Chest pains can be alarming. Most people associate them with heart attacks, but sometimes they are a symptom of anxiety.
They are especially common with people who frequently experience anxiety attacks and can be mistaken for other chest-related problems. Anxiety-related chest pains usually occur when a person is feeling anxious or stressed. The chest pains are usually felt beneath the breastbone, often to one side of it.
They can also be experienced around other body parts like in your back or shoulders though this is less common.
Why do anxiety-related chest pains occur?
It’s not known why some people experience them when they get anxious but what is known is that it’s a physical manifestation of anxiety.
They are caused by how your body reacts when you experience stress or worry. When you are anxious, your brain and body release a stress response that may manifest physically through reactions such as shortness of breath and sweating. This can lead to chest pains that are caused by spasms in your blood vessels which is why they often affect the area beneath your breastbone.
Many people say these pains feel like a trapped, tight sensation in their chest.
Symptoms of anxiety-related chest pains include:
- Feeling a tight, constricted sensation in your chest
- Sharp pain
- Pain that radiates to your back, neck, or jaw
- Difficulty breathing
- Burning, numbness, or a dull ache
- Persistent chest ache
- Unusual muscle spasm in the chest
Differentiating between anxiety-induced chest pains and heart attack chest pains
There are some key differences between anxiety-related chest pains and heart attack chest pains.
Heart attack chest pains usually come on suddenly, are more severe, and tend to affect both sides of the chest. Anxiety-related chest pains are less severe, often just a tight or constricting feeling, and typically only affects one side of the chest.
If you are unsure whether your chest pains are related to anxiety or a heart attack, it is best to see a doctor.
What can you do if you experience anxiety-induced chest pains?
If you think your chest pains may be due to stress or worry, there are steps you can take for relief. These include:
- Control your breathing: Take deep breathes, and slow, controlled exhales to calm your body and mind. Inhale slowly through your nose for a few seconds, then hold it and exhale for another few seconds.
- Express your feelings: Talk to someone about how you’re feeling, whether it’s a friend, family member, or therapist. They can talk you through the situation and help you develop effective coping techniques.
- Change your focus away from what is causing you stress: When we’re feeling anxious, our minds tend to fixate on the thing that is making us stressed. This can lead to more anxiety and chest pain. Try to distract yourself with something else by reading, watching TV, or going for a walk.
- Release tension: If you are in a place where it is safe to do so, try leaning forward and massaging the area around your breastbone. This can help to release any tension that may be building up.
- Get some exercise: Exercise releases endorphins, which are hormones that have a calming effect on the body. A moderate amount of exercise is the key to relieving stress and anxiety. If you’re not sure where to start, consult with your doctor.
- Go for medication: Talk with your doctor about medications that can help reduce anxiety symptoms or try a natural supplement to reduce anxiety.
- Activate your senses: Focus on your surroundings and pay attention to what you can see, smell and feel around you. Distracting yourself from your worries will help you calm down and feel better.
- Ground yourself: Remind yourself that the chest pain is just a feeling caused by stress or worry, and it will eventually go away.
How long do chest pains from anxiety last?
Anxiety-related chest pains are only experienced when you are feeling stressed or anxious. The chest pains usually go away after a few minutes or hours, depending on the severity of the situation that caused them.
If they don’t seem to improve quickly and don’t seem to be anxiety-related, it is best to talk with a doctor. It also helps to understand your anxiety disorder so you can let emergency services know what’s going on and how to best help you.
Evaluating chest pains
If you are concerned about chest pains, it’s important to be evaluated by a doctor or other medical professional.
They will go over your symptoms and determine if the chest pains are due to an anxiety disorder, stress-induced muscle spasms, or something more severe like coronary artery disease. They will determine this through your medical history and a physical exam. They may also perform an electrocardiograph (ECG) to rule out a heart attack.
If you are at risk of coronary artery disease (CAD), your doctor might also want to rule that out too through more tests.
Several treatment options are available for those who experience chest pains from anxiety.
If your doctor determines that the chest pain is due to an anxiety disorder, they may prescribe medication or therapy. Some common medications used to treat anxiety disorders include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), and benzodiazepines. Some examples of SSRIs include Lexapro, sertraline, fluoxetine, and citalopram, while SNRI medications that may be used to treat anxiety disorders include venlafaxine or duloxetine.
Benzodiazepines can also help reduce anxiety and include medications like alprazolam or clonazepam.
There are also several lifestyle changes that can help reduce the amount of stress in your life, such as regular exercise, healthy eating habits, and getting enough sleep at night. There are also other ways to reduce stress, such as relaxation techniques, journaling, and mindfulness.
Chest pains can be frightening, but they are often just a symptom of anxiety. By understanding what causes them and how to manage them, you can lessen their impact on your day-to-day life. If you are ever in doubt, see a doctor for further evaluation.