Have you ever been in a stressful situation and felt a tightness or pain in your chest, or found yourself struggling to take a breath? These symptoms are a common sign of a panic attack. If you’ve ever experienced one, you’ll know exactly how scary they can be. A lot of people who experience anxiety attacks find themselves making trips to the emergency room or the doctor. They think that they are having a heart attack or have a serious underlying medical condition.
Chest pain that is associated with anxiety attacks is scary, but it is not necessarily dangerous. With that said, it’s important that you receive a proper diagnosis if you are experiencing chest pain, especially if the pain is occurring for the first time.
If you have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and you are experiencing chest pain that is different from the pain you’ve had in the past, consult with a medical professional to make sure that the cause of the pain is not something other than an anxiety attack.
It is suggested that you call an ambulance for your chest pain if the pain spreads to the back, jaw, neck, or arms; the pain makes the chest feel heavy or tight; or if the pain leads to sweating, sickness, or shortness of breath. These symptoms can be warning signs of a heart attack. So, it’s important to get treatment in a hospital as quickly as possible.1
The most well-known causes of chest pain are heart attacks, angina, and anxiety or panic attacks. Other possible causes of chest pain include heartburn, indigestion, shingles, pneumonia, or chest infections.
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Anxiety-related chest pain is quite common, although researchers note that it is something that medical professionals sometimes fail to recognize. The failure to identify panic and anxiety-related disorders as a cause of chest pain can lead to the pain being inappropriately managed and can increase healthcare costs.2
Chest pain is one of the most common conditions that bring people to emergency departments. However, between 40 to 60 percent of those who report to an emergency department with chest pain are not experiencing a life-threatening condition.3
One study that looked at 157 patients who scored high on the Hospital Anxiety and Depression (HADS) scale. It found that these people were more likely to experience chest pain, dizziness, and other similar symptoms than those who were less anxious. A total of 23 of the patients taking part in the study had been diagnosed with anxiety disorders. 21 of those individuals experienced chest pains, indicating how common anxiety-related chest pain can be.4
Anxiety-Related Chest Pain
Anxiety occurs when the body’s stress response goes into overdrive. When you are in a stressful situation, your body releases hormones that make everything work a little bit faster. This is a response that is intended to protect humans from predators or chase down prey. We become more alert, our muscles flex, and we prepare to fight or run away.
This system worked well when we were living in forests and jungles and had physical threats to respond to regularly. But in the modern world, we have constant, lower-level forms of stress in our lives. This type of stress response can work against us.
The flood of hormones that causes the muscles to tighten in an attempt to protect its body from harm can constrict the chest to the point where it makes it hard to breathe. Consequently, this increases anxiety and makes the muscles even tighter, to the point where it causes pain.
However, over time, you may be able to manage the triggers of those symptoms. This will make attacks shorter, reduce the frequency with which they occur, or eventually, prevent them.
Anxiety-Related Chest Pain in Children
Stress is, typically, something that is thought to affect older individuals, but this generalization isn’t necessarily always true. Children can also suffer from stress and anxiety. It can sometimes be even harder for them to cope with it because they don’t have the experience to understand what is happening to them or the vocabulary to articulate how they feel.
One study looked at children who were diagnosed with non-cardiac chest pain. They found that psychological factors have as much of an influence on the condition compared to physical factors.4
Coping With Anxiety-Related Chest Pain
Panic and anxiety disorders are complex, and the best management option for each individual depends on the severity of the condition, the symptoms they experience, and what prior treatments they have tried.
Some doctors prescribe antidepressants or benzodiazepines to help manage the condition. This is usually recommended only as a short-term treatment. For individuals who are generally healthy and experiencing severe anxiety, psychotherapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), is also often a good option.5
If your anxiety is mild, then it may be possible to manage it using self-care techniques and consulting with a medical professional. Many doctors recommend that people who experience anxiety begin with keeping a diary, noting what makes them feel anxious and what makes them feel better, so they can work on reducing the prevalence of anxiety attacks.
Alternative Coping Strategies
If you are feeling anxious, start by focusing on breathing deeply. Start slowly counting to five while inhaling. Hold your breath for a second, then slowly count to five while exhaling. Repeat this several times, and you should notice that your heart rate starts to slow.
Additionally, think about what is going on around you, and try to recognize how you feel. Acknowledge what it is you are thinking about. Once you put your feelings and fears into perspective, it becomes easier to calm down.
Also, try to use visualization techniques to stay calm. This is a useful tactic for situations where you cannot excuse yourself, or if you need to perform a specific task and anxiety hits you unexpectedly. Focus on breathing slowly and deeply, while directing your thoughts to something soothing.
Your goal should be to try to ride out the anxiety attack without leaving the situation that is causing it. Think of this as a form of exposure therapy. Anxiety is triggered by things that are out of your control or that aren’t dangerous. By remaining in the situation and continuing to go about your day-to-day life, you prove to yourself that nothing bad is going to happen, and you can use that knowledge to anchor yourself should you have another attack in the future.
Long-Term Tips for Beating Anxiety
If you’re feeling tired, anxious, or stressed, and aren’t in a pressing situation, take some time to meditate and relax. Even a few minutes of meditation at the start and end of each day could help recharge your mental batteries to help you avoid panic attacks in the future.
Though everyone should be taking care of their physical and mental health, it’s even more important to do so if you’re suffering from anxiety or acute stress. Try to get enough to eat each day and make sure you’re getting enough sleep each night as well. A regular sleeping pattern and regular moderate-intensity exercise goes a long way towards helping individuals cope with stress and anxiety.
Anxiety disorders often develop as a result of long-term stress. Those in stressful jobs are more likely to experience chest pain than those who are exposed to less stress on a daily basis. Removing some of that environment-related stress is another way of improving long-term physical and mental health.
Severe anxiety can cause chest pain that occurs on a daily basis, which is why it is so important to find ways to relax and unwind. Some people enjoy yoga, mindful meditation, aromatherapy, and massages. Others find that herbal teas and relaxing music before bed will do the trick. Cutting out alcohol and caffeine can also be beneficial for people who are struggling to cope with anxiety. This is because both alcohol and caffeine affect the nervous system. While they can make people feel better in the short term, they can impair sleep quality and cause other longer-term issues.
It bears repeating that chest pain is a serious matter. If you are experiencing chest pain for the first time, do not just assume that they are a sign of anxiety and consult a medical professional as soon as possible.
Having said that, if your chest pain is related to anxiety, it is possible to alleviate anxiety and reduce stress. The world we live in today has made stress far more common than it used to be, but it has also armed us with more tools to beat the stressors that we face. So, take a deep breath, take some time to yourself, and try to find your inner peace.