Anxiety & Chest Pain: What You Need To Know To Manage Your Symptoms

Chest pain is among one of the most common symptoms of anxiety¹, right alongside shortness of breath, increased heart rate, and dizziness. These symptoms can rear their head intermittently throughout the day, though they're most noticeable during a panic attack. While the two are often linked to each other, anxiety is more of a spectrum.

Anxiety can range from moderate to severe symptoms that interfere with your daily life, and you may notice your symptoms build up throughout the day. Typically, most people with anxiety describe a constant feeling of being tense or on edge. On the other hand, panic attacks are intense and happen very suddenly. There may be a specific trigger behind your panic attack, or it may come on for seemingly no reason at all. Nevertheless, both can cause chest pain.

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How anxiety chest pain feels

Anxiety chest pain will vary from person to person. Your symptoms may even vary from day to day. The stressors you encounter throughout your routine may also affect the intensity of your symptoms. In general, though, anxiety chest pain may feel like:

  • Tension, tightness, and pressure: You might experience a mild, constant tightness or a sudden, intense tightness in your chest. You may also feel like it's difficult to breathe or that your heart is beating out of your chest.

  • Persistent aching or burning: Similarly, you might experience a persistent ache in your chest, similar to heartburn. 

  • Numbness: Your chest might feel numb or "tingly," similar to when your leg falls asleep from sitting in one position for too long.

  • Sharp, shooting, or stabbing pain: It's also common to feel a sudden onset of shooting or stabbing chest pain. In fact, most individuals² who go to the hospital for chest pain are released from the emergency room with a non-heart-related diagnosis. As frightening as these symptoms are, they're often not fatal and aren't related to a heart condition.

How long does anxiety chest pain last?

While anxiety chest pain varies from person to person, you may feel a constant, mild sense of discomfort or chest pain that comes and goes throughout the day. Panic attacks can last anywhere from five to 30 minutes. Panic attack symptoms typically last about 10 minutes, and your symptoms will subside up to 30 minutes later. It would be best to give yourself extra time to recover and calm down before jumping back into your activities.

Know the difference: anxiety symptoms v.s. heart conditions

As mentioned above, anxiety-related chest pain is frequently mistaken for a heart attack or other heart condition. But there are key differences between the two. For example, anxiety-related chest pain usually occurs while you're not engaged in any physical activity. You may experience anxiety chest pain while working out, for example, but it usually occurs while you're sitting down or lying in bed.

In contrast, those with a heart condition have chest pain while physically exerting themselves. For example, the symptoms may flare up while you're running, jogging, or lifting something heavy. Chest pain isn't the only indicator of something more immediately threatening, like a heart attack. Sometimes, patients have heart attacks without feeling any chest pain (this is especially true for women)³. Instead, the key indicators of a heart attack include:

  • Tightness or shooting pain in your jaw, left arm, or other parts of your body

  • Squeezing or heavy pressure in your chest

  • Nausea that occurs with chest pain (though nausea is a common symptom of anxiety, too)

  • Shortness of breath and a rapid heart rate (again, these can also be symptoms of anxiety)

If you are unsure whether you're experiencing anxiety or a heart attack, seek treatment immediately. It's much better to leave the ER with peace of mind than to let a heart attack go untreated. You should be especially careful if you're at an increased risk of having a heart attack due to your age, family history, or lifestyle.

What causes anxiety chest pain

In the past, humans relied on the body’s “fight or flight response" to help them avoid the threats that we don’t experience today (e.g., being chased by wild animals or fighting other tribes). The only problem is, as we have evolved, this fight or flight response hasn't. Therefore, your body kicks into overdrive during everyday stressors, such as making deadlines or running late for a meeting.

While this system of pumping adrenaline through your body, decreasing blood flow to your digestive system, and increasing your heart rate would've increased your ancestors’ chances of survival, these symptoms are highly disruptive in the modern era.

The chest pain caused by anxiety is the byproduct of increases in your heart rate and blood pressure. Hyperventilating during a panic attack can also trigger chest pain.

Reducing and managing anxiety chest pain

If you're experiencing new or frequent panic attacks or persistent anxiety-related chest pain, it's time to schedule an appointment with your doctor. Together, you can create a treatment plan that suits your lifestyle and reduces your symptoms.

In the meantime, there are a few methods you can try at home to reduce your symptoms, including:

  • Practice mindfulness: When you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or anxious, pause. Step back from the task at hand and take a deep breath. Take note of your surroundings and remind yourself that you are okay. You are safe.

  • Find the root of your anxiety: While some individuals experience chronic anxiety, certain circumstances can increase the constant, low-level symptoms they feel. If you're feeling particularly overwhelmed, but you're not sure why to take a moment to collect yourself and reflect. Is there something that's causing your symptoms to flare up more than usual? Is it something immediate, something that happened yesterday, or something you know will happen in the next few days? Is there anything you can do to control the situation? Focus on what would make you feel more comfortable right now.

  • Go to your happy place: Close your eyes, and again, take a deep breath. Picture your happy place — is it a scenic field? A cozy seat in your favorite coffee shop? Snuggled up on your couch? Immerse yourself in your imagination until you feel calm.

  • Start counting: Keep yourself preoccupied with something that requires a little bit of focus but not too much physical or mental energy. Counting is a great way to keep your mind busy, especially if you count by threes, fours, sevens, eights, or nines. Counting in multiples will cause you to focus more than you would if you were counting by ones. 

  • This too shall pass: If you have a panic attack, remind yourself that it's only temporary. While it may feel like your panic attack will last for hours, in reality, your symptoms will decrease within about a half-hour.

The lowdown

Chest pain is one of the most common symptoms of anxiety. Although it may be painful and frightening, more often than not, chest pain is usually caused by non-heart-related conditions. Anxiety-related chest pain feels different for everybody. For some, it's sudden and sharp. For others, anxiety chest pain is a constant tight sensation in your chest.

If you believe you're experiencing chest pain due to a heart condition, immediately go to the emergency room. It is always much better to be safe than sorry. Likewise, it's important to consult your primary care physician about your symptoms so you can work together to create a treatment plan.

For more information on anxiety, please visit our website.

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