While it is normal to experience some anxiety every now and then, people living with anxiety disorders can deal with intense and frequent bouts of anxiety, excessive worry, and intense fear. Anxiety disorders can make it feel like you are never able to relax, and your feelings of anxiety or panic may significantly interfere with your ability to complete your daily tasks and activities.
Anxiety disorders can cause a wide range of symptoms, including physical symptoms, and it can sometimes be difficult to know whether your symptoms are being caused by your anxiety, or if they are being caused by another medical problem altogether.
Chest pain is one specific physical symptom of anxiety that can be particularly alarming, but there are a few ways you can tell the difference between anxiety chest pain and chest pain caused by something more serious, like a heart attack.
Anxiety and Anxiety Disorders: What Are the Signs and Symptoms?
Anxiety can manifest in a wide variety of different ways, and the symptoms of anxiety may vary from person to person.
Some common signs and symptoms associated with anxiety can include:
- Nervousness, restlessness, or feelings of tension
- Having an overwhelming sense of impending doom or danger
- Having overwhelming feelings of panic
- Increased heart rate or heart palpitations
- Rapid breathing or hyperventilation
- Increased sweating
- Trembling or shaking
- Feeling weak or tired
- Having difficulty concentrating or thinking about anything other than what is currently making you anxious
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Having difficulty controlling your worries and feeling like you are trapped
- Having the overwhelming urge to avoid anything that triggers anxiety for you
Why Do Physical Symptoms Happen?
Physical symptoms of anxiety occur as a result of our fight or flight response, which occurs when our brain perceives a threat. During fight or flight, our bodies prepare to either flee or fight the threat by initiating certain chemical and physical processes in the nervous system.
Common physical symptoms caused by anxiety include:
- Changes in breathing, which happen because the tension in your body prevents your lungs from completely exhaling. This tension can cause your breathing to become shallower, shorter, or may even cause you to start holding your breath.
- Muscle tightness, which happens because of tension that spreads throughout your body. Muscle tightness can be felt in multiple parts of your body and may be experienced differently for different people, but muscle tightness from anxiety is commonly felt in the jaw, neck, chest, or stomach. When this muscle tightness persists because of persistent anxiety, it can turn into muscle pain, and this is why chest pain may occur because of anxiety.
- Changes in heartbeat, which may have several different causes. One main cause is shortness of breath which then causes your heart to pump more oxygen into your blood as a means of compensating.
- Cold extremities and lightheadedness may happen as the result of blood flow being pulled toward your main organs and away from your extremities. This happens because anxiety can cause your body to perceive an emergency situation.
Is My Chest Pain Being Caused By Anxiety or a Heart Attack?
Symptoms like chest tightness and pain, shortness of breath, and rapid heartbeat can be common symptoms of anxiety, but these symptoms also overlap with indicators of something more serious: a heart attack.
A heart attack occurs when part of your heart is not receiving enough blood, typically because an artery has become blocked.
Common symptoms of a heart attack include:
- Chest pressure and pain
- Pounding or racing heart
- Lightheadedness or feeling faint
- Sweating and cold sweats
- Pain and discomfort in your upper body, such as your chest, jaw, neck, arms, shoulders, and back
- Shortness of breath
- Nausea and vomiting
- Sense of impending doom
Evidently, many of these symptoms are also common symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks, but there are some main differences:
- Pain location: If you are experiencing anxiety or a panic attack, your chest pain will typically stay in that location. With a heart attack, however, the pain can radiate to other areas of the body, like your arms, shoulders, and back.
- What your chest pain feels like: If you are experiencing anxiety or a panic attack, the chest pain will often feel sharp and stabbing, or the discomfort may be difficult to describe. With a heart attack, the pain tends to be a squeezing feeling, feeling like there is a weight on your chest, an aching or burning sensation, and chest pressure.
- The triggers of your pain: Chest pain caused by anxiety can happen with no warning when you are at rest, while heart attacks tend to occur after or during physical strain and exertion.
- The duration of your pain: Symptoms of panic attacks can last for a few minutes or for an hour or so, after which point your symptoms will lessen and go away. In the case of a heart attack, symptoms and pain will be persistent or may come in waves. Pain from a heart attack may change in terms of intensity, but it will not completely go away.
If you are experiencing chest pain or other concerning symptoms and you cannot tell if it is being caused by your anxiety, your doctor is a great resource who will be able to help you get to the bottom of your discomfort. If they find that the cause is anxiety, they may refer you to mental health services for treatment that can help ease your symptoms.
Anxiety is a treatable problem, and research shows that a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and medication management can help reduce anxiety symptoms and help people feel better long-term.
Brightside offers personalized anxiety and depression care that you can access right from the comfort of your own home. With Brightside, you have unlimited access to psychiatric experts, evidence-based therapy, and science-backed approaches, and any necessary medication can be delivered right to your doorstep.
The Bottom Line
Anxiety can manifest in different ways for different people, and there is a very wide range of signs and symptoms associated with anxiety. Dizziness, sweating, rapid heart rate, and hyperventilation are all common symptoms of anxiety, specifically anxiety involving panic, but there are also other physical symptoms that can be more concerning, like chest pain.
Believe it or not, chest pain is a very common symptom of anxiety, and it happens because anxiety creates tension in your body. When muscle tension persists for too long, like if you have persistent anxiety, it can turn into muscle pain. If the muscles in your chest are tense from your anxiety, this can turn into chest pain. Whenever you are experiencing symptoms that are worrying you, you should consult your doctor to have your questions answered.