Chest tightness is arguably one of the most frightening anxiety symptoms. While anxiety has a variety of physical manifestations, chest tightness is the one that is associated with the most alarming health conditions, including heart attacks and stroke.
It is highly possible for chest tightness to be a symptom of many cardiac conditions, and experiencing it can often lead to further anxiety. Yet, in some cases, it is a result of anxiety, especially if one suffers from anxiety attacks frequently.
Frightening Symptoms of Anxiety
Chest tightness is an anxiety symptom that often causes a severe amount of distress. That is because chest tightness has a negative connotation that links it to severe health conditions. This can be very daunting for individuals who do not know much about the physical effects of stress and anxiety in their lives.
What Causes Chest Tightness
There is no exact explanation of what causes chest tightness in anxiety sufferers. Nevertheless, it is advised to seek a primary care provider immediately for any sudden or worsening chest pain in order to rule out possible cardiac disease.
Do not by any means feel as if you are bothering anyone when you seek help for chest pain. Once serious health conditions are ruled out, you can begin to tackle your anxiety-induced chest pain.
Rest assured that anxiety can commonly cause chest tightness and chest pain for a variety of reasons. These include:
- Hyperventilation: This is one of the most common causes of chest tightness in anxiety sufferers. Hyperventilation is a secondary condition to anxiety and is due to rapid breathing in response to a stressful situation. It results in your body taking shorter, shallower breaths that do not allow you to maintain the levels of carbon dioxide in your blood that are needed for proper ventilation. As a result, hyperventilation can cause a squeezing sensation around or near the heart as your breathing worsens.
- Bloating/Gas/Heartburn: Anxiety and stress have a profound effect on digestion because stress from anxiety puts undue pressure on your gut that can alter your normal digestive pattern. That pressure can lead to bloating; in some people, bloating tends to present with chest pressure that can often be misinterpreted as chest pain and/or tightness. Your chest is not tighter in any way, but the experience may subjectively feel like tightness. Heartburn is often classified as chest tightness when it actually is irritation of your lower esophagus by stomach acid. It also does not cause true chest tightness.
- Muscle strain: In some cases, people experience muscle strain or chest wall pain that can give the sensation of chest tightness but is actually musculoskeletal. Anxiety can exacerbate this discomfort and cause it to feel like chest tightness.
Chest tightness most often occurs right before or during an anxiety attack. It may also present spontaneously with no anxiety at all in what is known as a limited-symptom panic attack.
Rest assured that chest discomfort caused by anxiety is usually harmless.
How You Can Tell if You Are Suffering from Anxiety-Related Chest Tightness
The easiest way to determine if you are suffering from anxiety-induced chest tightness is by ruling out any cardiac or lung-related disease. Only a physician can rule these out completely.
A few signs can be helpful in determining if your chest tightness is cardiac-related. This is by no means an all-inclusive list. So, when in doubt, please visit your primary care physician. Generally, the following is more likely to be true of anxiety-related chest tightness and/or pressure:
- It is less likely to radiate towards the back, arms, or shoulders.
- It is more likely to occur with other anxiety symptoms.
- It tends to last for less than 10 minutes.
Again, having chest pain that abides by these suggestions does not rule out any cardiac or pulmonary causes. Also, women, diabetics, and the elderly often present with chest pain that is atypical of traditional cardiac chest tightness. So, if you belong to one of these groups and have new-onset chest pressure and/or tightness, it is best to see a physician first.
Anxiety attacks have a “peak” time, and that tends to be when the chest pressure is at its worst. Cardiac chest pressure, on the other hand, is more likely to last longer than 15 minutes, radiate, not be relieved with the resolution of anxiety, and be associated with shortness of breath etc.
Ways to Reduce Chest Pressure
When you are experiencing chest pressure and/or tightness, the key is to try to figure out the potential causes. Once you deem anxiety to be the cause of the symptom(s), the next goal is to stop it. See the following examples:
- Hyperventilation: Try to get your breathing under control by taking slower, deeper breaths and not trying to “over-breathe” or breathe too fast. When you’re experiencing hyperventilation, you may feel as though you’re not getting enough air, but hyperventilation occurs when you have expelled more CO2 than you make. So breathing more slowly helps to rebuild those CO2 levels.
- Bloating/Heartburn: If you can potentially reduce/prevent any gas, do so. You may also want to consider taking an antacid or drinking water, which may help with bloating or heartburn. Heartburn can be improved by eating more slowly, decreasing the amounts of spicy foods you consume, and staying upright for at least 30 minutes after eating. Also, avoid heartburn-inducing foods like peppermint, chocolate, coffee or caffeinated beverages, tomatoes, alcohol, and citrus fruits
- Muscle Strain: Be mindful of lifting or carrying items that are too heavy. Make sure to stretch and warm up your muscles before doing any strenuous activities.
These are only temporary fixes. Remember that your chest pressure and/or tightness is often related to some type of anxiety issue or anxiety disorder. That means that the only way to prevent the chest pressure from returning is to learn to manage your anxiety.
Yet, before you can do that, you need to make sure that you know what type of anxiety you are suffering from and what symptoms may result from it.
Hyperventilation is the most common cause of chest tightness with anxiety, caused by breathing too quickly when you feel anxious. Other causes need to be addressed using means specific to each one. Anxiety reduction, using CBT, medication, or self-help treatment is the only way to effectively control chest tightness overall, but there are strategies that can be used to decrease its severity in the interim.