It is shown that the momentum diffusion of free-space laser cooling has a natural correspondence in optical cavities when the internal state of the atom is treated as a harmonic oscillator. We derive a general expression for the momentum diffusion which is valid for most configurations of interest: The atom or the cavity or both can be probed by lasers, with or without the presence of traps inducing local atomic frequency shifts. It is shown that, albeit the (possibly strong) coupling between atom and cavity, it is sufficient for deriving the momentum diffusion to consider that the atom couples to a mean cavity field, which gives a first contribution, and that the cavity mode couples to a mean atomic dipole, giving a second contribution. Both contributions have an intuitive form and present a clear symmetry. The total diffusion is the sum of these two contributions plus the diffusion originating from the fluctuations of the forces due to the coupling to the vacuum modes other than the cavity mode (the so called spontaneous emission term). Examples are given that help to evaluate the heating rates induced by an optical cavity for experiments operating at low atomic saturation. We also point out intriguing situations where the atom is heated although it cannot scatter light.
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