Although feeling anxious from time to time is completely normal, it can often cause chest pains. These chest pains can make us feel even more anxious as they can mistakenly be associated with other conditions such as heart attacks.
Learning how anxiety can cause chest pains can be the first step in knowing how to treat them.
Before I go into detail about how anxiety can cause chest pains, I want to caveat this article by saying I am an Anxiety Specialist and not a medically trained doctor, so this article is aimed at people who have ruled out a physical or heart condition, but continue to get chest pain.
So What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety has become a common occurrence in our fast-paced lives and has led to a rise in anxiety-related mental and physical health issues. Anxiety can often be the result of our increasing lifestyle commitments or work pressures, our life experiences as well as a reflection of our worries regarding the uncertain world we now live in.
Anxiety is a feeling we experience when we are worried, tense or afraid – particularly about something that is about to happen, or that we think could happen in the future. Anxiety is a natural human response when we perceive that we are under threat. It can be experienced through our thoughts, feelings, behaviours and physical sensations.
As a species, we have evolved ways to protect ourselves from danger. When we perceive danger, our fight or flight response is triggered and adrenaline is released into our bodies. Our fight or flight response is a way for our head and body to take over in dangerous situations, without us needing to overthink something. This makes us more alert, increases our heart rate, speeds up our breathing and sends blood rushing to our limbs to prepare us for escaping the fear. It is a totally natural reaction, and this fight or flight response has ensured our species have survived over 200,000 years.
However, our fight or flight response can kick in when we only “perceive” we are in danger, such as if we are feeling overwhelmed when taking a test or speaking in front of others. While we may feel nervous, we are not actually in danger.
After we feel the threat has passed, our bodies release endorphins to help our muscles relax. Endorphins are the body’s natural painkillers and create a general feeling of well-being again.
So How Does Anxiety Cause Chest Pain?
When we are feeling stressed or anxious, our bodies create physical sensations and reactions such as sweating, shortness of breath and a rapid heart rate. Our brains activate our flight or flight response which releases adrenaline and cortisol into our bodies and creates physiological changes where we may feel suddenly agitated or aggressive, or easily upset.
If we experience the fight or flight response infrequently then our bodies should return to normal in under thirty minutes, however, if we are in constant fight or flight mode, then our bodies don’t have the opportunity to recover and this can result in increased muscle tension and tightness in our chest.
If your heart rate has also increased, then the force of the heart beat grows stronger, causing us to feel chest pain.
What Does Anxious Chest Pain Feel Like?
Anxious chest pain can feel different for everyone. For some people, the pain may come on gradually and build up, for others it may be a sharp stabbing pain that appears suddenly. Anxious chest pain can feel like a shifting pain within the chest area or a heaviness as if someone is sitting on your chest.
When I felt anxious, I found that the feeling is not consistent and depending on the situation, I could either feel a sudden pain or a gradual build-up, so the same person can have a different response each time.
If you feel pain in your chest, ask yourself what stress have you got going on in your life right now? Are you anxious or fearful about something either in the past or the future?
Anxiety and stress can lead us to hyperventilate. This causes more stress and anxiety which in turn releases more adrenaline.
What Is Hyperventilation?
Hyperventilation is rapid or deep breathing. This “over breathing” can leave us with low levels of carbon dioxide in our blood, leading to feelings of dizziness and breathlessness, as well as pins and needles or numbness around the mouth.
When we breathe, we breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. Excessive breathing may lead to low levels of carbon dioxide in your blood.
Hyperventilation increases the release of adrenaline and makes your heart beat faster.
How Is It Different to a Heart Attack?
It is easy to jump to the conclusion that the chest pain is far more sinister than it actually is and we may self-diagnose we are having a heart attack. It is important to see a cardiologist to rule this out and ensure your heart is healthy.
Heart attack symptoms usually occur when we are active. The pain often starts in the chest but then travels to the jaw, neck, shoulders, arms and back. Many describe the feeling as beginning slowly and increasing gradually and it can feel like a heavy pressure or squeezing sensation.
What Are the Other Symptoms of Anxiety?
On the contrary, anxiety chest pain usually occurs when we are inactive and the pain is confined to the chest area.
Other symptoms of anxiety can include:
Dizziness and feeling faint
Tingling or trembling limbs
Shortness of breath
Feeling very hot or shivery
Needing the loo more than usual
Feeling out of control
What Can I Do to Help Myself?
There are many ways I have helped to alleviate my own anxiety. I used to struggle with panic attacks on a daily basis but by using the following techniques, and understanding the root cause of my anxiety, I am now able to successfully manage it. That doesn’t mean I never get a stab of chest pain or an anxiety attack, but I can now regain control within a couple of minutes.
This became very apparent when I was training to become a professional speaker. I had my first panic attack when I had to read to the classroom at school and speaking in front of others had petrified me for over 40 years.
My mentor and coach invited me to speak in front of a group of 40 professional speakers. I didn’t want to let him down so I agreed, with only 15 minutes to prepare.
Then I panicked! I knew my subject inside out, I was going to talk about anxiety. So I focused on my breathing and a few of the other techniques I teach and then delivered my speech to a standing ovation.
Here are my top tips on how to help yourself:
Slow down your breathing. Use deep breathing techniques to slow your heart rate (you can check out the breathing techniques on my YouTube Channel here)
Challenge your thinking. Bring your mind back to the present moment and identify what is causing your thoughts.
Visualise a calm place that is familiar to you, and evoke all your senses such as what you see hear and feel in your safe calm place
Exercise, such as yoga, walking, cycling and swimming, are all ways of managing anxiety as they release endorphins, the happy hormone.
Meditating and journaling daily is a great way of releasing tension and letting go of some of the anxiety you may be feeling
Have a good sleep pattern by getting enough sleep and going to bed and waking at a similar time each day
Eating nutritious food and avoiding highly processed foods
Avoiding excessive sugar, caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes and drugs
What If I Need Further Help?
You may wish to see an Anxiety Specialist if you are struggling to understand the root cause of your anxiety as they can help you manage your anxiety and alleviate your symptoms using a combination of techniques.
The root cause of anxiety can stem back to our childhood or school days so sometimes it is hard to understand what exactly has caused our anxious thoughts and feelings, but a trained specialist can help you understand the root cause even when you are not clear yourself!
If anxiety is something you or your loved ones struggle with regularly, then please get in touch to discuss how I can help you overcome the underlying cause of your anxiety, so you can live your best life.