heart rate OCD is a theme of OCD that is linked to heart health, or the worry of a heart attack and associated problems. It can be paralysing, making us fear disease or heart failure, preventing us from exercising and worrying too much about our diet.
I have always had hypochondria associated with OCD. In high school I developed chest pain that I was convinced was going to kill me when during football practice. It didn’t of course, and when I went to the doctor I was told I had a healthy heart rate.
But every couple of years a video will surface of a professional athlete collapsing during a game. When this happens, I fear even light exercise. Checking my heart rate becomes a regular thing.
Exercise is very important for health and well being. But when we are too worried to exercise, it has the opposite effect.
Where does this heart rate OCD come from?
This could be considered sensorimotor OCD. The kind of OCD that makes us hyperaware of our bodily functions.
As OCD differs for everyone, themes and OCD subtypes can overlap. The heart rate OCD I experience may or may not be sensorimotor OCD.
Sensorimotor OCD may better describe the obsession/hyperawareness of heart rate/heart function, without the additional worry about the heart failing.
The worry stems from obsessional thinking, intrusive thoughts and ruminations.
Times of increased anxiety
There are often periods when the anxiety increases. This could be when OCD and anxiety are more apparent, and times of exercise.
For me, I worry most when on the treadmill. I worry that at any moment, I could collapse. I think of the times footballers have collapsed on TV, most recently when Denmark’s Christian Eriksen had a heart attack on the pitch during Euro 2020.
It is a shocking reminder of how fragile life can be, and how even the fittest athletes can succumb to heart failure. Luckily he survived.
So, if it can happen to him, why wouldn’t it happen to me? I know many of you reading this have asked the same question.
The warning siren goes off in my head the moment I start to run. And it doesn’t switch off until I have stopped. Every single time. Run after run.
Another time I suffer with heart rate OCD is before sleep. For whatever reason, I need to check my heart rate by putting my hand on my chest and feeling the beat. I can relax only when I feel the beat, knowing (well, thinking) that I am not about to suffer heart failure as I drift off to sleep.
It doesn’t help that my diet was very poor in my twenties. During a recent health check I was told that my blood pressure was very high, and I needed to make changes.
It was easy to feel my heart beat as it was pounding a lot of the time. This only made me more anxious when the heart beat was less intense.
Slow and steady wins the race
I still don’t like to run. I have avoided it for a couple of years. But I am getting better and walking has helped me get my fitness back.
I walk to work. I recently found a new apartment closer to my job, close enough that I can avoid public transport and walk 35 minutes to work and back. This adds up at the end of the week not just in health but also in saving money.
I climb stairs when I can. I walk to the shops when I need groceries. These changes help me to gradually improve on my fitness and make me feel better. I feel I am on the right track.
I also like to remember gyms have defibrillators. They have staff trained in first aid. Even in the highly unlikely scenario that something would happen, people would help, as I like to think I would if I witnessed this happening to someone else.
Therapy has helped me understand that this is part of OCD. And with that, it is something I can learn to overcome.
Therapy is the gym for the brain, and it is just as important. The body and mind both need to have a workout regularly, and I am not going to quit anytime soon.