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Can Anxiety Cause Chest Pain? Understanding and Resolving Anxiety Chest Pain

Chest pain and anxiety, name a better duo. Okay, I won’t wait: the list is endless. While chest pain and anxiety might be peas in a pod, they’re a terrible burden for those who suffer.

Chest pain is a symptom that often raises alarm bells, sparking concerns about heart health. However, chest pain is also a physical manifestation of anxiety and the symptoms of anxiety can mimic symptoms of a heart attack. Of course, if you’re already feeling anxious, it’s easy to worry about other health concerns and the chest pain brought on by anxiety can compound your feelings of fear and dread.

Recognizing that your chest pain is caused by anxiety and not a symptom of a more acute health concern is an important step. Contextualizing your feelings, and reminding yourself that you’ve been through them before and survived, is vital when you’re experiencing anxiety.

In this article, we'll explore the relationship between anxiety and chest pain, and find some coping mechanisms to help you manage.

Can Anxiety Cause Chest Pain?

Yes, anxiety can cause chest pain. While anxiety begins in the mind it has many physical manifestations and when we're anxious or stressed, our bodies undergo various physiological changes. While chest pain should never be ignored, it’s important to contextualize it and remember there can be many causes.

Chest pain caused by anxiety is common, and when chest pain is not caused by a heart attack, it’s related to anxiety between one-quarter and half the time

What Does Anxiety Feel Like?

Anxiety is a complex emotional state, and it feels differently for everyone. Some common feelings associated with anxiety include:

  • Tightness or pressure in the chest

  • Rapid heartbeat

  • Shortness of breath

  • Dizziness

  • Tingling sensations in the hands and feet

  • A feeling of dread or fear

Anxiety might be triggered by certain situations, such as busy public places, public speaking, or a phobia. But anxiety can also strike for no reason. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of anxiety is the first step to managing it.

What’s the difference between anxiety chest pain and heart attack chest pain

Anxiety is often accompanied by a feeling of dread or a loss of control. You may be thinking the people around you are angry or upset with you, or sensing judgment from strangers. When you’re assuming the worst possible conclusions, naturally the presence of chest pain exacerbates your fears: you think you’re having a heart attack and may be about to die.

But you’re not going to die. You’re experiencing anxiety and, most likely, you’ve been here before and will be here again.

Anxiety and heart attacks share multiple symptoms, including chest pain and dizziness. Distinguishing between anxiety-induced chest pain and chest pain related to a heart attack is crucial for proper treatment and peace of mind. Here are some key differences:

Anxiety Chest Pain:

  • Often described as sharp or stabbing

  • Localized to a specific area

  • May fluctuate in intensity with changes in emotional state

  • Accompanied by a sense of fear and dread

Heart Attack Chest Pain:

  • Feels like a crushing pressure or tightness in the chest

  • Accompanied by shortness of breath

  • You may feel nausea

  • Accompanied by pain radiating to the arm, neck, or jaw

Additionally, heart attacks often take place during physical exertion while anxiety usually has an emotional trigger. Of course, if you're uncertain about the cause of your chest pain, it's always best to seek medical attention: go to the emergency room or call an ambulance. Doctors and paramedics will never judge you for being cautious about your health.

Why Does Anxiety Cause Chest Pain?

The connection between anxiety and chest pain lies in the body's response to stress. When we experience anxiety, our sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive, triggering the release of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones can lead to muscle tension, including the muscles surrounding the chest area, which may result in discomfort or pain. Additionally, anxiety can exacerbate existing conditions such as acid reflux or muscle spasms, further contributing to chest pain.

Anxiety is a fear response: fight or flight. The heightened heart rate and elevated body temperature can mimic other conditions. But unlike a heart attack, the source of anxiety is in your mind. Usually, the symptoms of an anxiety attack wear off quickly, within 30 minutes or so.

Recognizing anxiety is the first step to managing it. Let’s look at some home remedies that can help you resolve or diminish your anxiety.

Resolving Anxiety: Home Remedies

Several home remedies can help alleviate anxiety and reduce chest pain in the moment. Here’s 

  • Deep breathing exercises: Focussing on your breath and slowing your breathing can alleviate the physical symptoms of anxiety. Try breathing in while counting slowly up to seven, holding the breath for a few seconds, and then breathing out for seven.

  • Meditation or mindfulness practices: Mindfulness techniques are grounding, reminding you that everything is okay. A common technique is the body scan, shifting your focus to the physical sensations you’re experiencing across your body. Begin with your head, eyelids, ears, and neck, and move across your body.

Another popular mindfulness practice is the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 technique: identify 5 things you can see, 4 you can touch, 3 you can hear, 2 you can smell, and one thing you can taste. Focussing on your senses distracts you from the anxiety.

  • Accepting the situation: Contextualizing your anxiety often helps in the moment. Reassure yourself that you’re not having a heart attack, and remember that you’ve survived these feelings before. Focus on the fact that the feelings you’re experiencing will pass.

  • Have a “happy place”: Picture a peaceful, calm scene. For some, it might be an armchair with their cat on their lap, while for others it might be a mountainside with the background sound of a babbling brook. Picturing a “happy place” that you can return to during times of anxiety distracts you from the present moment and calms your body.

Additionally, physicians have identified several lifestyle factors that can reduce anxiety. These include:

  • Engaging in regular physical activity

  • Maintaining a healthy diet

  • Getting adequate sleep

  • Avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine

These strategies can promote overall well-being. Try to develop good habits slowly, and don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re not successful right away.

Overcoming Anxiety: Long-Term Treatment

While home remedies can be helpful, addressing underlying anxiety disorders may require long-term treatment. Here are some options:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): Helps individuals identify and challenge negative thought patterns and behaviors, teaching coping strategies to manage stress and anxiety more effectively.

  • Exposure therapy (ET): If your anxiety has particular triggers, such as phobias or social circumstances, exposure therapy can reduce the impact of stressful stimuli. It works by gradually facing the triggers of your anxiety, in a safe and graded way that slowly reduces their impact.

  • oVRcome’s self-guided VRET:  Our app-based virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) combines CBT with exposure therapy, undertaken through simulated scenarios in virtual reality. It’s clinically proven to reduce the symptoms of specific phobias.

  • Medication: Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or benzodiazepines may be prescribed in severe cases to alleviate symptoms of anxiety. However, remember that these treat only the symptoms and not the root cause of anxiety.

Wrapping Up

Anxiety begins in the mind, but it manifests throughout the body, from chest pain to tingling hands and feet.

Of course, you should never ignore chest pain and if you’re concerned about a heart attack seek medical assistance immediately. However, worrying that you’re having a medical emergency while experiencing the normal symptoms of anxiety can only exacerbate your worries. Recognizing that the presence of chest pain is normal and doesn’t signal a catastrophe can help you calm down and get through an anxiety attack.

Hopefully, you’re a little better equipped to manage your anxiety after reading this article. A combination of CBT and virtual reality exposure therapy could be the next step: take a free test today to find out if oVRcome could benefit you.

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