Cardiovascular disease remains the leading cause of death in the USA and is associated with several modifiable (hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, tobacco use, physical inactivity, obesity and unhealthy diet) and nonmodifiable (age, gender and family history) risk factors. The role of psychosocial risk factors in the development of cardiovascular disease has a growing body of literature, and differences in men and women have been identified. The Women's Ischemia Syndrome Evaluation provides insight into psychosocial risk factors in a cohort of women presenting with chest pain who had a comprehensive battery of psychosocial assessments and long-term follow-up. This review focuses on symptom presentation for chest pain and its relationship to cardiovascular disease morbidity and mortality, quality of life, healthcare costs and psychosocial predictor variables, including anxiety, depression, hostility and social networks. In the Women's Ischemia Syndrome Evaluation, persistent chest pain was associated with an increased rate of adverse events and relatively high rates of depression and anxiety, with reduced functional capacity and impaired quality of life, over a median of 6 years of follow-up. More research is needed to better understand the relationships between symptoms and negative emotions and to determine whether psychological (pharmacologic and/or cognitive) interventions might impact both psychological and cardiovascular outcomes. © 2013 Future Medicine Ltd.