Every person gets anxious at a given time in their lives. Anxiety is a normal human emotion that helps the body to run, hide or fight in case of danger. For people with anxiety and panic attacks chest pain is among the common symptoms.
Some people have frequent anxiety experiences. These people have both emotional and physical symptoms. Symptoms that are experienced in anxiety are shared among several mental disorders and other illnesses.
Pain in the chest from anxiety is a common symptom of anxiety attacks but is also connected to heart attacks and other heart diseases. 12-16 percent of the American population experience chest pains sometime during their lives.
Chest pain in anxiety also contributes to more anxiety. This is because it is uncomfortable, frightening, painful in addition to the fear for heart conditions.
Chest pain in people with chronic anxiety is manageable but also in some cases you need to see a doctor.
How does anxiety chest pain feel like?
There are several anxiety symptoms. The symptoms vary from individual to individual and in different episodes of anxiety or panic attacks.
Most of the symptoms of anxiety are shared with other disorders.
Anxiety chest pain also has different manifestation in different people. It may have gradual in nature in some individuals while others experience instantaneous pain.
Anxiety chest pain exhibits itself in the following ways:
- Chest tightness or a tense chest
- A sharp, spurting pain
- Continual pain in the chest
- Abnormal muscle spasm/ twitch in the chest
- Piercing pressure
- A sweltering or blunt ache
If you experience anxiety chest pain for the first time, you may think that you are suffering from a heart attack.
Anxiety chest pain vs heart attack
There are several similarities between pain in the chest from anxiety and pain in the chest from heart conditions. Both present with an increased heart rate/ palpitations, sweating, feelings of unreality, numbness of extremities, dizziness, vertigo, trembling and fainting.
However, there are the following differences in symptoms between the two:
- Time of development: Majorly anxiety chest pain occurs during rest while heart attacks happen often during periods where you are active.
- Sharpness: Pain in the chest from anxiety attacks in most cases feel sharper and normally lasts for 5-10 seconds as compared to heavy pressure, squeezing chest pain from heart attacks.
- Location and spread in the body: chest pain from anxiety in most instances remain localized in the chest while heart attack pain spread to other body parts like arms, jaw, and other extremities.
- Speed of development and the period they last: In most instances anxiety chest pains develop rapidly and disappear quickly. Anxiety chest pains in most instances only last for 10 minutes. Heart attacks chest pain develop more gradually with increase in pain as time progresses.
- Shortness of breath. It is experienced in heart attacks but is rarely experienced in anxiety chest pain.
- Gender comparison: Anxiety disorders are more common in women while heart attacks are more prevalent in men. Prevalence of anxiety disorders in women is higher (23.4%) as compared to 14.3% in men. According to research men are twice as likely to have a heart attack as compared to women
through-out their lifetimes.
Inconclusive studies have shown a relation between the development of heart attacks in people diagnosed with anxiety disorders especially panic disorder.
What causes chest pains in anxiety?
During the anxiety moments, the brain produces chemicals that influence the fight-or-fight response to the stimuli. This response is both physical and psychological changes.
The fight-or-flight response includes physical responses like tense muscles, increase in heart rate, sweating among others. The pain in the chest from anxiety may be caused by mechanisms in either the cardiac system
or not related to the cardiac system.
The body in people without chronic anxiety, is able to recuperate fully within 30 minutes. However, in people with anxiety disorders full recuperation does not take place.
The lack of recuperation makes the muscles hypersensitive leading to muscle tension. When the chest muscles are consistently tense, they become painful.
In addition to the chest muscles tension, the heart rate increases during anxiety. With anxiety disorders, the heart rate may become stronger. In addition, there are coronary artery spasms associated with increased anxiety, more resistance of small blood vessels in the heart, blood pressure increases and because the heart is pumping faster there is an increase in oxygen demand.
Other non-cardiac mechanisms that can cause chest pain in anxiety include low carbon dioxide levels in the blood due to hyperventilation and irregular contractions in the esophagus. Low carbon dioxide levels (respiratory alkalosis) in the body results in the following symptoms:
- Having hand shivers.
- Twitching of the muscles.
- Nausea and in some instances vomiting.
- Numbness in the extremities and face.
- Protracted muscle contractions (tetany)
Combining the cardiac and non-cardiac mechanisms may cause the unfamiliar pain in the chest.
How Long does Anxiety Chest Pain Last?
The anxiety chest pain in most instances lasts for approximately 10 minutes. This is in people without regular anxiety attacks.
In people with regular anxiety attacks like panic attacks, anxiety can cause chest pain every day. Due to frequency of chest pain in people with regular anxiety attacks, some people may feel like they have anxiety chest pain/ tightness for days.
Other symptoms of anxiety or panic attacks can last for longer, sometimes up to an hour. Some of the common symptoms of anxiety or panic attacks include:
- Panic, fear, and uneasiness
- Sleep problems
- Memory problems
- Irritability and inability to stay calm and still (restlessness)
- Cold, sweaty, numb or tingling hands or feet
- Shortness of breath and anxiety chest pain
- Heart palpitations
- Dry mouth
- Tense muscles and getting fatigued easily
- Dizziness, or faintness
- Feeling of detachment
Anxiety chest attacks is seen in fast onset panic attacks whereas in slow developing panic attacks only 10% of patients experience anxiety chest pains.
Treatment for anxiety chest pain
Chest pain caused by anxiety can be treated by preventing anxiety attacks or curing the anxiety attacks when they occur.
There are 3 major ways of treating anxiety disorders:
- Medication and home remedies/practices to cope with anxiety disorders.
Psychotherapy is also referred as the talk therapy where one is given skills to recognize and diffuse anxiety disorders thoughts and behaviors early or to prevent them.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) including transdiagnostic treatment of emotional disorders have proven to be very effective in treating anxiety disorders.
The approach is a collaborative one between the mental disorders specialist and the patient that is done in several sessions. They help in prevention, reduction or management of anxiety symptoms without the use of medication.
- Anxiolytics and antidepressants like Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, benzodiazepines among others.
These drugs are primarily used for depression. Most of them target neurotransmitters involved in stress.
They are used as anxiolytics because of the side effects of antidepressants. They are used as mood stabilizers for people with anxiety in an ‘off label’ way.
Other medications include first generation antihistamines and GABA.
Using medications for chest pains caused by anxiety should be guided by a doctor. This is because a doctor will be able to advise on the best drug for anxiety chest pains, their side effects, contraindications and adverse reactions.
There are several practices that can help in anxiety disorders. These life-hacks improve the quality of life by preventing or relieving the symptoms of anxiety.
Some of the tips include:
Being negative about the moods and expectations of improving the health is a common symptom in most anxiety disorders. Trying to be positive is also hard in case of anxiety is also quite difficult.
However, one can become positive by painting a picture in your brain of the serene and peaceful picture of the place that calms you can be of much help.
In addition, being proud of yourself can help you to become positive. That is by not beating yourself up when you don’t become the best.
Deep breathing in case of anxiety chest pain can be of much help to relieve the anxiety. The deep breaths calm the body and brain. The deep breathing can be accompanied by counting to 10 to help focus the body on something else.
Accept that stress is temporary and may not be as bad as you imagine
Nobody in the world has control over everything that he faces. As a person suffering from anxiety, the stressing situation will most definitely pass.
The stressing situation as said in most phrases ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. The stressing situation may not be as bad as your brain registers and after the ordeal you will come out stronger.
Anxiety can be quite stressing when you are not doing anything. To get relief from anxious moments, try and be active. Activity helps to distract your brain from the stressing situation.
If you have work to do, be engrossed in the work and if you do not have work to do, volunteer where possible.
Exercise, sleep and diet
Being proactive about the things that contribute to good health can help in relieving the anxiety.
Exercise helps in regulation of brain chemicals and also enables you to sleep. Anaerobic exercises also help in blood flow and thus enable the muscles to remain healthy.
Good sleep every night helps to balance the brain chemicals and the rest enables rejuvenation of the body too.
A balanced meal every day helps to provide the body with all the required nutrients for growth, repair, energy and rejuvenation.
Minimize the use of caffeine, smoking, alcohol and other drugs
The three commonly abused substances are some of the main contributors to anxiety disorders. The three should be taken in moderation or avoided completely in the case of drugs.
Caffeine and smoking may increase the heart rate even more increasing the pain caused by anxiety.
Practice relaxation techniques
During stressing times, it is good to learn how to relax and calm your body and brain. To relax, you can practice yoga, meditation, get a massage or listen to your favorite music.
There are also some relaxation apps that can guide you on how to relax.
It is good to know some of the symptoms of anxiety including chest pains. This will go a long way in knowing that it is chest pain caused by anxiety and not a heart attack.
Anxiety chest pains can be treated. Can be done using the common anxiety disorders treatment methods like psychotherapy, medications and home remedies.
In anxiety chest pains, it is also good to see a doctor to get an evaluation of whether you have an anxiety disorder or even a heart attack.