Anxiety is a debilitating condition that can effect not only your emotions and mind, but also your body. Chest pain or chest tightness is one of the most frightening symptoms of a panic attack which can leave you immobilized for the whole duration of the attack which can last anything from 10 – 30 minutes.
Anxiety chest pain is often confused with a heart attack, since both conditions present with similar symptoms such as shortness of breath and a rapidly beating heart. The pain experienced during a heart attack is usually the result of damage to the heart muscles. The good news is that during an anxiety attack your heart muscle does not necessarily get damaged unless the panic attack causes an artery to go into spasm which is a very rare incidence. So what causes the pain during an anxiety attack?
There are many reasons why anxiety will cause you chest pain. One of the reasons is that stress hormones secreted during periods of stress alter the natural rhythm of your heart forcing it to contract stronger and faster. Usually we are not aware of pain when our heart rate accelerates, say for example during exercise, but another one of the unpleasant symptoms of anxiety is that it lowers your threshold for pain, causing actions that are usually not felt at all to become more painful.
Another reason for chest pain or tightness caused by anxiety is hyperventilation. Your rib and diaphragm muscles responsible for breathing also contract stronger to work harder as you breathe faster and shallower during an anxiety attack.
The last reason for possible chest tightness is GERD or gastro esophageal reflux disease in which acid escapes from your stomach into your esophagus. Since your esophagus is a muscular tube the irritation from the acid can result in an esophageal spasm which in turn can manifest as chest pain or tightness. GERD is a common co-morbid condition of anxiety and can even be caused by anxiety.
Even if you do not suffer from GERD, the stress hormones released into your bloodstream during a panic attack can cause muscle tension all over your body, but especially in your upper body. This can still cause your esophagus to go into spasm but it can also cause the rest of the muscles in your chest to become tense and tight.
There are ways in which you can deal with the symptoms of chest tightness caused by anxiety, but over the long term it is better to cure your anxiety rather than to just manage it. Treatment is available in the form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and some small adjustments to your lifestyle such as exercising and avoiding certain foods and beverages.
While you are beating anxiety, and it can be beaten, you can try the following three steps to alleviate the chest discomfort caused by anxiety.
- Deep breathing exercises such as abdominal breathing techniques can trigger the relaxation response, the opposite of the stress response which causes anxiety and panic attacks in the first place. Sit up straight to expand your chest. With one hand on your chest and the other hand on your tummy take slow, deep breathes through your nose. Your tummy and chest should move as little as possible while the most movement should be across your diaphragm.
- To alleviate chest tightness caused by GERD try eating a banana which acts as a natural antacid or drink some ginger tea which may even help you with the possible other symptom of anxiety called nausea.
- Progressive muscle relaxation techniques trigger the relaxation response and help to ease muscle tension all over your body. It is done by tensing some of the major muscles in your body, for instance your left lower leg, for about 20 seconds at a time, and then relaxing the tension for approximately 10 seconds before moving to another major muscle group.
Anxiety does not have to be a lifelong companion. With a little time and some patience you can be your old self again.
“Breathing to reduce stress” Better Health. State Government of Victoria. 2011. Betterhealth.vic.gov.au (November 7, 2012) http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Breathing_to_reduce_stress
Gilson, Sharon. “Natural Remedies for Heartburn”. About.com. 2009. Heartburn.about.com (November 7, 2012) http://heartburn.about.com/od/medsremedies/a/homeremedies.htm
Williams, D.A; Carey, M. “You really need to relax – effective methods” University of Michigan Health System. 2003. Med.umich.edu. (November 7, 2012) http://www.med.umich.edu/painresearch/patients/Relaxation.pdf