If you’re one of the 40 million Americans who live with an anxiety disorder, chances are you’ve experienced not just mental and emotional symptoms, but physical symptoms—especially if you have experienced a panic or anxiety attack. The physical symptoms of anxiety can be painful, annoying, and sometimes even scary.
One symptom that can be particularly worrisome is pain in and around the chest—a feeling some anxiety sufferers experience regularly, often during anxiety or panic attacks.
Because the chest is home to important organs like the lungs and heart, it’s understandable that feelings of discomfort in this area may frighten you. Unfortunately, this can lead to even more anxiety.
We created this guide to instead help calm your nerves.
In this article, you’ll learn why anxiety chest pain happens, what it feels like, how long it lasts, how to make it stop, and more.
You’ll also learn the difference between anxiety-related chest pain and heart attack-related chest pain, and when you should seek help from a medical professional.
Can Anxiety Cause Chest Pain?
Yes. Many people who experience anxiety also experience chest pain, especially during anxiety or panic attacks.
Though it can be frightening and painful, anxiety sufferers can take some comfort in knowing that there’s a reason for this uncomfortable symptom: It’s your brain and body trying to protect you from a real or perceived stressor.
Anxiety Chest Pain Symptoms
Anxiety chest pain can feel different to different people. Symptoms in the chest area can be described as:
- Sharp, shooting, or stabbing pain
- Persistent, dull aching
- Tightness, tension, or pressure
- A burning sensation
- Numbness in certain areas
- Twitching or spasms
These uncomfortable feelings can come on gradually, or all at once.
It is more typical, however, for chest pain to present itself during panic or anxiety attacks that come on quickly, and for the sufferer to already feel anxious before the chest pain starts.
Why Does Anxiety Cause Chest Pain?
Anxiety is the body’s response to a real or perceived stressor, and anxiety and panic attacks can produce a number of physical symptoms in addition to mental turmoil.
When you’re anxious, your body enters what’s typically referred to as a “fight or flight” state, preparing to help you battle against (or flee from) something that could hurt you.
Your body does this in many ways, including increasing your heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure, and by triggering the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline.
Many of these “fight or flight” responses can cause chest pain. Common causes for chest pain include:
- Muscle tension: This is typically a result of stress and can manifest itself as tightness in the muscles in the chest.
- Increased heart rate: This can lead to feelings of pounding in the chest, heart palpitations, and coronary artery spasms.
- Hyperventilation: This is a result of shortness of breath, and can cause changes to the level of carbon dioxide in the blood.
- Increased blood pressure: This can increase oxygen demand in the heart and put a strain on the smaller blood vessels due to increased blood flow.
How Long Does Anxiety Chest Pain Last?
Though it can feel alarming, anxiety chest pain is fleeting. Pain typically lasts around 10 minutes, though other anxiety or panic attack symptoms (like dizziness, shortness of breath, or nausea) may last longer.
If your symptoms continue, are getting worse, or are just concerning, call your doctor, visit an urgent care center, or be evaluated through a telehealth appointment as soon as possible.
Some panic or anxiety attack sufferers may also feel soreness in the chest area for a few hours after the attack, due to the intense muscle contractions in the wall of the chest that took place during the attack.
How to Stop Anxiety Chest Pain
In order to stop anxiety chest pain, you have to go straight to the source: your anxiety.
Luckily, there are simple techniques you can use and lifestyle changes you can implement to help manage your anxiety or panic, many of which are free and easy to do.
Breathing deeply from your diaphragm is an effective way to reduce anxiety by slowing the heart and breathing rate, and can even stop a panic or anxiety attack in its tracks.
Though you can find many different types of breathing exercises online, a simple but effective exercise is as follows: Put one hand on your belly, and your other hand on your chest.
Take a slow, deep breath through your nose and allow your belly to push out the hand on your belly. The hand on your chest should not move. Exhale your breath through pursed lips and allow the hand on your belly to move inwards again, pushing all the air out. Repeat this 10 times.
Meditation and other relaxation exercises (like journaling, counting, and visualizing) can be effective tools in calming the brain and slowing anxious thoughts.
Meditation is a practice that has been used for thousands of years, and even a few minutes can help wipe away stress and restore inner peace. Many web sites (including YouTube) offer free guided meditations, and no equipment is needed.
Getting up and getting active is one of the best ways to help reduce your anxiety—and regular exercise is a great way to keep generalized anxiety in check.
Not only can it act as a welcome distraction from racing thoughts, but exercise can also decrease muscle tension and increase serotonin and other anti-anxiety neurochemicals.
Limit alcohol, caffeine, and smoking
While smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol and caffeine can feel like they’re helping quell your anxiety, studies show that all three can actually make it worse.
If you don’t want to quit any of them completely, take note of which you have consumed before you feel anxious to try to pinpoint which may be negatively impacting you, and limit your intake accordingly.
While sleep may be the last thing on your mind in the middle of an anxiety or panic attack, getting enough sleep is important for keeping your anxiety in check.
Sleep deficiency has been linked to anxiety, depression, and other forms of illness. Adults should aim for seven to nine hours a night for healthy functioning and wellness.
Anxiety Chest Pain vs. Heart Attack
Anxiety chest pain is so alarming because we associate chest pain with heart attacks. And it’s fair to feel concerned—about 735,000 people in the U.S. have heart attacks each year, and chest pain is one of the common symptoms.
But studies show that 80% of people who go to the emergency room with chest pain are not having a heart attack, and 58% of that group suffer from moderate to severe anxiety.
Though pain related to a heart attack and anxiety chest pain can feel similar, there are several differences between the two that can help you determine which you may be experiencing.
For example, while anxiety chest pain can feel different from person to person, it tends to limit itself to just the chest.
Most people experiencing heart attack chest pain, on the other hand, explain it as a squeezing, heavy, and/or aching pain that radiates outwards from the chest to the arms, shoulders, and jaw (also known as angina).
There are also differences when it comes to when the pain starts, and how long it lasts.
Anxiety chest pain tends to start when the body is at rest, and, as previously mentioned, lasts for approximately 10 minutes (this can vary, though).
Conversely, heart attack chest pain typically starts slowly when the body is active, and the pain gradually increases in intensity. Chest pain during a heart attack also tends to get worse with exertion and lasts longer than pain related to anxiety.
Interestingly, 30% of people experiencing a heart attack do not report chest pain. Other heart attack symptoms may include nausea, shortness of breath, increased heart rate, back pain, and exhaustion.
If you think you are experiencing a heart attack, seek medical attention as soon as possible.
When to See a Doctor
Even if you suffer from anxiety, chest pain shouldn’t be ignored.
If you are experiencing persistent chest pain, seek medical advice to pinpoint the cause and rule out a heart problem, like coronary artery disease.
It may just be anxiety-related chest pain, but it’s always better to be sure. Both anxiety-related chest pain and heart conditions are treatable with the proper healthcare.
If anxiety and its symptoms are impacting your quality of life, a therapist and/or doctor can suggest therapy (like cognitive behavioral therapy) or prescribe medication to help get your anxiety under control.
This medical care can be life-changing by helping get symptoms—including chest pain—to subside.
Stress and anxiety are among the most under-reported and under-treated diseases in America. Nearly 20% of adults in the US suffer from mental health illness and fewer than half receive treatment. Our mission is to increase access to treatment for those suffering in silence.
You can start controlling your stress and anxiety and get access to the treatment you need with K Health. Starting at $19/month get prescriptions for mental health medications plus unlimited doctor visits through the K Health app. Start your free assessment here.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
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