If you’ve been under a lot of stress lately, the issues can seem to compound. Problems at work, financial worries, and your concern for your loved ones can all combine to make you feel as though you’re under attack. You’re so stressed that your anxieties often seem to play on a never-ending loop through your mind at all hours of the day, especially when you’re trying to relax.
As if things weren’t already bad enough, the stress seems to be taking a toll on your body. You’re having trouble sleeping or taking deep breaths, your stomach hurts sometimes, and you feel as tense as an arrow pulled back on its bow. Suddenly, out of nowhere, you feel the scariest symptom of all.
Chest pain. Like an elephant is sitting on your chest, crushing it. The pain is so severe that it takes your breath away.
Anxiety is something that many people deal with, but some experience it more intensely than others. If you are having such severe anxiety symptoms that you’re starting to experience chest pain, then you’re likely very worried about something. Many people have panic attacks that mimic certain symptoms of a heart attack, which can be disconcerting. Luckily, it is possible to manage anxiety chest pain without losing your mind.
Anxiety Chest Pain vs. Heart Attack
The first step in managing your pain is getting to the root of what’s causing it. Before we mention anything else, please know that if you are experiencing chest pain for the first time, it’s important to seek immediate medical attention. Your doctor or the hospital emergency department can rule out some possible causes of your pain. Do not feel embarrassed if it is determined that your chest pain is caused by anxiety or stress. No matter the reason, your pain is real, and you deserve to feel better. There are some key differences between anxiety symptoms and those that indicate a cardiac issue. While both may feel very similar in your mind, these slight differences can help you discover what might be the cause of your pain.
Differences Between Symptoms of Anxiety and Heart Attack
While these guidelines can help you reassure yourself that the cause of your pain is not potentially deadly, it’s still important to discuss your symptoms with your doctor. Once you have determined that anxiety is, in fact, the cause of your discomfort, you might wonder what causes your chest to hurt when you’re anxious and what you can do about it.
The Cause of Anxiety Chest Pain
Your mind and body are intricately connected. Your anxiety has a profound effect on the way your body functions. The truth is that anxiety has a vital role in human survival. It sends signals to your body that it’s time to prepare to ward off a threat.
The physical reaction of your body to anxiety is called the “stress response,” which usually takes the form of a fight-or-flight mechanism. In other words, if your mind perceives an imminent danger, your body prepares to either fight back or run away. One of the many ways that your body accomplishes this goal is through muscle tension. Your muscles instinctively tense up as a way to protect them from damage if you are in physical danger. The tension also serves to hold you at the ready for increased exertion by fighting back or running away.
Under normal circumstances, this stress response naturally fades away once the danger has passed. It can take as long as an hour for your body to return to its normal state. An anxiety disorder results when you experience the stress response even when there is no immediate danger present. The result is that you remain in an almost constant fight-or-flight state, with no time for your body to heal and return to normal. The relentless muscle tension that it results in is not healthy or natural since your stress response is supposed to be only temporary. This is not good for any part of your body, but you are most likely to feel it from the muscles around your chest and rib cage. Eventually, the constant tightness of the muscles in this area will lead to pain.
Another common result of the fight-or-flight response is that your digestion slows. If this is more or less constant, it can lead to stomach pain. Ongoing problems with digestion can also affect your chest, as they’re likely to result in heartburn and acid reflux.
As you can tell, chronic anxiety is a recipe for physical pain to a degree that can be debilitating. But what can you do? Fortunately, there are some strategies at your disposal for healing anxiety chest pain.
Anxiety Chest Pain Relief
Here are a few tried-and-true tactics on how to get rid of anxiety chest pain.
Find a Safe Place
Give yourself some shelter and privacy and allow yourself to calm down to tame your anxiety symptoms. Find a quiet room or a secluded corner. Pull over to the side of the road if you’re driving.
Breathing slowly and deeply from your abdomen can reverse the stress response and bring you to a place of calm. If possible, go to a safe place, and put one hand on your abdomen and the other on your chest. Try to breathe so that your stomach rises gently, barely moving your chest. Pausing in between each breath has the effect of slowing down your breathing and reversing the effects of anxiety and panic.
Make Changes to Your Diet
A diet high in caffeine, alcohol, and refined sugar can contribute to worsening anxiety symptoms. Do your best to limit these things, or even cut them out of your diet altogether. You’ll be amazed at how much better (and calmer) you feel. Consider seeing a nutritionist in order to learn how you can get your body in better balance.
Identify Irrational Fears
It’s helpful to identify the thought patterns that are kicking your stress response into high gear. Do you frequently imagine the worst-case scenario, even when it’s unlikely to occur? Are you preoccupied with the feelings and opinions of others? Are you truly in an unsafe situation, or do you perceive a danger that isn’t there? Once you realize that your anxiety is not based on the presence of real danger, but only a product of your thought process, you can gain control over your fears much more easily.
Take Care of Your Body
We discussed diet, but it’s equally important to take care of yourself in other ways. By simply exercising regularly and getting enough sleep, you can dramatically reduce your anxiety symptoms.
A growing body of research and peer-reviewed studies suggests that guided online therapy can help manage and alleviate symptoms of anxiety. In a study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, researchers found that internet-based cognitive-behavioral therapy (iCBT) significantly decreased feelings of anxiety in participants. The report also notes that the benefits of treatment were sustained over the long term, based on a ning-month checkup. Cognitive-behavior therapy can help identify the thought patterns that trigger fight-or-flight responses, and replace them with more positive and calming thoughts. With iCBT, useful online resources are made available, in combination with therapist guidance, to lead those who are experiencing mental health concerns through a comprehensive treatment plan.
As mentioned above, online therapy is an effective way to manage symptoms related to anxiety disorders, including chest pain. If your anxiety already makes dealing with stressful situations difficult, you may not need the added stress of traffic, rushing through a lunch break, and/or sitting in a waiting room just to visit a therapist. Online therapy is a flexible and affordable alternative. Through messaging, live chat, voice call, or video chat, BetterHelp’s licensed therapists can give you the coping strategies you need to get your mind off of anxiety and develop healthier thought patterns. Take a look at how BetterHelp counselors have been able to help others with anxiety by reading the counselor reviews below.
“Erica has been really incredible with talking to me about relationships, career advice, and anxiety coping mechanisms. I love that she checks in on me outside of our live sessions and makes a point to really call out underlying reasons for my anxiety and how to improve them.”
“Colleen is very personable and kind. I’m amazed at her memory and ability to recall the little things. She helps get to the bottom of my problems and issues and helps me see things in a clearer light. This has helped me be more aware of my core issues and has improved my anxiety. She provides collaborative counseling, and I’m amazed at what I can get accomplished in half an hour!”
Anxiety-related chest pains might make you feel worried, but everything will be okay once you take the time to get help. A truly fulfilling life in which anxiety doesn’t hold you back is possible — all you need are the right tools.
Below are some commonly asked questions on this topic:
What do anxiety chest pains feel like?
Anxiety chest pain can mimic heart attack symptoms. It may feel like a sudden, severe chest pain that comes with a stabbing pressure, or it may be a sharp, shooting pain. You may also have a persistent achy feeling in your chest, or the anxiety chest pain may present as an unusual muscle spasm or twitch. It could also be chest tension, a sensation of tightness, a dull ache, numbness, or burning.
You may have other symptoms caused by anxiety as well, such as heart palpitations, difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, rapid breathing, body tensing, and more. Many of these symptoms are common for people experiencing a panic attack or anxiety attack; although anxiety has roots in mental health, it can cause physical symptoms as well.
If you experience anxiety chest pain, it’s best to seek medical attention from a healthcare professional or visit the emergency department to rule out heart attacks, which are a type of acute coronary syndrome.
The good news is that, if you experience anxiety chest pain, there are ways to alleviate it. Many of these involve lifestyle changes, coping skills, and treating any underlying mental health diagnoses such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and other anxiety disorders.
Learning to manage anxiety will be extremely helpful in eliminating chest pain and other symptoms. Remember that although chest pain caused by anxiety or panic can be frightening and uncomfortable, it is not life-threatening.
How long does anxiety chest pain last?
Non-cardiac chest pain caused by anxiety typically only lasts a few minutes, and with the right coping skills, such as deep breathing, it can be alleviated very quickly. While a panic attack can mimic the symptoms of a heart attack, it may comfort you to know that only two to four percent of people who seek medical care or visit the emergency room for chest pain are diagnosed with heart disease or another heart-related issue, such as heart attacks.
What part of your chest hurts with anxiety?
If you have sudden chest pain caused by anxiety or panic, you’ll generally feel it throughout the entire chest area, although it may be more focused on one side or the other. It may feel like heavy pressure, or it could be a sharp, stabbing pain.
Conversely, cardiac chest pain generally feels like discomfort in the center of the chest. It’s often accompanied by pain or discomfort in other parts of the body, such as the arms, stomach, back, neck, and jaw. You may also experience symptoms like shortness of breath, nausea, and lightheadedness.
Anxiety attacks often mimic heart attack symptoms, and because the typical and atypical symptoms of these issues are so similar, it’s always smart to see a healthcare provider when you experience chest pain, even if it turns out to be low-risk chest pain, so that you can rule out any serious health issues.
How do I know if I have chest pain or anxiety?
Although it’s always recommended to see a doctor when experiencing chest pain, there are some signs that indicate you’re dealing with anxiety rather than a cardiac issue.
For example, you’ll often feel anxious before you experience chest pain caused by a panic attack or anxiety attacks. The anxiety may have an obvious trigger, and the anxiety can cause chest pain in turn. If you have frequent anxiety or panic attacks, you may be familiar with your triggers, or the situations that set off panic attacks for you.
If you find that the chest pain disappears when you engage in deep breathing or manage to distract yourself from the source of anxiety, then it’s likely related to anxiety rather than a physical health issue.
The chest pain that comes with a heart attack often occurs after physical exertion, while anxiety chest pain usually does not, unless one of your anxiety triggers has to do with physical activity.
If anxiety or panic attacks that cause chest pain have become a part of your everyday life, there’s a chance that you’re living with panic disorder. Frequent panic attacks and anxiety can put you at an increased risk of dizziness, headaches, and depression. Consider working with a mental health professional to alleviate potential anxiety and panic disorders; know that help is always available.
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