Sinking Feeling in Chest: Is It a Cause for Concern?

A sudden sinking feeling in the chest is something we all have probably felt at some point in our lives. It could be right after receiving bad news, hearing your name being called out in a meeting or class, or just realizing you left your keys in your car. It is a common part of the human experience and usually nothing to worry about.

However, some health issues have symptoms very close to this ‘sinking feeling in chest’ that we feel. These health problems can be both physical and mental. It’s okay to get a sinking feeling in your chest when sad. But, if you get this sinking feeling frequently, it could be your heart is trying to tell you something is wrong.

Sinking feeling in the chest has nothing to do with the heart at all. It’s an illusionary perception created as a side-effect of the brain trying to process sudden or intense emotion.

In this article, you’ll find all the answers about why we get this sinking feeling and also how to get rid of sinking feeling in the chest.

Nutrisystem

So let’s get started.

What Causes This Sinking Feeling?

The reason behind the sinking feeling in chest is still speculative. The exact cause has still not been discovered. But as these feelings are often associated with feelings and emotions, it’s a safe bet that it’s something neurological.

sinking-feeling-in-chest

Fight-or-Flight Mechanism

There are some hypotheses about what causes the sinking feeling. One of these theories is that it’s a by-product of the Fight-or-Flight mechanism of the body.

When under a life-threatening or deeply emotional situation, the brain reacts by initiating the Fight-or-flight response, essentially getting the body ready to either escape or confront the danger. It is an evolutionary trait that has probably helped our ancestors get out of many hairy situations.

To prepare the body to fight or flee, the brain signals the release of adrenaline, which sharpens the senses and boosts muscle activity. To supply the muscles with enough blood for quick and powerful movements, the blood is quickly emptied from the heart and redirected to the extremities like arms and legs.

This sudden whooshing out of blood from the heart may be interpreted as a ‘sinking feeling’. This theory makes a lot of sense because the sinking feeling in chest is often associated with hearing bad news of feelings of loss, which are emotional triggers that can initiate the Fight-or-Flight response.

Arrhythmias

Arrhythmias are the irregular beats of the heart that may be caused by a plethora of reasons. These irregular beats can have skipped or missed beats, extra beats, or heart beating out of rhythm. These arrhythmias are perceived as Palpitations.

It may be perceived as a pounding, sinking, fluttering feeling in chest. It is believed that these arrhythmias are what cause the sinking feeling in chest that we feel.

The production of heart eats is regulated by the system of the heart, which is composed of some very specialized cells. These cells form nodes at different places in the heart and discharge electric signals at regular intervals, creating rhythmic contraction of the heart muscles. These regulated and rhythmic contractions are what we detect as heartbeats.

arrhythmias

If for some reason, like the effect of drugs or disease, this careful conduction of electric signals is disturbed, it causes the heart to beat irregularly and erratically. This is a serious condition as it may ultimately lead to heart attack or cardiac failure.

Parasympathetic Response

Another interesting theory is that the sinking feeling in the chest has nothing to do with the heart at all. It’s an illusionary perception created as a side-effect of the brain trying to process sudden or intense emotion.

A school of thought believes that the anterior cingulate cortex of the brain is responsible for the sinking feeling in chest. This part of the brain is an important part of the brain responsible for many cognitive functions including handling impulse control, emotion, and stress. It’s believed that it also has the ability to stimulate the vagus nerve.

When under extreme stress or intense emotion, the anterior cingulate cortex can become very active. This could, in turn, stimulate the vagus nerve, which is the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system, carrying important nervous signals from organs like the heart and lungs.

AFib can cause irregular and erratic heartbeats, which can include missed or skipped beats. These erratic beats may be perceived as sinking feelings in the chest.

This stimulation of the vagus nerve could cause it to fire signals erratically to the brain, which the brain processes as pain, heartache, or ‘a sinking feeling’ in the chest.

It’s important to note that none of these theories about the sinking feeling of the chest have yet been proven or accepted. As it stands, the sinking feeling is treated as a phenomenon that is caused by interlinked physical, neurological, and emotional factors.

Other Causes for Sinking Feeling in Chest

Apart from the causes mentioned above, there are several other reasons that you might experience a sinking feeling in your chest. Let’s take a look at the important ones:

Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation is a kind of irregular heartbeat often associated with an abnormally fast heartbeat. In AFib (atrial fibrillation), the blood collects in the upper atria, causing the heart to flutter or fibrillate, trying to get the pooled blood to the remaining chambers of the heart.

AFib can cause irregular and erratic heartbeats, which can include missed or skipped beats. These erratic beats may be perceived as sinking feelings in the chest.

artial-fibrillation

Heart Attack

A heart attack is one of the most dangerous conditions of the heart at can happen at any time with little to no warning. The symptoms of a heart attack include severe chest pain, shooting pain radiating from the left chest to the left shoulder, arms, back, and abdomen.

Another well-documented sign of a heart attack is a sinking sensation in the chest, also described as a sense of impending doom.

Hyperthyroidism

People who have hyperthyroidism are at higher risk of developing arrhythmias and AFib. Hyperthyroidism causes the thyroid glands to produce more thyroxine, which is a hormone that directly affects the heart rate.

Increased thyroxine causes the heart to beat faster. This increases the chances of arrhythmias and AFib. Consequently, it also causes more frequent sinking feelings in the chest.

Stress and Anxiety

Chronic stress and anxiety can act as important triggers that can potentiate problems like arrhythmias and other heart-related problems. It has been established that emotional stressors play an important role in the regulation of nerve signals in the brain and the nervous system.

Thus, emotional states can affect these signals which can affect organs like the heart, lung, liver, etc. So stress, fear, or anxiety can cause a sinking feeling in chest and stomach.

Drinking too much coffee when you’re stressed may put more pressure on your nervous system, which may lead to neurological problems like insomnia, confusion, irritability, and of course, sinking feeling in the chest.

The exact mechanisms by which our emotions affect our heart and cause this sinking sensation is still unknown. But the correlation between these factors has been proven without the shadow of a doubt.

Medications

Certain medications can cause cardiac anomalies like fluttering or sinking sensations. The effect of these drugs are harmless and your doctor prescribes them knowing about these minor side effects. However, if you find that any drug that you take is causing serious reactions and harmful effects, consult your doctor immediately.

Drugs that can cause sinking feeling in the chest:

  • Acetylcholinesterase Inhibitors
    • Neostigmine
    • Physostigmine
  • Anesthetics
    • Midazolam
    • Propofol
  • Antiarrhythmic Drugs
    • Propafenone
    • Quinidine
    • Sotalol
  • Antidepressants
    • Citalopram
  • Inotropes
    • Digoxin

How to Manage the Sinking Feeling in Chest?

Usually, the sinking feeling in your chest is nothing to worry about. If it is caused by any emotional reaction, it should pass as soon as you have recovered from the initial shock.

However, if it’s being caused by any of the other reasons stated above, it’s handy to know a few techniques you can use if your chest starts feeling funny.

Here are some of the ways you can manage the sinking feeling in chest:

Try Breathing Exercises

Simple breathing exercises can help reduce anxiety and instill a sense of calm. It is especially useful if you experience emotional shock or are in a state of panic. Breathing exercises are a tried and tested method to calm the nerves and get you back to normal.

Steps for an easy breathing exercise:

  • Inhale through the nostrils. Take a deep and long breath. Relax your shoulders and take the air all the way to the bottom of your lungs.
  • Exhale through the mouth. Purse your lips and let the air out slowly. Don’t exhale the air too forcefully. Just stay relaxed.
  • Repeat the cycle. Inhale and exhale slowly for 2-3 minutes. Tour heartbeat will start to slow down and you’ll feel calmer.
breathing-exercises

Avoid Caffeine, Nicotine, and Alcohol

Drinks like tea or coffee contain caffeine which stimulates the nervous system. This is useful for a pick-me-up in the morning before work, but if you are stressed it may actually cause more harm than good.

Drinking too much coffee when you’re stressed may put more pressure on your nervous system, which may lead to neurological problems like insomnia, confusion, irritability, and of course, sinking feeling in the chest.

Smoking and drinking are already injurious to health. But in deeply emotional states their effects can be even worse. Nicotine and alcohol directly affect the central nervous system. You should definitely avoid smoking or drinking if you’re stressed.

Eat Something Sweet

The effects of an emotional shock or a panic attack can get worse if your blood glucose is low. A low or unstable blood glucose level may even cause you to blackout or faint.

Since the blood glucose level plays a key role in keeping the brain and nervous system functioning, a little sugar can help you keep your wits about you in a time of crisis. A little sweet snack like a candy bar can help give your brain a very helpful boost and it also helps reduce anxiety.

So eating something sweet can help you cope with a sudden sinking feeling in your chest.

FAQs

Why am I waking up with a sinking feeling in my chest?

When we sleep, the heart beats slower than normal. As we begin to wake up, the heartbeat picks up as more parts of the body become active.

People with arrhythmias may experience some irregular or skipped beats at this time. This may be perceived as a sinking feeling in the chest.

Is it normal to have sinking feeling in the chest after eating?

A sinking feeling in the chest after eating may be felt by people suffering from GERD or Acid Reflux. In this condition, the sphincter guarding the esophagus against the stomach’s acidic contents is weakened, causing it to come back up the esophagus and creating irritation. 

This can cause bloating, heartburn, and also sinking feeling in the chest.

How do I get rid of the sinking feeling in my chest?

A healthy lifestyle can go a long way to control the physical and mental factors causing the sinking feeling in the chest.

Try taking a balanced diet, getting regular exercise, doing yoga, or speaking to a therapist.

Final Words

As mentioned before, a sinking feeling in your chest is nothing to be worried about. But you should be concerned about your mental health and well-being. Stress and anxiety are not things you have to silently endure.

Talk to a qualified psychologist or therapist to find the best direction to better manage your emotional and psychological state. Remember, always consult your doctor first if your chest is acting up.

Hopefully, this article has given you what you need about the sinking feeling in your chest. Following the above-mentioned tips can help you manage your stress and keep your mental health in its best shape.

References

Muhtasim Munir

Muhtasim Munir

As a doctor in the making, I feel fascinated by the advancements and expansion of medical science. This fuels my passion for trying to follow a health-conscious lifestyle. I love writing and sharing thoughts and ideas with the people I care about. If my work can reach out and help people to enjoy a healthy, happy life it will be an honor for me. Muhtasim Munir MBBS (3rd year) Armed Forces Medical College

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