What Causes Chest Pressure During Stress?

chest pressure

Manusapon Kasosod / Getty Images

Chest pressure is more closely linked to stress, anxiety, or panic than heart disease. When you are stressed or panicked, your body releases stress hormones that can cause all kinds of physical symptoms, and chest pressure or pain is one of them.

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take chest pressure seriously, but that if you are an otherwise healthy adult experiencing stress, your stressful state is likely causing the chest pressure.

The good news is that there are ways to manage your stress and anxiety symptoms, which will balance your mood and decrease your uncomfortable physical sensations.

Let’s look at the connection between chest pressure and stress, including the causes, how to get a proper diagnosis, any potential complications, and how to treat chest pressure caused by stress.

The Connection Between Stress and Chest Pressure

When you are under stress or experiencing anxiety, your body goes into “fight or flight mode,” which results in myriad physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms. This is an automatic response that you may not even be consciously aware of, and it can happen whether the danger is real or appears to be real to you.

Under stress, the body releases hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which have powerful effects on your body and mind. Everyone responds differently and experiences stress in unique ways. But one such response is that you may feel intense chest pressure or pain.

Besides chest pressure, other possible stress-related responses may include:

  • A feeling of heaviness in your chest
  • A clenched jaw
  • Feeling “on edge”
  • Feeling distanced or emotionally numb
  • Experiencing a racing heart and clammy hands
  • Experiencing shortness of breath
  • Having nausea or diarrhea
  • Shaking
  • Having trouble concentrating
  • Feeling angry or irritable
  • Scary thoughts or mental images
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Feeling like you’re “going crazy”

Experiencing a tight chest or pressure in the chest area is very common during times of stress or anxiety. In fact, a 2018 review found that anxiety is a factor in between 30% and 40% of emergency room visits where chest pain is the main symptom.

Risk Factors

Anyone can experience chest pressure as a result of stress. However, it’s more common in people who have anxiety disorders, and it’s most common in people who have panic attacks. That’s because panic attacks are characterized by a more physically intense stress response. A 2019 study found that 28% of people who were hospitalized with chest pain and normal angiography (no signs of heart disease) were eventually diagnosed with panic disorder.

Complications of Stress and Chest Pressure

Stress doesn’t just feel bad, but it can have negative health effects, especially if the stress is chronic. Stress can affect your muscular system, your respiratory system, your hormones, your gastrointestinal tract, your nervous system, and even your reproductive system. Stress is linked to a suppressed immune system, and conditions like diabetes, obesity, depression, and chronic fatigue.

Although chest pressure isn’t always a sign of heart disease, stress can exacerbate heart conditions, and chronic stress may be a factor in the development of cardiac issues.

When to See a Doctor

If you are experiencing stress and chest pressure, you shouldn’t panic because it’s likely that stress is causing your chest pressure. However, you can’t self-diagnose this; at times, serious medical conditions cause chest pressure and pain.

If you have an underlying heart condition and experience chest pressure, you should seek emergency medical care, regardless of what you think is causing it. If you are otherwise healthy, you can wait 20 minutes or so to see if the chest pressure goes away and then call your healthcare provider for a follow-up.

Usually, heart attack symptoms occur after physical exertion, not while you are at rest. Heart attack symptoms also usually worsen over time instead of resolving. The following are typical heart attack symptoms. If you have them, you should call 911 immediately:

  • Pain in the center or left side of your chest lasting for several minutes; pain may go away and then come back
  • Feeling dizzy, weak, or like you are going to faint
  • Breaking out into a cold sweat
  • Back, neck, or jaw pain
  • Labored breathing

Diagnosis of Stress and Chest Pressure

Besides heart disease, several medical conditions have chest pressure as a symptom, including acid reflux, pneumonia, pulmonary embolism, and gallbladder disease. That’s why it’s important to see a healthcare provider if you are experiencing chest pain.

If you are also someone who experiences stress, anxiety, panic, and other symptoms of stress, your mental state may very well be what’s causing your chest pressure. Still, it’s important to rule out any medical causes first.

To determine what is causing your chest pain or pressure, your healthcare provider will likely ask you a series of diagnostic questions, check your vital signs, and take your health history. They may order certain medical tests or blood tests based on your symptoms. If they feel certain that your chest pressure is caused by stress, they may refer you to a therapist or discuss methods for reducing stress in your life.

Treatment of Stress and Chest Pressure

Stress is often treated with counseling or psychotherapy, and less commonly, medication. Anxiety and panic disorders, which can also contribute to chest pressure, are also usually treated with a combination of psychotherapy and medication.

Medications

Stress is less likely to be treated with medication than anxiety disorders or panic disorders. However, acute episodes of stress may be managed with anti-anxiety medications. The following medications may be used to treat severe or chronic stress as well as anxiety disorders:

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
  • Benzodiazepines 
  • Beta blockers

Psychotherapy

Therapy is a wonderful way to treat stress and anxiety and can relieve stress symptoms like chest pressure. The following types of therapy may be considered:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps you become more mindful of the thoughts you are having and how they affect your feelings and behaviors
  • Exposure therapy, which is where you are exposed to a stressor in a controlled environment so that you can overcome your fears

Coping With Stress and Chest Pressure

Experiencing chest pressure can be stressful in and of itself. That can be reassuring if you learn that your symptoms are caused by stress and not a medical condition. But you will still have to address the stress that you are dealing with in your life.

Stress triggers—like work stress, relationship stress, money stress, or stress about the state of the world—can’t always be avoided. But you have a say in how you manage stress. Making certain lifestyle changes can help you manage the stress you will inevitably face.

Lifestyle Changes 

Try the following to help manage your stress levels during difficult times:

  • Fit exercise into your day on a daily basis
  • Make sure to get enough sleep
  • Eat regularly; don’t skip meals
  • Limit caffeine and alcohol
  • Take time each day to lie still and breathe deeply
  • Express how you are feeling to someone you trust
  • Add meditation into your day—even just a few minutes helps

Summary

Chest pressure is a common symptom of stress, caused by the body’s physiological response to stress. Even though chest pressure is common during times of stress, it is also linked to serious medical conditions such as heart disease. That’s why it’s important to get evaluated by a medical professional if chest pressure is new to you or doesn’t go away after you try to relax.

A Word From Verywell

If you are experiencing chest pressure for the first time, it’s understandable that you feel worried! Many people think they are having a heart attack when they experience chest pressure. It’s easier said than done, but try to relax. It’s more likely that your chest pain is caused by stress or anxiety than a serious medical condition. That said, any new physical symptoms should not be dismissed. Always check in with a healthcare provider if you experience chest pressure as a new symptom.

11 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. McConaghy JR, Sharma M, Patel H. Acute Chest Pain in Adults: Outpatient Evaluation. American Family Physician. 2020;102(12):721-727.

  2. Chand SP, Marwaha R. Anxiety. StatPearls Publishing. 2022.

  3. McConaghy JR, Sharma M, Patel H. Acute Chest Pain in Adults: Outpatient Evaluation. American Family Physician. 2020;102(12):721-727.

  4. Chand SP, Marwaha R. Anxiety. StatPearls Publishing. 2022.

  5. Musey PI, Patel R, Fry C, et al. Anxiety Associated With Increased Risk for Emergency Department Recidivism in Patients With Low-Risk Chest Pain. American Journal of Cardiology. 2018;122(7):1133-1141. doi:10.1016/j.amjcard.2018.06.044

  6. Shakeri J, Tatari F, Vaezi N, et al. The prevalence of panic disorder and its related factor in hospitalized patients with chest pain and normal angiography. Journal of Education and Health Promotion. 2019;8:61. doi:10.4103/jehp.jehp_278_18

  7. American Psychological Association. Stress effects on the body.

  8. Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Panic Attack vs. Heart Attack: How to Tell the Difference.

  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart Attack Symptoms, Risk, and Recovery.

  10. Harvard Health Publishing. Other conditions may be causes of chest pain: Heart disease not the only reason for that feeling of angina.

  11. Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Tips and Strategies to Manage Anxiety and Stress.

By Wendy Wisner
Wendy Wisner is a health and parenting writer, lactation consultant (IBCLC), and mom to two awesome sons.