Chest pain is always scary. The first thing someone experiencing chest pain usually thinks is “heart attack.” It’s understandable to feel afraid of chest pain, but more often than not, it’s nothing to be seriously concerned about. Yes, there are times when you might need medical care when you’re experiencing chest pain. But if you have an anxiety disorder, you might want to ensure it isn’t related to your worry or panic first. At Sun Behavioral Health Delaware, we know how scary chest pain can be. We want you to know there are ways to find relief.
You’re not alone in feeling this way. According to a study published by the National Library of Medicine, up to 70% of people who visit the E.R. for chest pain learn their pain is anxiety-related. How can you tell if your pain is because of anxiety or something else? In this article, we discuss how to recognize, address, and find relief for anxiety-related chest pain.
What Are the Symptoms of Panic and Anxiety Attacks?
Because of the “state of alert” our bodies go into when panicking, it’s no surprise that when people describe panic attacks they say, “it felt like I was dying.”
Adrenaline-fueled physical responses are built into us from birth. They exist for our survival. Experiencing a panic attack means the untimely activation of these built-in responses. Here is an example of a normal, physical reaction to danger:
You just got off work, you’re in the parking garage, and you’re headed to your car. It’s late, and there’s no one else at your office. Suddenly, you hear a sound behind you. Your heart rate quickens. You feel a weight on your chest. Your muscles get tight, and you feel tension in your shoulders. You’re poised to run at the mere thought of someone sneaking up on you. The mind recognizes “danger,” and the body goes into a “fight or flight” mode. Adrenaline makes us think and act faster so that we can protect ourselves in situations just like this. This is a normal, biological response.
Unfortunately, the brain senses “danger” all the time for people living with an anxiety or panic disorder. Not just in unique situations like the one described above. The body will go into “fight or flight” mode because something triggers a traumatic memory. Sometimes, the body will go into “fight or flight” mode for no reason at all. It’s because of this that most panic or anxiety attacks are physical. Adrenaline is useful for survival instincts, but it can feel like a relentless and unwanted visitor for those suffering from anxiety or panic.
Panic and anxiety attacks range in severity and symptoms from person to person. The common denominator for most panic attacks is a physical reaction or response. Someone experiencing a panic attack will physically feel it in their body. Here are some of the common symptoms of panic attacks:
- Chest pain or chest tightening
- Trouble breathing
- Dissociation or derealization
- Rapid heart rate
- Muscle tension
- And more
What Causes Chest Pain From Anxiety?
The cause of chest pain depends on a couple of factors. First, whether or not someone is experiencing an anxiety attack or a panic attack is important. Anxiety attacks are typically triggered by past trauma. A smell, a song, a person, or a stressful situation can trigger an anxiety attack. With panic attacks, physical symptoms will present themselves with little to no provocation – they can come out of nowhere. Both panic and anxiety attacks can cause chest pain.
Secondly, the way someone is breathing while experiencing panic or anxiety can affect how their chest feels. A spike in adrenaline caused by fear can increase the rate of breaths per minute. The faster we breathe, the tighter our chest muscles get. This can often feel like a heart attack. In reality, it’s just our muscles responding to stress. This is the most common kind of anxiety-related chest pain, and it’s manageable.
Adrenaline and cortisol are hormones in the body that can narrow the arteries inside the heart. This sounds scary, but it’s simply the body’s defense mechanism. When this happens, it’s called stress cardiomyopathy. All this means is that your heart rate becomes abnormally high due to your stress levels. It may feel alarming, especially for those who have never experienced stress cardiomyopathy before. It can cause uncomfortable and sometimes extreme chest pain. With treatment, instances of stress cardiomyopathy can be greatly reduced or eliminated.
It should be noted that while these kinds of chest pains are overwhelming, they’re rarely life-threatening. If you’re experiencing this during a panic or anxiety attack, try to remind yourself that it will pass and you’re okay.
What Does Anxiety Chest Pain Feel Like?
The feeling of anxiety, panic, or fear usually starts before the chest pain begins. Someone might be feeling anxious, agitated, or irritable. That could trigger an increase in breath or heart rate, leading to various types of chest pain. If you’re suffering from panic disorder, there’s a small chance you’ll feel pain out of nowhere. This is normal. It’s your body’s way of reacting to stressful triggers – even when those triggers aren’t present.
Anxiety-related chest pain can feel:
- Stabbing and sharp, like a knife is pushing into your heart or sides
- Tight or confining, like someone is squeezing you too tight and you can’t break free
- Like your heart is hot or burning
- Spasmodic – random areas of pain at random times inside your chest or near your heart
- Dull and achy
- Twitchy (an uncomfortable sensation where your heart is)
What’s the Difference Between Anxiety Chest Pain and Other Kinds of Chest Pain (Like Heart Attacks)?
Is it anxiety or a heart condition? Is it a panic attack or is it a heart attack? These are common questions for people who suffer from anxiety-related chest pain. With a symptom like chest pain, it’s important to be able to recognize the difference. There are a few tell-tale signs that your chest pain is related to anxiety. If you’re still unsure, it never hurts to get checked out.
Chest pain from a heart condition or a heart attack looks like this:
- Radiating pain. If you’re having a heart attack, the pain will most likely move around – it doesn’t stay in your chest. It can move from your chest to your jaw, arms, and shoulders.
- Pain that keeps getting worse. A heart condition will cause your pain to gradually increase. It will begin to feel unbearable instead of uncomfortable.
- Pain that presents itself during physical activity. Heart attacks usually happen when someone is active.
- Pain that induces nausea or vomiting.
- Pain so bad it can cause you to pass out. If you’re having heart attack pain, it can cause you to lose consciousness.
- Pain that feels like intense pressure or “squeezing” in your chest.
Chest pain from an anxiety or panic attack looks like this:
- Pain that is accompanied by a racing heart. If you’re having a panic attack, you’ll notice your heart racing.
- Pain that stays in one place. Unlike a heart attack, anxiety chest pain is usually only felt in the chest.
- Pain that stays the same. Anxiety chest pain doesn’t continue to worsen over time. It’s usually immediate and it stays the same.
- Pain that presents itself when you’re sitting still. Anxiety chest pain can happen when you’re doing nothing.
- Pain that goes away in 10-30 minutes. Anxiety chest pain doesn’t stick around. You’ll begin to feel better as your panic subsides.
Both anxiety and heart attack chest pain also share symptoms like:
- Shortness of breath
If you’re having chest pains that share symptoms with a heart attack, try not to panic. Panic will increase your heart rate which can make your symptoms worse. If you have an anxiety or panic disorder, try to remind yourself that the pain is likely due to your condition and that it will pass. You can also try home remedies to decrease the pain. Remember: anxiety chest pain does not last. It will begin to subside within 30 minutes. The quicker you can calm down, the quicker the pain will go away.
How to Get Rid of Anxiety Chest Pain at Home
As scary as anxiety chest pain can be, there are ways you can find relief wherever you are. If you’ve experienced anxiety-related chest pain before but haven’t considered treatment, that might be an excellent next step. Treatment for anxiety disorders can teach you about your triggers and help you work through past trauma.
Here are some of the things you can do when anxiety-related chest pain hits:
- Deep breathing. When you breathe deeply, you signal to your brain that you’re not in danger. Breathing exercises can initially feel uncomfortable, especially if your heart is racing. By breathing deeply, you’re forcing your heart rate to slow down. Because a lot of anxiety chest pain is caused by a racing heart, this should be the first thing you try.
- Distract yourself. If your chest pain is caused by anxiety, try getting your mind on something else. Go for a walk, call a friend, watch TV, or read a book.
- Keep up with exercise. Exercise works wonders for anxiety. You don’t need to do too much of it to find relief for your symptoms, either. Try walking or jogging for 20-30 minutes a day.
- Limit your alcohol and caffeine intake. Alcohol and caffeine are common triggers for anxiety. To prevent anxiety chest pain, try eliminating these from your diet.
- Try meditating. Meditation works wonders for anxiety because it teaches the brain to stay calm. If you’re experiencing anxiety chest pain, turn on your favorite guided meditation to quiet your racing thoughts.
Treatment for Anxiety Disorder
Treatment can provide insight into why you’re experiencing this kind of pain. It can teach you healthy anxiety coping strategies, how to reroute your negative thinking, and how to navigate your anxiety. If you or someone you love is experiencing anxiety-related chest pain, it doesn’t have to be permanent. Healing, relief, and recovery are possible.
Sun Behavioral Health Delaware provides a wide range of specialized care and treatment options. We want everyone with anxiety to know there’s hope – you’re not alone. We’ve created a caring and healing environment for people just like you. To learn more or to schedule a consultation, call us today at (302) 604-5600.
FAQs About Chest Pain From Anxiety
What do anxiety chest pains feel like?
If you’re experiencing chest pain from anxiety, your pain will be sudden and stay in one place. You’ll often feel your heart racing and you might be sweaty or dizzy. You might also experience shortness of breath and sudden pain that stays in one place. If this happens, remain calm and try deep breathing exercises. The pain will subside.
How long can anxiety chest pain last?
Anxiety chest pain can last anywhere from 10-30 minutes. Try to remind yourself that it’s temporary and it will pass.