Have you ever felt a squeezing pain in your chest? Or felt like there was a weight that made it difficult to breathe? Perhaps you’ve even gone to the hospital for what you thought was a heart attack, only to discover the chest pains your experiencing were caused by anxiety.
If so, you aren’t alone. According to Psychology Today, approximately 28 percent of panic disorder patients will visit the emergency room in a six-month period. About one in four people who go to the emergency for treatment of chest pain actually have panic disorder, psychiatrist Mark Sullivan, M.D., told the University of Washington School of Medicine. Many of these patients are young women, among whom panic disorders are more common and heart disease is rare.
“There is great crossover between the symptoms of panic attack and heart attack,” said Dr. Sam Torbati, co-chair and medical director of the Ruth and Harry Roman Emergency Department at Cedars-Sinai, “making it very challenging to discern between the two without a physician assessment and testing, such as an EKG.”
It’s not just your imagination, says Dr Olga Lavalle, a clinical psychologist who specialises in women’s workplace stress and self-esteem. “The reason stress, anxiety or sadness will lead to heart attack type symptoms are because of the biological changes that occur in the body, in our sympathetic nervous system. When we perceive we do not have the resources to deal with stress in the short term then our ‘fight or flight’ response system is activated.”
Here’s what we know about the connection between chest pain and anxiety, and what you should do if you experience it.
Shared Chest Pain Symptoms of Anxiety and Heart Attacks
Common symptoms that may affect patients with either a panic or heart attack include:
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Pounding or racing heartbeat
- Numbness of hands and feet
- Passing out
- A sensation of impending doom
Is it anxiety chest pain or a heart attack?
The best predictor of whether symptoms are due to panic or a heart condition is the patient’s age and previous history of panic attacks, explains Dr. Torbati. Physically healthy patients, who are younger than 40 years old, and have had previous panic attacks are more likely to be experiencing a panic attack. Older patients that have no history of panic attacks are more than likely having a heart attack.
Furthermore, Harvard Medical School suggests that the chest pain you’re experiencing is more likely panic or anxiety related if:
- The pain is stabbing
- The pain and discomfort tends to focus in the center of the chest
- Chest pain and other symptoms subside quickly
Symptoms of chest pain are more likely a heart attack if:
- The pain causes a dull, heavy pressure
- The pain may occur in the center of the chest by may also radiate to the upper body, including arms, shoulders, upper back, or jaw
- Chest pain and other symptoms last minutes rather than seconds
Medical professions prefer to be safe rather than sorry. “If you’re having chest pain, you should definitely go to the emergency room to make sure you’re not having a heart attack,” says Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Christopher Celano.
It’s Not a Heart Attack: Now What?Every once in awhile life serves us a wake-up call. A panic attack that sends you to the emergency room is just one of those occasions. Your body and mind are working together to ask for help in managing anxiety symptoms that have truly overwhelmed your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system.
This is an excellent time to look into treatment for anxiety and panic disorders, which could include breathing exercises, relaxation, and other cognitive techniques to calm the body and mind. It may also be time to see out a cognitive-behavioral therapist, or to see a doctor for prescribed medication, such as antidepressants or benzodiazepines. There are also plenty of natural and alternative treatments that have proven effective in the treatment of anxiety disorders.