Stress and Chest Pain
A Real Conundrum

Stress and chest pain can be a real conundrum.

A few years ago, I landed in the emergency ward with pain in my chest and left arm.  I was only in my early 40’s and female and so I had trouble believing it could be my heart.  Nevertheless, the Nurse Help Line in my area strongly suggested I should get to the hospital straight away and so that is what I did.  Once there, I was hooked up to every machine known to man and spent a few hours absolutely scared silly.  As it turned out, it was not my heart.  The emergency room doctor suggested it was probably stress.  Later, a trusted family member told me she had read a report once claiming there are more than 50 sensations that can occur in and around the heart and lungs that many people think may be a heart attack, but in truth they are just stress and chest pain.  I don’t say, “Just Stress” lightly, however, because if you are having stress discomfort at the scale where you think it may be your heart, then your stress is definitely out of control, as was mine.

Why are stress and chest pain related, you ask?

We know that stress is caused when our brain perceives a threat, and releases stress hormones into our blood, in preparation for us to "fight or flee". One of the body's automatic reactions in line with this preparation is tightening of muscles.

And to state it simply - the muscles of our chest are no exception to this occurrence. And the part of the brain that receives pain signals from heart and chest are close to each other, causing us to mistake one for another.

It is somewhat akin to the other common, but much more fatal misunderstanding - of believing a real heart attack to be nothing more than an arm or neck pain. 

Distinguish Stress and Chest Pain
from Heart Attack?

If you have no obvious risk factors for heart disease - like family history, diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol or smoking habits - and you lead a relatively active lifestyle, chances are higher that such a pain is not heart related.

And another thing to remember is, heart related chest pain almost always aggravates with any type of physical activity - sometimes even walking or climbing stairs - whereas the stress chest pain does not.

Of course, these tips come with the caveat that it is always advisable to get any stress and chest pain examined by a professional - especially if it occurs for the first time - and have your doctor rule out heart as the cause of it.

Chest Pain Caused by Anxiety

Anxiety is a permanent state of worry or fear which also results in serious mental disorders. Anxiety is one of the most important causes of chest pain, being next only to heart diseases. Along with acute or mild chest pain, pain is also experienced in areas around the chest like shoulders and back. Other symptoms of anxiety include palpitations, shortness of breath, trembling, excessive sweating, etc.

Chest pain from anxiety is nothing, but muscle contraction in the chest wall. When a person experiences pain, he mistakes it for a precursor of a heart attack and feels more anxious. This results in increased chest pain.

Anxiety and panic related pain is definitely not as serious as that caused due to heart diseases. However, it is essential to consult the doctor immediately and undertake a checkup. It should also be noted chest pain and all other symptoms of anxiety can be treated effectively if brought to the notice of the doctor immediately.


A stress test is a test that helps in determining the function of the heart in stressful conditions. In this test, a person is asked to walk on a treadmill while the functioning of the heart and breathing rate are monitored. The test also helps the doctor in diagnosing the cause of chest pain: whether it is heart related or caused from stress and anxiety. Once the cause is diagnosed, the doctor will prescribe respective treatment method to treat it. At the same, it is essential to relax and have a healthy and happy life.

Therapy and professional assistance are the two methods that can help in treating anxiety disorders. Stress can, and should be, controlled by various stress management techniques like yoga, meditation, etc. If you feel a recurrent fleeting pain in the chest, you should seek medical help and get yourself properly diagnosed. Take care!


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