What to know about chest pain and anxiety
Chest pain is a common symptom of anxiety and panic attacks. Many people say it is the notable feature of their worst episodes. It can also worsen anxiety if a person becomes afraid they are having a heart attack.
About 25% of people will experience chest pain during their lifetime. There are different causes of chest pain, including a panic attack and an anxiety attack.
Approximately 27.3% of people in the United States experience a panic attack at some point in their lives. Annually, the prevalence of panic attacks is about 11%.
In addition, 2–3% of people in the U.S. develop a panic disorder each year. Panic disorder, which sometimes causes panic attacks, tends to affect women twice as often as men.
How can anxiety cause chest pain?
Both panic attacks and anxiety attacks can cause chest pain. These attacks are similar, although an anxiety attack can be less intense.
Anxiety attacks usually relate to a specific trigger in someone’s life, whereas a panic attack can happen without an obvious trigger.
In both cases, the symptoms occur due to stress hormones that trigger a person’s fight-or-flight response. This also causes other symptoms, such as difficulty breathing.
People who have frequent anxiety or panic attacks may have an anxiety disorder. There are different types of anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder.
To diagnose these conditions, a doctor needs to check that a person’s symptoms match those outlined in Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition.
Researchers do not know exactly what causes anxiety disorders, but it is likely a combination of biological, genetic, and environmental factors.
What does chest pain due to anxiety feel like?
Chest pain due to anxiety or panic attacks can usually feel like a sharp, stabbing sensation that starts suddenly, even if a person is inactive. However, they may be feeling stressed or anxious already before the chest pain begins.
Common accompanying symptoms of an anxiety or panic attack include:
- shortness of breath
- changes in body temperature
- feeling out of control of the situation
- numbness and sweating in the feet and hands
- chest pain
- heart palpitations
Chest pain is more common in attacks that come on quickly. According to research from 2019, the prevalence of chest pain among people having a panic attack is about 28.5%.
Anxiety chest pain vs. heart attack
Although heart attack occurs in 805,000 people in the U.S. every year, only 2–4% of individuals with chest pain who come in to see a doctor receive a heart problem diagnosis.
Nevertheless, having chest pain can be alarming, as it is still likely it could be due to a heart attack.
It is important to know that while there are similarities between anxiety chest pain and pain due to a heart attack, there are also some significant differences.
A heart attack has a different cause. It occurs due to a blockage in a person’s coronary artery. Also, chest pain from an anxiety or panic attack most often develops when an individual is at rest. By contrast, heart attack pain most often develops when a person is active.
Pain from a heart attack also frequently travels from the chest to other parts of the body, such as the jaw, shoulders, and arms. In contrast, chest pain stemming from anxiety remains in the chest.
Furthermore, anxiety chest pain may feel sharper than the pain caused by a heart attack, which people often describe as a squeezing, heavy pressure.
There is also a difference in whom panic attacks and heart attacks affect. While panic disorders are more common in women, heart attacks are more common in men.
Learn how to tell the difference between a panic attack and a heart attack here.
When to contact a doctor
It can be hard to know whether one is having a panic attack or a heart attack. Therefore, a person should seek immediate medical care if they or someone else is experiencing sudden and severe chest pain, particularly in the center or left parts of their chest.
Other warning signs of a heart attack include pressure in the chest lasting more than 2–3 minutes or pain that radiates to the arm or the jaw. A person may also feel short of breath.
Both panic disorders and cardiovascular problems are treatable conditions, so receiving a diagnosis from a doctor will help ensure that individuals receive the appropriate treatment.
Treatment of anxiety chest pain
Professional help can make a significant difference in the lives of individuals who experience panic attacks and anxiety. Without treatment, these conditions can limit a person’s quality of life.
However, medications and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) have proven to be effective at treating panic disorders in many instances.
CBT teaches a person to restructure their thoughts and identify and avoid specific anxiety triggers. This type of therapy can help individuals reduce and manage the symptoms of panic disorder without using medication.
There are also steps a person can take at home to manage and reduce anxiety symptoms, including chest pain.
It is advisable to try the following practices to help cope with a panic attack:
- Find safe shelter: A person should find a secure and comfortable place if possible and consider pulling over if driving.
- Take deep breaths: Steady, deep breathing can help reduce symptoms of anxiety and prevent them from getting worse.
- Remember it is temporary: While experiencing chest pain, focus on the fact that these symptoms should last no more than a few minutes.
- Try to stay positive: Focusing on peaceful or positive images may help people reduce the severity of their symptoms during a panic attack.
- Count: Counting to 10 or 20 and then repeating can help individuals focus during a panic attack.
- Rate the attack: Some people find that reviewing their general state of mind during a panic attack and giving it a score on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most severe and 1 being a barely noticeable sensation, can help them manage their anxiety.
Also, there are some lifestyle changes a person can make to reduce their risk of symptoms:
- exercising regularly
- getting enough sleep
- avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and smoking
- avoiding foods high in refined sugar
Learn more about treatments for an anxiety attack and how to stop a panic attack.
Chest pain can accompany both anxiety and panic attacks. People who get such attacks frequently may have an anxiety disorder.
These conditions are treatable. It is important to receive an evaluation from a doctor so that a person can get the most suitable treatment.
As a precaution, if someone is experiencing sudden chest pain, they should seek immediate medical treatment to rule out a heart attack.
Frequently asked questions
Below, we answer some frequently asked questions about anxiety chest pain.
What causes anxiety chest pain on the left side?
Anxiety could cause chest pain on the left side. However, it can also be a sign of a heart attack or pericarditis, so a person should seek immediate medical attention.
What do I do if my anxiety chest pain is not going away?
In most cases, anxiety chest pain will develop quickly and then fade somewhat rapidly.
If a person’s chest pain is not going away or if it is increasing gradually, this may be a sign of a heart attack. If this happens, they should get medical attention as soon as possible.
“name”: “What causes anxiety chest pain on the left side?”,
“text”: “Anxiety could cause chest pain on the left side. However, it can also be a sign of a heart attack or pericarditis, so a person should seek immediate medical attention.”
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