It's no secret that stress can affect you in some pretty alarming ways. If not managed properly, stress can mess with you mentally, emotionally, and physically. It can even aggravate any medical conditions you may already have. If you’ve ever been so overwhelmed to the point that you’re clutching your chest in pain, it’s not uncommon to automatically assume the worst.
But just how bad is it really?
“As a cardiologist, one of the more common questions I get from my patients with chest pain or palpitations is, ‘Do you think it could be stress?’” Dr. Todd Hurst, center director for Cardiovascular Health at Banner University Medical Center Phoenix, tells HelloGiggles. “The answer is typically, ‘It’s possible.’”
According to Dr. Hurst, it’s been long recognized that stress impacts health, and this is particularly true when it comes to cardiology. “We know that sudden emotional stress can be a trigger for serious cardiac problems, including heart attacks,” he says. That’s why people with chronic heart problems need to avoid acute stress as much as possible. In general, learning how to manage life’s daily stressors as much as you can is key.
Because April is Stress Awareness Month, it’s important to be aware of the effects stress can have on your body, so you can find ways to manage it in the best way that works for you. But beyond that, it’s just as important to know why stress causes these physical reactions in the first place.
So what do chest pains from stress actually mean?
When you experience something stressful, it’s common to get an associated body sensation like butterflies in the stomach or tightness in the chest. According to Dr. Amy Serin, PhD., neuropsychologist and founder of The Serin Center, this is absolutely normal.
“Chest pains are just one kind of physical stress symptoms that signals your body has shifted into the stressful nervous system,” Dr. Serin tells HelloGiggles. “Mistaking chest pains for a cardiac event causes many stressed out people to go to emergency rooms, only to find out that their heart is completely fine. There is no emergency, it was just their nervous system activating the fight or flight response (i.e. panic).”
This, of course, applies to the average person who doesn’t have any issues with their heart. The only way to know for sure is if you consult a doctor. But once you’ve been cleared, Dr. Serin says the best way to deal with chest pains is to simply de-stress and manage it accordingly. Some suggested ways to manage stress include getting some physical activity, getting a good night’s rest, practicing breathing techniques, and adopting a gratitude mindset.
“Being thankful is a surprisingly effective method to reframe our challenges and put things in perspective,” Dr. Hurst says. “It’s human nature to focus on our problems rather than our blessings. As little as 60 seconds a day (I do it first thing in the morning before I get out of bed) spent thinking about the things you are grateful for can be life-altering.”
Life can get super overwhelming sometimes. It’s good to know that chest pains from stress don’t necessarily mean anything too serious. But when it happens, your body is trying to tell you something. So listen to it, take deep breaths, and don’t let it consume you.