Anxiety may be best known for its mental symptoms, but it's often the physical symptoms that cause the most distress.
One of the most frightening anxiety symptoms is chest pain. That's because chest pain is associated with serious heart problems, leading many to worry about their health. Yet it is common for chest pain to actually be a symptom of anxiety.
In this article, we'll look at some common causes for anxiety-driven chest pain, how to tell the difference between anxiety chest pain and a heart problem, and ways to calm yourself when you experience this type of pain.
Anxiety and Unusual Physical Symptoms
Rapid heartbeat, sweating, nausea, dizziness - these are the traditional symptoms of anxiety. But the vast majority of anxiety sufferers experience their own unique physical symptoms, including:
- Leg tingling.
- Feeling of losing control.
- Muscle weakness
- And, of course, chest pain.
What Causes Chest Pain
It is always a good idea to visit a doctor at least once to rule out any potential heart health issues. Anxiety can cause chest pain, but an important factor in reducing the stress of that chest pain is by making sure you are confident that your heart is in good health. Visiting a doctor is never a bad thing!
Often those living with anxiety and panic attacks will experience chest pain caused by any number of different factors. Some of these include:
- Hyperventilation - Those with panic attacks and anxiety are prone to hyperventilation, or breathing in too much oxygen. It is often due to rapid muscle contractions and excess air in the lungs. Hyperventilation contracts blood vessels and causes considerable chest pain.
- Bloating - anxiety can be connected to excess gas or bloating. Hyperventilation disorder can contribute to this as well. Bloating can cause an increased amount of pressure on the lungs, which in turn leads to chest pain.
- Psychosomatic - most people don't like to believe the idea that the problem is in their head, but those with extreme anxiety and panic attacks, that are worried about their health, may feel genuine pain even though no cause of pain is present. Psychosomatic means that a physical ailment is aggravated or caused by their thoughts. The anxious mind actually convinces the body that there is a symptom, in this case chest pain.
Because chest pain often occurs during anxiety attacks and with other anxiety symptoms, it can be extremely frightening. Most people report feeling as if they are having a heart attack and may even seek emergency medical treatment. Often the chest pain is harmless and can be calmed by learning how to manage it.
How to Tell the Difference Between Anxiety Chest Pain and Cardiac Chest Pain
There's no guaranteed method of knowing whether or not chest pain is caused by anxiety or by a heart problem. But generally the two differ in their overall experience:
Anxiety Chest Pain
- Tends to be sharper.
- Is usually more localized to a specific area.
- Closer to the middle of the chest, although not necessarily.
Cardiac Chest Pain
- Tends to radiate all around the shoulder and possibly the jaw.
- Tends to be a duller pain, like the heart is being crushed.
- Lasts longer than 10 minutes or more.
There are a lot of similarities between the two. Both may have lightheadedness or dizziness and feel like the heart is being squeezed. Both can make it harder to breathe (or come as a result of it being harder to breath). It's not easy to tell the difference, but the differences are there. Furthermore, once you identify what anxiety chest pain feels like for you, in the moment, you may feel more reassured about what your symptoms are indicating (anxiety or cardiac).
How to Reduce Anxiety and Chest Pain
The best way to manage chest pain is with prevention and by reducing your overall anxiety symptoms. The less you experience anxiety, the less risk you'll have for chest pain.
If you're currently experiencing anxiety and chest pain, the best things to do are the following:
- Control Your Breathing Recall that this type of chest pain is often caused by hyperventilation, and even if you're not hyperventilating, getting your breathing under control is a great way to calm the nerves. Take slow, controlled breaths using deep breathing techniques that take at least 15 seconds and you'll quickly see a difference. Try to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth, breathing deep from your diaphragm rather than shallow from your chest.
- Control Your Thoughts One of the reasons I recommend going to a doctor first is because understanding that your chest pain is anxiety related reduces the severity of the experience. If you know that your heart is in good health, don't let your thoughts spiral out of control because that may make the chest pain worse.
- Control Your Environment Chest pain caused by thoughts or anxiety is often made worse when you sit and focus on the experience. See if you can give yourself a healthy coping distraction, and much of the chest pain will fade away. Some suggestions for this include changing your location (go outside, get away from noise or chaos, take a bath), listen to relaxing or happy music, talk on the phone with a trusted friend, or use grounding techniques to focus on the present.
If your chest pain is caused by gas or bloating, trying to let out some of the gas can also help.
Learning general anxiety management techniques are the most important strategy for reducing the experience of chest pain.
Did you know that your anxiety can lead to more than just chest pain?
While chest pain may be the most frightening symptom, it is just one of many physical symptoms that anxiety can cause. Other physical symptoms may include:
- Rapid heartbeat, pounding, or heart palpitations
- Trembling or shaking
- Feeling of choking
- Nausea or abdominal discomfort
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Numbness or tingling sensations
- Chills or hot flashes
- The feeling of being detached from your own body (known as depersonalization)
These anxiety symptoms can leave you feeling like your health is in serious jeopardy. By seeking medical attention to rule out health problems you can help to reassure yourself that you are okay and proceed to learn coping skills for managing your anxiety symptoms. Anxiety and stress prevention, along with treatment for your anxiety, is the best way to prevent future physical symptoms including the alarming symptom: chest pain.