Anxiety-induced chest pain can be caused by the body’s response to a perceived threat. But self-help strategies and professional support can help you manage anxiety.

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When you experience anxiety, your body might give you a signal that’s hard to ignore — like chest pain.

While many chest pain symptoms can mimic those of a heart attack (and other medical conditions), they can also be caused by anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorder.

Anxiety is your body’s response to stress and fear. And if you live with health anxiety, physical anxiety symptoms like chest pain can be particularly distressing — especially when it’s hard to decide whether you need to go to the emergency room or wait out a panic attack.

If you’re wondering if that painful feeling in your chest is caused by anxiety or something else, know that it’s pretty common for anxiety to cause this symptom.

In fact, some research suggests anxiety contributes to chest pain in about 30% of those with low-risk chest pain who go to the emergency department.

Since some anxiety symptoms overlap with symptoms of other medical conditions, many people with anxiety worry their symptoms are a sign of something more serious.

Anxiety can show up as physical symptoms (aka somatic symptoms). But yearly, 7 million trips to the ER in the United States are due to chest pain — and most of these people didn’t have heart problems.

Research in 2010 suggests that psychological factors like anxiety could be present in up to 58% of people who have chest pain. But many of these people never receive an anxiety diagnosis and continue to have chronic chest pain and multiple trips to emergency services as a result.

Anxiety is an emotional reaction that often causes your body to respond with the fight, flight, or freeze response. This response may also temporarily change how you breathe.

Most often, your fight, flight, or freeze response can lead to hyperventilation — when you’re breathing too quickly — and this can increase chest pain.

As many as 1 in 10 people who seek medical care report hyperventilating.

Hyperventilating can cause chest pain because rapid breathing leads to lower carbon dioxide levels in your blood. When this happens, you may also feel lightheaded or tingling in your fingers and toes.

But while anxiety-induced chest pain can be uncomfortable, it isn’t harmful or dangerous.

When you experience chest pain caused by anxiety, your first thought may be that you’re having a heart attack. When the chest pain starts, you might also feel tightness in your chest or find it hard to catch your breath.

You may notice that this anxiety symptom tends to happen more often during a time or activity that causes you anxiety or stress. For example, you might feel anxiety-induced chest pain when you:

So what specifically does chest pain feel like when it’s caused by anxiety?

It can vary quite a bit — and the more intense it feels, the more alarmed you could become.

But knowing how this type of chest pain shows up can help you recognize what’s going on and take steps to manage your anxiety.

Anxiety-induced chest pain can feel like:

  • a sharp or stabbing pain that makes it momentarily harder to breathe
  • pain in one side of your chest — especially the left side
  • a sense of tightness or heaviness in your chest
  • a dull ache in your chest

There are some other characteristics of chest pain caused by anxiety that can be helpful to know:

  • It comes on suddenly but isn’t present all day.
  • Pain stays mostly in the chest and doesn’t spread to other parts of the body.
  • It happens more often when you’re not active.

Anxiety might not be comfortable, but it is a common and sometimes useful response.

While it’s impossible to avoid anxiety completely (and you wouldn’t want to anyway), you can become more aware of how it’s affecting you in order to manage it when it’s overwhelming.

You might already have methods for relieving anxiety-induced chest pain in the moment. If you’re looking for more ideas, you can try:

  • engaging in slow, deep breathing by counting to 10
  • taking a 5-minute break from anything that’s currently causing anxiety, if possible
  • getting up to walk around, stretch, or raise your arms above your head to give yourself more room to breathe

Therapy and medication can also be effective for managing anxiety disorders.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in particular, has been shown to reduce anxiety disorder symptoms.

More ways to manage anxiety include:

  • creating and maintaining a consistent schedule
  • including physical activity in your day (such as walking for 30 minutes)
  • distracting yourself (you might take some time to read, watch a show, or play with a pet)
  • finding a quiet space to meditate and sit with your thoughts and feelings

Managing anxiety may look different from person to person. The key is to find the coping tools that work for you.

No matter what, medical and mental health professionals are there to help when you’re feeling scared or stuck.

Here are some more tips for managing anxiety.

It makes sense to respond to pain — especially when you don’t know its source — with anxiety or worry. But if that pain is caused by anxiety in the first place, your natural response (anxiety) can spiral into an anxiety attack.

One reason you might respond to chest pain with anxiety is if you think, “What if I’m having a heart attack?”

Knowing the difference between anxiety symptoms and heart attack symptoms can help you feel more at ease when having chest pain. And chances are, naming this pain could help you reduce it quickly.

When you’re in the midst of a high-anxiety moment, your body is more likely to be experiencing:

Some symptoms are more specific to a heart attack. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that if you’re having the following symptoms together, it might be a heart attack:

  • chest discomfort
  • lightheadedness, nausea, and vomiting
  • jaw, neck, and back pain
  • discomfort or pain in the shoulders
  • shortness of breath

If you’ve been checked out before and been told you have low chances of heart issues, the chest pain you’re having may be more likely caused by anxiety — or something else. For instance, gas is another cause of chest pain.

While some research has shown that anxiety can affect heart health over time, taking steps to manage your anxiety — and incorporating movement and balanced eating in your life — can help offset this.

It isn’t always easy to tell when a symptom like chest pain is being caused by anxiety or something else.

If you can connect and understand what causes your anxiety and what symptoms you have, you can create the most effective plan to manage them.

If you’re unsure what’s causing your chest pain, you don’t have to figure it out alone. Checking in with your doctor is a good first step toward better understanding what’s causing this symptom.

If your doctor finds that your chest pain isn’t related to a heart issue, this can act as proof in the future that you’re not having a heart attack. They can also refer you to a mental health professional if anxiety is likely causing your chest pain.

DRK Beauty Healing is a mental health and wellness company for Black, Latinx, Indigenous, South Asian, East Asian, and all women and nonbinary People of Color to discover, experience, and create their unique well-being journey. They offer free therapy through their nonprofit initiative, one of America’s leading free mental health resources. They also provide access to a broad range of affordable resources (e.g., support group sessions) from culturally responsive therapists, faith-based teachers, and practitioners of various spiritual, healing, and occupational modalities. DRK Beauty Healing believes its holistic approach to healing will ultimately empower People of Color across the globe to forge their unique path to wellness.