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Understanding Anxiety Chest Pain

Overview

Key points

  1. Chest pain is a common symptom of anxiety.
  2. This type of chest pain should go away once you’ve managed your feelings of anxiety.
  3. If you think your chest pain may instead be a warning sign of heart attack, see a doctor right away.

Feeling worried, fearful, or nervous from time to time is quite normal for most people. These are typical reactions to atypical moments in everyday life.

Some people experience anxiety frequently. Symptoms can move beyond feelings of concern or worry to other physical reactions. Occasionally, these symptoms are mistakenly associated with other conditions.

As an example, chest pain is sometimes a symptom of anxiety. Often the result of a panic attack or heightened reaction, chest pain is a concern because of the possible connection to heart attacks and other heart conditions.

If you experience frequent anxiety, learning to understand your chest pain can help you find symptom relief and identify when you need additional medical help.

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Symptoms

What anxiety chest pain feels like

Anxiety symptoms are rarely the same from person to person. Some days, symptoms aren’t even the same for the same person. Anxiety presents itself in a variety of ways, and that makes detecting or understanding symptoms difficult.

Chest pain associated with anxiety feels different for each person. Some people may experience chest pain on a gradual basis. For others, the pain may be sudden and unexpected. Anxiety chest pain can be described as:

  • sharp, shooting pain
  • persistent chest aching
  • an unusual muscle twitch or spasm in your chest
  • burning, numbness, or a dull ache
  • stabbing pressure
  • chest tension or tightness

If you don’t have a history of chest pain with anxiety, you may be alarmed. Many people assume they’re having a heart attack and go to the hospital’s emergency department for treatment.

Read more about the warning signs of a heart attack »

In one study, researchers found that anxiety disorder was prevalent among people with nonspecific chest pain (NSCP). NSCP is described as atypical chest pain with other symptoms that aren’t the result of a cardiac event.

If you visit a hospital emergency room and the doctors don’t find a specific cause for your chest pain, consider consulting with your doctor about other possible causes, including anxiety.

Anxiety chest pain vs. heart attack chest pain

Chest pain can be a warning sign for a heart attack. Here are some tips to help you determine if your chest pain is caused by anxiety or a heart attack:

Symptom Heart attack Anxiety
chest pain brought on by exertion
chest pain while at rest
increased heart rate
chest pain that accompanies anxiety
constant chest pain
sharp, stabbing chest pain that only lasts 5–10 seconds
shortness of breath
radiating pain that travels from your chest to other areas, like your arms or jaw
 

If you suspect you may be having a heart attack, call your local emergency services. They can evaluate you and determine whether you’re having a cardiac event or if there’s another reason for your chest pain.

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Causes

What causes anxiety chest pain

When you’re anxious, your body can and often does produce physical reactions like sweating or shortness of breath.

When you become anxious, your brain and body set off an immediate stress response. This includes a physiological change. Your body may tighten up or grow tenser.

A stress response can also include a psychological or emotional response. You may become aggressive or upset more easily. These responses are referred to as the fight-or-flight response. When you become stressed or anxious, your body prepares to fight back or run away.

If you experience this fight-or-flight stress reaction infrequently, your body should fully recover within 30 minutes. If you experience it too frequently, it can’t. This can lead to increased muscle tension, and in your chest this tension may become painful.

Likewise, in an even more stressful moment, your heart rate may increase, and the force of your heart beats can grow stronger. That combined with tight chest muscles can make you feel unusual pain.

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Home remedies

Home remedies

If you feel anxious, you can take control of your mind and body with simple techniques. These techniques may not work every time, but they’re a great starting point when you need help controlling your anxiety.

Practice deep breathing

Focused, deep breaths can calm both your mind and your body. Find a quiet room or area, and inhale for a count of 10. Hold for a second, and then exhale for a count of 10. Repeat this several times as you feel your heart rate fall.

Take stock of the situation

Accept your feelings of anxiety, recognize them, and then work through putting them in perspective. Are you worried about something you can’t control? Are you fearful of an outcome that’s unlikely? Are you dreading a situation you can’t control the outcome of? Talk your way through your feelings to find the source, and then work to put it into perspective.

Picture a beautiful scene

If you’re feeling anxious, try visualizing a place that instantly calms you. This can be especially helpful if you’re feeling anxious while in a situation you can’t avoid, like a stressful meeting. Practice deep breathing while you envision this location.

Use a relaxation app

Smart phone apps for anxiety can walk you through stress reduction techniques and exercises. There are also meditation apps that may help you quiet your mind when you’re feeling anxious. Many of these apps are free, so you can try out several to find one that works for you.

Learn more: Best anxiety apps of the year »

Be proactive about your physical health

Are you taking good care of your body? Are you getting enough sleep? Are you eating well? Taking good care of your body is also taking good care of your mind. While this won’t help treat anxiety chest pain, it may help you reduce your risk for anxiety and subsequent chest pain in the future.

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See a doctor

See a doctor

If your anxiety and chest pain are severe or chronic, you may need to consult with a therapist. They can talk you through situations that cause anxiety and help you learn coping techniques. These techniques may not come naturally to you if you’re often anxious. This is where a professional or an instructor can help.

A therapist or doctor may be able to teach you coping techniques that let you feel in control and secure. When you begin to regain a sense of calm, your symptoms, including the chest pain, will subside.

If coaching techniques or mental exercises aren’t successful, you may need to consider a prescription. Antianxiety medications have side effects and risks. But using them as a stopgap while you learn to cope with symptoms can be helpful.

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Outlook

Outlook

Identifying anxiety as the cause of your chest pain is an important step in treating your condition. As you learn to manage the side effects of anxiety, you’ll also learn to manage unintended complications like chest pain.

While you can’t know for sure if or when you’ll experience anxiety chest pain again, preparing yourself with coping techniques and practices will help you feel more prepared and in control.

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