If you experience any kind of chest pain and you're concerned it could be a heart attack, then the general advice is to seek a medical attention immediately. Even if a heart attack is actually unlikely, it's always better to get attention when you don't need it than it is to ignore discomfort when actually there really was something to be worried about.
But however much you might be concerned, one thing that certainly won't help is stress and panic. And the main reason for this is that stress can actually exacerbate chest pain and potentially even cause it. What's more, the greater your stress, the more likely it is that it might lead to pain in the chest. This can then result in a vicious cycle of worsening pain and stress which can even develop into a full blown panic attack. It could even conceivably cause heart problems!
Understanding the link between stress and chest pain then is important to not only prevent you from misdiagnosing yourself but also to help avoid mild stress developing into a full blown anxiety attack.
So just how can stress cause chest pain?
Actually there are a few different ways that this can happen and each can result in a slightly different type of discomfort. Here we will look at some of the myriad ways that stress can lead to chest pain so that you can identify each and put your mind at rest.
Your intercostal muscles are the small muscles that are located between your ribs and which you use to expand your rib cage when you breathe in. Unfortunately though, on some occasions the intercostal muscles can end up cramping or even getting caught between the ribs and this can then lead to a very sharp pain in the chest that may also feel as though it's twitching. This becomes more common when we're stressed as stress causes the muscles to contract. Normally, this type of chest pain won't be mistaken for signs of heart attack as the pain is very different. Whereas intercostal pain is sharp and cramping, heart attack feels more like a loss of breath and a tightness almost as though someone is sitting on your chest.
Heartburn and indigestion can also lead to chest pain which will often feel as though you've swallowed something large and it's having difficulty going down. Likewise, it's also common to feel bloated when stressed which can increase pressure on the lungs causing more discomfort.
This problem is caused in part by blood being directed away from systems that wouldn't be useful for fight or flight – such as the digestive system.
As your heart rate and blood pressure increase with stress, so too can your ventilation and you might find yourself breathing more rapidly and taking very shallow breaths. This can not only lead to you feeling short of air but can also cause pain in the lungs as blood vessels contract. This can be even worse if the air is also very cold.
Sometimes those suffering with severe anxiety will experience pain in the chest even though there is no obvious cause. This is because there are psychological ways in which stress can cause chest pain. What effectively happens here is that the heart rate increases and this then causes the individual to worry about their heart. As they are already in an anxious state they will then become more acutely aware of any minor changes and this can lead to them eventually convincing themselves they have chest pain and may be on the brink of a serious problem. In some cases stress can cause chest pain to a mild degree and patients can then end up simply 'exaggerating' this pain in their mind as they panic that it could be something worse.