The physical symptoms of anxiety are many. Sometimes it causes a feeling of choking and hyperventilation, other times it can cause a tension-type headache, and there are also people who suffer from panic attacks. However, one of the symptoms that causes the most fear is chest pain from anxiety.
The problem is that many people confuse chest pain caused by anxiety with a heart attack, thus further increasing fear and discomfort. However, chest pain is one of the most common symptoms in anxiety disorders, so it's important to learn to recognize and eliminate it. In fact, a study conducted at the University of Texas revealed that one in ten people who suffer from panic attacks also experience chest pain.
Chest pain caused by distress is usually perceived as a tingle. Some people feel it in the form of pinpricks in the chest, others feel a feeling of tightness, as if they have a weight on their chest that prevents them from breathing.
Anxiety chest pain usually appears suddenly, especially when the person is feeling particularly anxious, stressed, or distressed. It also disappears quite quickly, in more or less than ten minutes, although in some cases it can last up to a quarter of an hour, especially if the person is very frightened, since in this way it strengthens the symptom.
This symptom usually does not appear on its own but is accompanied by other symptoms of anxiety:
- Feeling faint
- Difficulty breathing normally
- Changes in body temperature
- Feeling that the situation is out of control
- Numbness and sweating in the feet and hands
Chest pain is also one of the typical symptoms of angina and myocardial infarctions, so both problems are often confused. But there are some differences:
Chest pain due to anxiety usually occurs when we are at rest, while the pain due to a heart attack usually appears when we are active.
- Heart attack pain usually extends from the chest to other parts of the body, such as the jaw, shoulders and arms, while chest pain caused by anxiety is limited to the chest area.
- Chest pain from stress comes on quickly and then subsides as quickly as it appeared, while the pain in the heart begins slowly and gradually increases in intensity.
- Pain caused by a heart problem usually persists over time and gets worse with physical exertion, while the pain caused by anxiety diminishes rapidly when we are able to relax.
In any case, when in doubt, it is always advisable to go to the emergency room to make sure that it is a disorder caused by anxiety and not a heart problem.
The "good news" is that a study conducted at Harvard Medical School revealed that about a quarter of patients who come to the emergency room with chest pain actually have an anxiety crisis and other research done at the University of Missouri. they indicated that in 50% of cases the pain did not have a cardiac origin.
Normally, knowing that chest pain does not have a cardiac origin reassures us momentarily, but it is usually not enough. If we do not receive a convincing explanation and adequate treatment, we will continue to suffer and the pain will risk becoming more recurrent and chronic. It is no coincidence that about 50% of people suffering from anxiety chest pain end up developing agoraphobia during the first year since they suffered the first episode. It also increases the risk of suffering from depression and substance abuse, usually psychiatric drugs.
On the other hand, we must not lose sight of the fact that panic attacks and phobic anxiety are linked to an increased risk of suffering from a fatal cardiovascular disease. The mechanisms have not yet been elucidated, but it could be due to physiological changes caused by prolonged stress.
Chest pain from stress is a psychosomatic response; that is, a physical reflection of what happens in the mind. But that doesn't mean the pain is only in our mind.
Anxiety activates the physiological stress response, which immediately causes specific physiological, psychological and emotional changes that prepare us to face the alleged threat.
Some of these changes include strengthening the muscles in the body so that they can better withstand the damage, including the chest muscles. Chest pain would be a reflection of prolonged muscle tension when we are anxious. But that's not all.
When the stress is maintained over time, the body does not recover and remains in a constant state of tension. This makes the body semi-overstimulated due to the constant release of cortisol and adrenaline, the stress hormones. When the body remains overstimulated, it can respond with sensations and symptoms similar to those activated in a specific stressful situation.
In fact, one of the changes that causes stress is hyperventilation, the inhalation of too much oxygen during breathing, which is normally due to rapid muscle contractions and excess air in the lungs. Hyperventilation contracts blood vessels and contributes to chest pain because it requires a lot of movement of the thoracic muscles and diaphragm. In addition, the short superficial and constant inhalations cause the sensation of drowning to appear, which will generate more nerve activation and more inhalations, causing a vicious circle.
Other causes of anxiety chest pain are changes in gastric motility and dilation of the digestive tract. In some cases they can also cause the nerves in the chest to compress, or gas to build up in the stomach, which can rise to the chest causing pain.
To treat anxiety chest pain, it is necessary to eradicate the cause. This means that you will have to fight the anxiety at its source. Therefore, you need to analyze which external and internal factors cause the anxious response. It is a deep psychological work in which you not only have to analyze your lifestyle and the environmental factors that generate stress and anxiety, but you also have to analyze how your ways of thinking and reacting can exacerbate anxiety. In some cases, when it comes to generalized anxiety, you may need the help of a psychologist.
You can also resort to some techniques that will help you quickly relieve chest pain and get out of the situation:
- Practice breathing techniques. An average of eight minutes of slow, deep breathing is enough for respiratory and cardiovascular functions to normalize. Secluded in a quiet area and inhale for a count of 10 and then exhale gently again for a count of 10. Repeat this until you feel calmer. There are also other breathing exercises that can be helpful, you just need to find the one that works best for you.
- Put things in perspective. It is essential to understand that it is only anxiety chest pain, that you will not die, and that you can regain control of the situation whenever you want. It's about putting things into perspective, taking a psychological distance from what's happening to you so that you don't fall into a vicious circle.
- Don't fight against negative thoughts and emotions. The first impulse is usually to try to silence the negative thoughts that generate anxiety and reject the unpleasant emotions you are experiencing. But, normally, this strategy is counterproductive and generates even more anxiety for each failed attempt. Therefore, the ideal would be to assume the situation with an attitude of awareness. That is, be aware of your negative thoughts and emotions but don't resist them. When you accept what is happening to you, those thoughts and emotions will fade away on their own.
- Use visualization. When you feel anxious, try to visualize a place that calms you down. This technique is especially useful when you can't leave the place where you are. The more details you can view, the better. If at some point you lose focus, don't get angry, gently bring your thinking back to the visualization.
- Practice relaxation techniques. Relaxation techniques will not only help you relieve your anxiety chest pain, but will also allow you to lower your stress level. There are several options, from yoga practice to deep muscle relaxation technique, Shultz's Autogenic Training or mindfulness meditation. You just have to find the one that works best for you.