Anxiety Chest Pain: How To Manage Without Losing Your Mind
Updated December 18, 2018
Reviewer Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC
Lately, you've been under a lot of stress. Problems at work, financial worries, concern about family members and loved ones all combine to make you feel like you're under attack.
You're so stressed that your anxieties seem to play on a never-ending loop through your mind at all hours of the day, but especially when you're trying to relax.
And 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 a deep breath, your stomach hurts sometimes, and you feel as tense as an arrow pulled back on its bow.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, you feel it. 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.
Needless to say, this symptom just makes your anxiety even worse! Your mind goes off on yet another distressing tangent, wondering if you have a heart attack or if you are just crazy. Neither explanation is at all comforting.
If you suffer chest pain from anxiety, you're in very good company. This is a common anxiety symptom. The statistics show that one out of every four people seeking medical treatment for chest pain is suffering from anxiety or panic disorder, rather than experiencing a cardiac event.
While this may comfort you on some level, it doesn't alleviate the pain. Just because a symptom is in your head doesn't mean it's not real. Your body's reaction to prolonged anxiety causes very real physical symptoms…not all that different from the pain suffered by those with cardiac emergencies. And the emotional distress that accompanies this symptom is equally problematic.
The good news is that you do have the power to find relief for this crippling anxiety symptom.
Read on to learn about strategies for taming and eliminating your anxiety chest pain.
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 say 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 cause, 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 exactly alike in your mind, these slight differences can help you zero in on what may be the cause of your pain.
Differences Between Symptoms Of Anxiety And Heart Attack
- Chest pain due to a heart problem is often brought on by physical exercise or exertion. Anxiety chest pain can hit any time, even when your body is completely at rest.
- Heart attack pain often radiates from your chest to other parts of your body, like your arms, legs, and back. Anxiety chest pain generally is specific to your chest.
- Anxiety chest pain occurs when you are already feeling anxious. Heart attack pain takes places without regard to your emotional/mental state at the time.
- Anxiety chest pain tends to come on suddenly and go away quickly, whereas heart attack pain develops gradually and steadily increases over time.
- Anxiety chest pain tends to feel sharp and stabbing, while heart attack pain is generally described as a steady pressure.
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
Can anxiety cause chest pain? Yes, it definitely can!
Your mind and body are intricately connected. Your anxiety has a profound effect on the way your body functions. Here's how.
The truth is that anxiety has an important function 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 is past. 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 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, 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 affect your chest, too, as it's likely to result in heartburn and acid reflux.
So as you can see, chronic anxiety is a recipe for physical pain, to a degree which 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 and your chest barely moves at all. Pause in between each breath; this 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 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. Simply by exercising regularly and getting enough sleep, you can dramatically reduce your anxiety symptoms.
If all these techniques fail, it may be time to seek the help of a professional in managing your anxiety. Cognitive behavior therapy can help you identify the thought patterns that trigger your flight-or-fight response and to replace them with more positive and calming thoughts.
The therapists at BetterHelp understand severe anxiety symptoms like anxiety chest pain. They can help give you the coping strategies you need to get your mind off the anxiety train and develop healthier thought patterns. Don't hesitate to reach out to them if you are struggling with anxiety chest pain or any other anxiety symptom.
While it may feel like imminent death, anxiety chest pain won't kill you. You have the power to get through it, conquer it, and live a more peaceful and positive life.