Emotional Stress & Chest Pain

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Stress is a psychological condition that everyone experiences regardless of his or her socioeconomic status, gender or age. While stress can be beneficial when handling a crisis, it can also have a dark side. One of the most frightening symptoms of stress and anxiety is chest pain that can make you believe that you are experiencing a heart attack. This is a warning sign that you are experiencing too much emotional stress. Normally, chest pains from stress tend to be sharper, more localized and closer to the middle of the chest than the sensation that occurs with a heart attack, which is duller, lasts longer and radiates around the shoulder and jaw.

Chest pain can be triggered by a fight-or-flight response that takes over when stress causes your heart and respiratory rates, blood pressure and oxygen consumption to spike on a repeated basis. When this occurs, your muscles tense and blood flow is directed to vital parts of your body. While some blood vessels dilate, others constrict. The stress hormones adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine thicken the blood to promote clotting. This physiological reaction can cause extreme discomfort, particularly when the constricted arteries are also clogged by plaque. Arteries are subject to spasms during periods of anxiety, which can also restrict blood flow.

Shallow rapid breathing in the upper chest due to excitement, fear and anger reduces the amount of carbon dioxide exchanged in the lower lungs. This is known as hyperventilating. The reduced blood flow and poor oxygenation process means less oxygen-rich blood reaches your heart. This contributes to angina pain as well as a strain on chest muscles, which can also lead to chest pain. Another possible cause is acid reflux. Anxiety can produce an increasing amount of gastric acid. Increased stomach muscle activity along with a problem with your lower esophageal sphincter may cause a burning sensation in your chest.

Clinical studies confirm a strong correlation between high urinary cortisol levels and the increased risk for death from heart disease, even in individuals without a history of cardiovascular problems. Anyone who experiences chest pain should consult their health care practitioner and find constructive ways to manage their stress levels, including lifestyle changes. One way to lessen stress-induced chest pain is to control your breathing. Hyperventilation can cause chest pain and lead to greater anxiety. Taking deep, slow breaths will help calm your nerves and reduce stress hormone levels. Other effective techniques to reduce chest pain include meditation and taking walks or breaks.

Cite this page: N., Sam M.S., "Emotional Stress & Chest Pain," in PsychologyDictionary.org, January 9, 2016, https://psychologydictionary.org/emotional-stress-chest-pain/ (accessed August 17, 2022).