Your question: Why do I feel anxiety in my chest?

My reply:

Hi, I hope this message finds you well. My name is Cesar Guedez, a psychologist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy. 

When you experience anxiety, a lot of annoying physical and emotional symptoms appear. Although anxiety is normal and necessary to some extent, it becomes a problem when it is too frequent and intense, to the point of diminishing people’s quality of life.

In particular, the physical symptoms of anxiety can be frightening to people, as they can be mistaken for a more serious medical problem. One such symptom is chest pain, which is usually accompanied by shortness of breath. Chest pain is a common symptom of anxiety and depression, according to a medical study (1).

If you have experienced chest pain associated with anxiety, you may have felt frightened and disturbed by the sensation because you have mistaken it for a major medical problem such as cardiac arrest. The truth is that although unpleasant, anxiety-related chest pain and other physical symptoms are largely harmless.

What happens is that, during anxiety, your body enters a state of alertness, which not only generates intense fear or worry, but also triggers physical manifestations in your body through the release of hormones.

When you feel anxious, your body goes into a state of muscular tension, which can make you feel that some parts of your body are heavier, as well as aches or spasms. The chest pain you feel when you are anxious is related to this muscle tension, in addition to the increased heart rate characteristic of anxious episodes.

It is therefore normal to feel chest pain during anxiety, and there are strategies you can implement to decrease this unpleasant sensation.

What does chest pain feel like during anxiety?

It is possible that one of your fears related to chest pain caused by anxiety is that it is a more serious medical problem, so it is important to identify the characteristics of this type of chest pain so that you feel relieved that it is not a major problem such as a heart attack, but a symptom related to anxiety.

The characteristics of anxiety-related chest pain are:

  • Spasms or numbness in the chest area.
  • Accelerated heart rate.
  • Throbbing in the chest.
  • Shortness of breath and dizziness.
  • Pain does not spread to other parts of the body.

How to relieve anxiety-related chest pain?

The strategies to alleviate the sensation of chest pain during an episode of anxiety are cognitive and behavioral, aimed at decreasing both the feeling of anxiety and worry related to the chest pain and the symptom itself, which is worked through breathing exercises.

Breathing exercises

There are different breathing exercises that you can use to alleviate the feeling of general anxiety and its physical symptoms. One of the most commonly used is called “4-7-8”, it consists of a deep inhale for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds and exhale for eight seconds.

Another breathing exercise to relieve chest pain consists of a softer and faster six-second breath, three seconds inhaling, three seconds exhaling. As you do this, place one hand on your abdomen and the other on your chest, while you feel the tension in your body slowly decrease.

5, 4, 3, 2, 1

This technique consists of using your senses to dissuade emotional discomfort at a specific moment. It is useful when you are experiencing a lot of physical agitation or you feel that you have a lot of unpleasant thoughts, and find it difficult to control your emotions. Wherever you are, you will focus on identifying 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste. Whether you are in your room, in a car or a public place, you can sit and practice this exercise in silence, breathing slowly as you do it as many times as you feel necessary to decrease the anxious symptoms.

In my experience…

Chest pain caused by anxiety can be very frightening, but you need to stay calm when it occurs in order to cope effectively. When you panic and become paralyzed by fear, you only aggravate your symptoms. With practice, you will be able to identify that your chest pain can be controlled, and that it is not synonymous with something more serious.

Once you learn to control your anxiety by getting to the source of your anxious thoughts, then bothersome symptoms such as chest pain and shortness of breath will diminish. It is important that you see a doctor if you feel that your problem remains persistent and intense even after applying these recommendations.

Remember that you have the ability to improve your psychological state, even if during moments of anxiety or depression you feel hopeless. You can always make small changes that will pay off in the long run. The fact that you are contacting me to seek professional attention in psychological counseling is already a step, and I recognize and applaud you for that. You are already doing something and wanting to change always leads you in the right direction.

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