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Is Anxiety Chest Pain Real?

Jill Johnson

Medically reviewed by Jill Johnson, DNP, APRN, FNP-BC

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 11/11/2021

For those who have experienced it, chest pain can be, well, anxiety inducing.

Is it a heart attack? Do you need to call emergency services?? Should you wake up your sleeping partner? Do you just generally panic?

The truth is, there are many possible causes of chest pain, from scary ones like coronary artery disease, to less scary ones like a sprained chest muscle. 

In fact, chest pain is reported to be experienced by 12 percent to 16 percent of people, with the chances for it continually increasing after age thirty. However, we’re here to talk about just one cause — anxiety.

Let’s talk about how anxiety can cause chest pain, what it feels like and what you can do to stop it in its tracks.

What Is Anxiety?

In and of itself, anxiety is a completely normal reaction to stressors in our environment. Many sources of stress can lead to feelings of anxiety, from a fight with a partner to a hard day at work. It’s all part of our emotional regulation.

So when does anxiety become a problem? When it turns into an anxiety disorder.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, in order for a person to receive a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder, their fear or anxiety must be out of proportion to the situation, inappropriate for their age or hinder their ability to function normally. 

Among mental disorders, anxiety disorders rank as the most common, affecting nearly 30 percent of adults at some point in their lives.

If you’ve been having a difficult time managing your anxiety, especially if it affects your quality of life, it is important to see a mental health provider to get evaluated for anxiety disorder. 

The condition is treatable with the right support, as well as with treatment options like medication and talk therapy.

Why Does Anxiety Cause Chest Pain?

If you feel a pain in your chest, your mind might immediately jump to numerous movie scenes where a character grabs their chest and falls to the floor dramatically, clearly in the midst of a heart attack. 

However, while chest pain is the second most common reason for visits to the emergency room, heart attack is only the cause in two out of 10 cases.

In fact, up to one quarter of patients with chest pain have panic disorder, a type of anxiety disorder. 

Other anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder and a variety of phobias, but chest pain isn’t unique to any one of them.

Overall, anxiety can present physically with a number of common symptoms, including nausea, shortness of breath, muscle aches, stomach pain and headaches. 

The truth is, while a healthcare professional may examine you and find nothing amiss with your physical body, your mental health can have very real physical effects. 

This is all thanks to your autonomic nervous system. 

This system is responsible for ensuring you stay alive by controlling things like your breathing and heart rate, without you needing to think about any of it. It’s also responsible for your flight or fight response, which ensures that you remain ready to respond to dangerous situations. 

Anxiety and stress can falsely activate your flight or fight response even when you’re not in immediate danger — leading to physical symptoms like a panic attack or subsequent chest pain.

Now, while chest pain can be the result of anxiety rather than a heart attack or other forms of heart disease, it’s important to know that over time, the way your body reacts to anxiety can put strain on your heart.

Anxiety has an association with the occurrence of heart disease, and in some cases it can contribute to progression, as well. 

Heart diseases that may have an association with anxiety include high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, rapid heart rate and a minimization in the body’s ability to properly adjust heart rate.

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How Does Anxiety Chest Pain Feel?

The next question is obvious. If both anxiety and heart disease can cause chest pain, how do you know when to head to the emergency room or make a call to your healthcare provider?

Let’s get some basics out of the way first. You know your body best. So, if you’re experiencing chest pain that is new to you, don’t hesitate to contact your provider. In the case of a heart attack, time is of the essence. 

But, here are some tips on how to tell the difference between chest pain that has originated from anxiety versus a heart attack.

Chest pain that is caused by anxiety fundamentally feels different than the pain caused by a heart attack. It will:

  • Be sharp and stabbing (uncommon with heart attacks) that last only five to 10 seconds.

  • Become more or less severe with movement or pressure applied to the chest.

  • Be concentrated in one small area.

  • Usually occur when you haven’t been moving or exerting yourself.

In contrast, chest pain caused by a heart attack may:

  • Worsen in severity over the course of a few minutes

  • Occur during exercise or other types of physical exertion (but can also be brought on during rest).

  • Feature a consistent pain or pressure in the chest. Patients with chest pain describe a feeling of fullness rather than the stabbing pain you might experience during a panic attack

  • May be accompanied by pain that spreads to other parts of the body such as the arms, shoulders, jaw, throat or abdomen

What Are Some Techniques for Relieving Chest Pain from Anxiety?

Overall, anxiety is the type of health condition that is best handled proactively.

Conditions like generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorder are not all-or-nothing conditions. Think of them more as having building blocks. 

When you start to experience physical symptoms from your anxiety, that’s your body telling you that your stress has built to a point where it needs to be reduced.

Here are some techniques that can help.

In the Moment, Breathe

When you’re experiencing chest pain from anxiety, take a moment to sit down and practice some breath work. Focusing on your breath is a great way to trigger your body’s relaxation response.

Try deep breaths by taking air in through your nose, holding for a bit and then breathing out through your mouth. Rinse and repeat a few times.

Get Adequate Sleep

Sleep is incredibly important to our overall well-being and health. Skimping on sleep can have adverse effects over time. Make sure you’re getting your seven to nine hours per night to stay balanced.

Phone a Friend

Humans are social creatures, and sometimes we need a bit of help to get out of our own minds. Reach out to a friend if you’re feeling overwhelmed. It’s a great way to process feelings, and can be a helpful distraction from a stressful moment, as well.

Move Your Body

Exercise is a great way to release hormones that function as neurotransmitters when they are in the brain to help us stay calm and balanced. In the case of chest pain for anxiety, it’s good for both the heart and the mind. 

Seek Medical Care

A mental health provider will have the skills to guide you in navigating your anxiety. From cognitive behavioral therapy, to medication, there are a number of options available for helping you get your anxiety under control.

If you want to learn more, our guide, 5 Anxiety Relief Techniques is the place to go.

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The Bottom Line on Anxiety Chest Pain

Chest pain is understandably a cause for concern. While chest pain from an anxiety attack may be less impactful in the moment than pain from say, coronary artery disease, it is still a valid health condition and important to address in order to reduce long term risk factors.

Reach out to your mental health provider for support in managing your anxiety, and head on over to the hims site to learn about the mental healthcare options we have available to you.

11 Sources

Hims & Hers has strict sourcing guidelines to ensure our content is accurate and current. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We strive to use primary sources and refrain from using tertiary references.

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  3. Help with anxiety disorders (2021, June). American Psychiatric Association. Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/anxiety-disorders
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  7. Recognizing and easing the physical symptoms of anxiety. (2021, August 1). Harvard Health Publishing. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/recognizing-and-easing-the-physical-symptoms-of-anxiety
  8. Celano, C. M., Daunis, D. J., Lokko, H. N., Campbell, K. A., & Huffman, J. C. (2016). Anxiety Disorders and Cardiovascular Disease. Current psychiatry reports, 18(11), 101. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5149447/
  9. Anxiety and heart disease. Johns hopkins medicine. Retrieved from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/anxiety-and-heart-disease
  10. Gleeson, J.R. (2016, May 26). How to tell the difference between a heart attack and a panic attack. Michigan Health. Retrieved from https://healthblog.uofmhealth.org/heart-health/how-to-tell-difference-between-a-heart-attack-and-a-panic-attack
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This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

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