Heart attacks and panic attacks (sometimes called anxiety attacks) are very different medical conditions that have very similar symptoms. In fact, it can be hard to tell them apart. But it’s important to be able to make the distinction since a heart attack requires immediate medical attention whereas a panic attack isn’t life-threatening.
This blog post provides information that can help you tell the difference between a heart attack and a panic attack.
However, here’s an important note: When in doubt, assume you’re experiencing a medical emergency and get help right away. It’s much better to learn that what you thought was a heart attack was a panic attack rather than to not get help for a heart attack because you thought it was a panic attack.
What Are the Symptoms of a Heart Attack?
A heart attack is a condition in which an area of the heart muscle isn’t getting enough blood flow. Often, it’s the result of a blockage in an artery that feeds the heart. Symptoms of a heart attack include:
- Pain or pressure in the chest
- Racing or pounding heart
- Discomfort or pain in the jaw, neck, shoulders, arms, or back
- Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
- Nausea or vomiting
- Concern or fear related to these symptoms
Many of these or similar symptoms occur with panic attacks, as well.
What Are the Symptoms of a Panic Attack?
A panic attack is a sudden, overwhelming feeling of fear or dread. Anyone can experience a panic attack, but some people have what’s called panic disorder, meaning these attacks happen to them regularly. Symptoms of a panic attack include:
- Sudden feelings of intense anxiety and fear
- A feeling of impending death
- Difficulty breathing
- Trembling or shaking
- Chest pain
- Racing or pounding heart
- Nausea or stomach pain
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How Are the Symptoms of a Heart Attack and Panic Attack Different?
The symptoms of heart attacks and panic attacks differ in subtle but important ways.
For example, the chest discomfort of a heart attack typically radiates to other areas, whereas in a panic attack, it tends to stay confined to the chest. And that discomfort is more frequently described as pressure or a squeezing sensation in a heart attack; in a panic attack, the discomfort is more likely to come in the form of a stabbing or sharp pain.
The duration of the two events is different, too. A heart attack tends to last longer, and the symptoms may come and go, often with differing levels of discomfort. Panic attacks tend to resolve in anywhere from a few minutes to an hour.
In addition, there are differences in what triggers a heart attack versus a panic attack. Heart attacks often occur after physical exertion like walking up a long flight of stairs or shoveling heavy snow. However, they can occur while you are sleeping. Panic attacks typically aren’t caused by physical strain unless it’s accompanied by an emotional trigger.
Could a Panic Attack Cause a Heart Attack?
Generally, there’s no direct relationship between panic attacks and heart attacks. So, a panic attack won’t typically cause a heart attack.
But stress is a factor in heart attacks, so it’s important to address a panic disorder if it develops. And having a heart condition — particularly one you aren’t being treated for — can be stressful and increase the risk of a panic attack. Consequently, this is another reason to take action to address a heart issue.
Suspect You’re Having a Heart Attack? Get Medical Assistance Immediately.
As noted above, the right thing to do if you think you might be having a heart attack is to get to an emergency room right away or have paramedics come to where you are. Call 911 for guidance on this decision.
If you have had symptoms in the past that you think might be related to a heart problem, talk with your Baptist Health physician or find one near you in our provider directory.
Next Steps and Useful Resources: