Anxiety can bring with it many unpleasant and even frightening symptoms. A feeling of tightness in the chest is common in people living with anxiety. In fact, chest pain and tightness are reported in up to 70% of panic attacks. Sometimes people think they are suffering from a serious health crisis when they feel anxiety-related chest tightness, which makes their anxiety even worse.
Luckily chest tightness caused by anxiety is not life-threatening, and you can learn to recognize the difference between it and health conditions that cause similar symptoms. Read on to learn more about anxiety-induced chest tightness and how you can learn to manage it.
How Does Anxiety Cause Chest Pain?
Anxiety can cause tightness and pain in the chest area in several different ways. When experiencing acute anxiety or a panic attack, it is common to breathe far too shallowly and fast (hyperventilation.) Hyperventilation can cause strain or spasms in the small muscles between your ribs (intercostal muscles,) leading to pain and a sensation of tightness.
The stress hormones released when you are anxious slow down the digestive tract. This can impact the esophagus, the tube that delivers food from our mouths to our stomachs, temporarily slowing or stopping its function. The temporary cessation of digestive functions during acute anxiety can also lead to stomach upset and acid reflux. These temporary changes in the function of the esophagus and stomach can lead to spasms of the esophagus. Sometimes, these spasms feel like a flutter in the chest; other times, a sudden, intense, radiating pain reminiscent of a heart attack.
When you’re experiencing anxiety, your autonomic nervous system (ANS) releases large amounts of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol into your bloodstream. These powerful hormones trigger an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, which some people experience as chest tightness. They can also cause heart palpitations, which can feel like your heart is pounding or skipping beats.
What Does Chest Pain Due to Anxiety Feel Like?
Chest pain caused by anxiety can feel different for every person who experiences it. Some people might feel shooting or stabbing pain, while others might only feel an uncomfortable tightness in their chest. Some people will experience discomfort at the bottom of their ribs and diaphragm, and others in the middle of their chest and across their ribs.
Anxiety Chest Pain Symptoms
- A sensation of tightness in the chest
- Short stabbing or shooting pains across the chest
- Increased muscle tension in the chest
- Trembling or twitching chest muscles
- A feeling of heaviness across the chest
How Long Does Anxiety Chest Pain Last?
The good news about chest discomfort caused by anxiety is that it generally doesn’t last longer than 10 minutes. Chest pain usually improves once the body begins processing the fight or flight stress hormones and starts to return to a calmer state.
Anxiety Chest Pains vs. Heart Attack Symptoms
- Panic attack symptoms occur quickly and begin to fade after they peak around 10 minutes. Conversely, heart attack symptoms tend to build slowly, and pain increases over time.
- Many people experience a squeezing pain that radiates to the shoulder, arm, neck, or jaw during a heart attack. Anxiety-related chest pain is generally more localized in the chest.
- During a bout of anxiety, the heart will almost always begin to race. This is not necessarily the case during a heart attack when the heart rate can elevate but often stays within a normal range.
- During anxiety, it is common to feel tingling in the hands and feet. This is not a symptom associated with heart attacks.
- Heart attack symptoms frequently begin after some sort of physical strain or effort. Anxiety symptoms often start during emotional stress, but the body can be entirely at rest.
Factors that Contribute to Chest Pain With Anxiety
Although everyone feels anxiety sometimes, having a diagnosed anxiety disorder such as panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or generalized anxiety disorder increases your likelihood of experiencing chest pain caused by anxiety.
Sleep deprivation, dehydration, and poor nutrition can lead to feelings of anxiety and chest pain, and some medications and stimulant drugs can also increase your risk. Ensure you get a good night’s sleep, eat regularly, and drink eight glasses of water daily.
7 Ways to Relieve Chest Pain Caused by Anxiety
When you’re in the middle of an anxiety attack and feeling chest discomfort, there are some simple strategies you can use to help you quickly move out of fight or flight mode.
- Focus on your breathing. Take a big deep breath through your nose to a count of 5, and slowly release through your mouth to a count of 5. Repeat as necessary.
- Move your body. Take a short walk, move your arms and legs, and stretch.
- Take a hot bath or shower to soothe and relax tense muscles.
- Drink a big glass of water.
- Have a friend or loved one give you a massage to release muscle tension.
- Consciously relax your chest and stomach muscles.
- Take a nap. Give yourself permission to rest and recover.
You can also try some long-term strategies to help manage anxiety and anxiety-related chest pain.
See a doctor to rule out any heart issues and to get anxiety medications if warranted. Medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) can make a world of difference for people with anxiety disorders.
Seek therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helps people recognize their trigging thoughts and manage their anxiety. Psychotherapy can also be beneficial.
Lifestyle Changes to Prevent Anxiety Chest Pains
Prioritize engaging in daily physical activity. As little as 30 minutes of physical activity a day can help you avoid anxiety by relaxing your body and improving your mood.
- Avoid cigarettes, alcohol, and excessive caffeine. All of these can make anxiety worse.
- Try progressive relaxation and meditation techniques. Consistent relaxation practices can help you lower your stress level, heart rate, and blood pressure and improve your mental state.
- Try to eat regular, well-rounded meals. Low blood sugar and poor nutrition can make anxiety worse.
- Explore supplementation to help support you in your journey out of the flight or flight response. Products such as Keep Calm Gummies can help relax your muscles, regulate your cortisol, and help you get a better night’s sleep.
- Cultivate a support network. Don’t hesitate to call on trusted friends, family, or a therapist if you need some extra support.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long can anxiety and chest tightness last?
Physical anxiety symptoms are generally short-lived. They usually peak by 10 minutes after they begin and then fade as the body starts to relax. Most physical symptoms will be gone after 20 minutes, but the psychological symptoms of anxiety can persist.
What exercises strengthen your chest?
Anxiety can lead to chronically tight chest muscles. Building the strength and flexibility of your pectoral muscles can help release and relax your muscles. The chest fly is an OG standard for developing chest muscles, as are the chest press and pushups.
Where exactly is heart pain felt?
This varies from person to person and even between the genders. Heart pain is usually felt in the center or left side of the chest, radiating to the jaw, neck, arms, shoulders, and back. Women are more likely to feel heart attacks in these areas of radiated pain.
Chest tightness and pain are common symptoms of anxiety that can be managed and reduced with the right approach. If you have any doubt about the cause of your chest pain, it is a good idea to check in with your healthcare provider to rule out any medical causes. Once you’ve addressed any health issues, you can focus on reducing your anxiety and relaxing your body.
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