7 Ways to relieve chest tightness from anxiety  

7 Ways to relieve chest tightness from anxiety  

Reviewed by:
Brenda Camacho, MD
Staff Psychiatrist
at Talkiatry
February 28, 2024
In this article

If you’ve ever been in a stressful situation—facing a tight deadline or dealing with a difficult conversation—you may have had that uncomfortable sensation of tightness in your chest. It can feel like a heavy weight or a gripping hand, and when it’s bad it might even seem difficult to breathe. If you experience chest tightness when you’re anxious or stressed, you’re not alone. Anxiety can manifest through physical symptoms—as nausea and sweating, too.  

The good news is that there are things you can do to help relieve the chest pain. And the best way to understand if your chest tightness could be a symptom of anxiety is to talk with a doctor, like a psychiatrist who can rule out other conditions and help create a treatment plan for you.

In this article, we’ll cover how to get rid of that anxious feeling in your chest, ways to tell chest pain apart from heart attacks, and when to seek treatment for your mental health.  

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Chest pain anxiety vs. heart attack chest pain  

It’s no secret that anxiety disorders can have physical symptoms. However, chest pain from stress is quite different from a heart attack, which is a serious, life-threatening cardiac event.

Heart attacks occur when there is a blockage in the blood vessels that supply the heart, while panic attacks tend to come out of the blue, often without any obvious reason or real danger present.  

There are several ways to tell the difference between symptoms of a panic attack and a heart attack. For instance, if the symptoms come on suddenly during a really stressful situation, it's more likely to be a panic attack. On the other hand, if the symptoms occur during physical activity or while resting, like when you wake up, it's more commonly associated with a heart attack.

When you feel a sharp, stabbing pain in your chest that eases up fairly quickly, usually within a few minutes, it's more likely to be related to a panic attack. But heart attack chest pain will feel like squeezing or pressure and get worse as time goes on—keep in mind that when you’re having a heart attack the chest pain can also spread to your arm, jaw, shoulder blades, or back.  

It's important not to brush off any of these symptoms, no matter how mild they may seem.

If you think you are experiencing any of these heart attack symptoms call 911 and go to the emergency room right away.

Heart attack symptoms

  • Shortness of breath
  • Intense chest pain
  • Heart palpitations
  • Stomach pain
  • Lightheadedness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Pain that spreads to the jaw, arms, neck, back, or shoulders
  • Prolonged angina—a persistent chest pain caused by lack of blood flow that feels like intense pressure or squeezing

If you experience extreme or persistent pain in your chest—or any other symptoms above associated with a heart attack—call your doctor and seek medical care immediately.

It's crucial to never disregard symptoms of a heart attack, even if they don't appear to be severe. It can be tricky to spot the differences, but knowing them can help you know how to respond if symptoms show up. This is especially important for older adults and people with diabetes might not experience obvious symptoms or may have very mild ones

Anxiety symptoms

  • Increased heart rate
  • Dull ache in the chest  
  • Sharp, shooting pain in the chest
  • Racing thoughts
  • Sweating
  • Heart palpitations
  • Temporarily high blood pressure
  • Muscle tension

If you have anxiety, from time to time you might experience your heart racing at an elevated rate, dull or sharp chest pain, sweating, and general discomfort. People with anxiety experience its physical symptoms in different ways. If you get panic attacks or anxiety attacks, you might also be more likely to experience hyperventilation and thoughts of extreme fear. (Related article: What is panic disorder?) But, it’s possible that you might not feel any physical symptoms other than chest pain from your stress.

If you're looking for relief, check out how to get online anxiety treatment from a psychiatrist.

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Tips for relieving chest tightness  

If you’ve experienced chest tightness from anxiety, you know it’s an unpleasant sensation. If you’ve ever asked yourself, “How do I get rid of that anxious feeling in my chest?”here are several psychiatrist-backed ways to help relieve pain in your chest area and keep it from coming back as often.  

1. Breathing exercises

Deep breathing relaxes your body by activating your parasympathetic nervous system—the system that controls your body’s ability to calm down. The next time you experience anxiety or anxiety-related chest pain, try one of the following techniques:

Box breathing

Box breathing is a technique that requires focus and slow, deep breaths, in and out for the same amount of time. Once you understand what box breathing is, the name will make perfect sense.

  • Inhale slowly through your nose for four seconds
  • Hold your breath for four seconds
  • Exhale slowly through your mouth for four seconds
  • Hold your breath for four seconds
  • Repeat until you feel relaxed

Pursed lip breathing

Although the idea may sound strange, exhaling through pursed lips helps your body and lungs breathe easier—which makes it an especially great technique if you experience chest tightness or shortness of breath.

  • Inhale through your nose for two seconds
  • Purse your lips as if you’re drinking through a straw
  • Slowly exhale through your mouth for at least four seconds
  • Repeat until you feel relaxed

2. Journal

Journaling is an effective coping technique for those pesky, anxious thoughts—including those caused by alarming chest pain. By writing down your worries, you gain a much better understanding of what’s behind your anxiety, which in turn helps you address the root causes of your discomfort.  

Regular journaling is the most beneficial, so consider adding it to your daily morning or night routine. However, writing down anxious thoughts helps you put them into perspective and often makes them feel less overwhelming—so try journaling next time you experience stress-related chest pain.  

3. Get enough sleep

As simple as it sounds, getting enough sleep is crucial to developing a positive stress response. When you don’t get enough sleep, your cortisol (stress hormone) levels rise, making you more likely to feel stressed out.  

In the same way that you get frustrated easily when you haven’t had a good night’s rest, you’re also more likely to feel physical symptoms of stress when you’re sleep-deprived.

4. Exercise regularly

Regular exercise increases endorphins—the brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters. It also improves your mood and cardiovascular health. As your body adjusts to intense breathing and a faster heart rate, it’s not only becoming stronger and healthier—it’s better equipped to handle anxiety-related shortness of breath and chest pain.  

Exercising regularly for your mental and physical health is a great habit, and doesn’t have to feel overwhelming. Try going for a walk each morning, playing tennis with friends, or taking a fitness class.

If you have any existing health conditions, you may want to consult your primary care physician before starting a new exercise routine.  

5. Practice mindfulness meditation

One way to combat intense feelings of anxiety? Mindfulness. Mindfulness helps bring your attention to the present moment and your surrounding environment.  

When you bring awareness to your current moment and tune into your surroundings, that helps direct your thoughts away from whatever is making you anxious.  

Practicing regular mindfulness meditation improves these skills, so that the next time you experience chest pain, you’ll be better equipped to handle it. So, how do you do it, exactly?  

  • Sit or lie in a comfortable position.
  • Bring your thoughts to one body part at a time—many people start by focusing on their feet and then focusing on various parts of their body until they reach their head.
  • Then, turn your thoughts to your breath. Slowly breathe in and feel your lungs expand. Breathe out. Repeat this process for a few minutes. Over time, you’ll be able to meditate for longer periods of time.
  • If your thoughts wander, accept those thoughts without judgment and return to the exercise.  

6. Work with your doctor or a mental health professional to come up with an anxiety treatment plan

While there are many lifestyle changes you can make on your own, consulting a professional is a helpful step in addressing your anxiety.  

Primary care or mental health professionals can advise you on additional steps, including taking medications like SSRIs  (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) which increase the amount of serotonin (a neurotransmitter that contributes to your mood) in your brain. They can also help determine whether limiting alcohol, updating your exercise routine, or changing your diet will help.

7. Think about trying therapy

If you’re working with a psychiatrist, they might also recommend seeing a therapist. If you’ve never seen a therapist, the idea of going to therapy may sound intimidating. Don’t worry; you’re not the first person to feel this way. However, many people find therapy extremely effective and worthwhile. A licensed therapist or mental health professional will teach you to address anxious thought patterns and find effective coping techniques. Here’s more on the difference between therapists and psychiatrists.

How long will my anxiety chest pain last?

Chest pain is a common symptom of anxiety and it typically lasts around 10 minutes. However, everyone’s body and brain work differently, so your chest pain may last a shorter or longer period of time—or even come in waves.  

Remember: if your chest pain persists, feels intense, or you have additional heart problems, seek immediate medical attention by going to the emergency room.

Anxiety treatment at Talkiatry

Getting help for your anxiety can lessen your symptoms and help you live a better life. It can take time to get better, but you’ve already taken the first step by researching how you can relieve discomfort. But sometimes that may not be enough, and you may need to address the root causes by talking to a mental health professional. At Talkiatry, we can help you get a personalized treatment plan for conditions like generalized anxiety disorder that may include medication, therapy, or both. We’re a national psychiatry practice that provides in-network, virtual care—and you can schedule a first visit within days. Get started with a short online assessment.

Dr. Brenda Y. Camacho holds the position of Staff Psychiatrist at Talkiatry. She is board-certified in Adult Psychiatry. She has been practicing for over 25 years.

While having treated a wide range of adult patients, Dr. Camacho’s primary focus is treating adult outpatients with mood or psychotic disorders. Her practice focuses on medication management. Typically, she offers this in conjunction with supportive or insight-oriented therapy in 30-minute follow-up visits. On occasion, Dr. Camacho will believe additional therapy is also needed and asks that you bring a therapist into your care team to provide the best outcome.

Dr. Camacho completed her undergraduate studies at Tufts University. She received her medical degree from Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia, PA and then continued with Temple for her residency in adult psychiatry. After completing training, Dr. Camacho worked at Cooper Hospital in Camden NJ as Associate Director of Consultation/Liaison Service and Psychiatry Residency Training and Co-Director of the Neuropsychiatry Clinic. She then began working exclusively in outpatient settings, joined NewPoint Behavioral Health Care, and served as Medical Director before and after their merge with Acenda Integrated Health.

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