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Panic Attack vs Heart Attack: How to Tell the Difference

The thought of having a heart attack is scary one. Here's how to tell the difference between a panic attack vs heart attack.

Updated: 20 May 2022

Panic attacks and heart attacks are two very different things, so why do they feel so similar?

The term panic attack – or anxiety attack – is often used to describe feeling overly stressed in everyday situations. The reality is that panic attacks are far more severe and terrifying than most people realize. Hence the reason they’re often confused with heart attacks.

Many people have never experienced a full-blown panic attack before. An image of someone breathing into a brown paper bag probably springs to mind. But in the throes of a panic attack, most people can’t even voice what’s happening to them, let alone find a paper bag to breathe into.

Panic attack symptoms are sudden and often unexpected, which makes the experience more frightening and confusing.

So, what is the difference between a panic attack vs heart attack?

Evaluating anxiety chest pain versus heart attack pain isn’t always straightforward. People who suffer from panic attacks often say their anxiety feels a lot like a heart attack – in fact, many of the symptoms can seem the same. And they’re not entirely wrong.

Panic Attack vs Heart Attack: Why an Anxiety Chest Pain Can Mimic a Heart Attack

A heart attack and a panic attack are similar in many ways. The chest tightness, sweating, and dizziness are symptoms of both. In addition to a pounding heartbeat and even physical weakness or temporary paralysis. Intense fear overshadows both events, which can also lead to an increase in these symptoms.

Whether you’re panicking or having a heart attack, your body knows it’s in distress, and something is seriously wrong.

According to the CDC, about 805,000 people in the United States have had a heart attack. Heart attacks are the result of an artery that’s partially or completely blocked, which stops the flow of oxygen and blood.

Symptoms of a Heart Attack

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Near fainting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain that gets worse over time
  • Pain that radiates to the arm, jaw, or shoulder blades
  • Sudden onset during or following physical activity (ie. climbing the stairs or shoveling snow)
  • Squeezing pain and pressure in the chest

Panic attacks, on the other hand, are a fear response. These can happen alone or as a symptom of panic disorder. The Anxiety & Depression Association of America says that about 2-3% of people in the United States experience panic disorders each year, and more will experience a panic attack without even having a panic disorder.

For some people, the body reacts in a big way, even when there’s no real danger. Once adrenal levels rise, it affects the heart and oxygen levels, so the body produces a similar experience to a heart attack.

Symptoms of a Panic Attack

  • Tingling in the hands
  • Sweating
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain that gets better over time
  • Increased or racing heart rate
  • Sudden onset or onset during extreme stress or anxiety
  • Symptoms that resolve within 20 to 30 minutes

There are, however, still some significant differences between these two experiences.

Considering anxiety medication? Here’s what you should know first.

Panic Attack vs Heart Attack: How to Tell the Difference

Being able to tell the difference between a panic attack and a heart attack can be difficult, especially if someone hasn’t experienced either before. You can distinguish between the two by weighing several factors, including:

  • Characteristics of pain
  • The onset
  • And the duration

The Physical Symptoms

While it can be tricky to tell anxiety chest pain vs a heart attack, a panic attack is actually far more physically intense. Once the fear grips you, it’s followed by a rapid heart rate, chest tightness, breathlessness, and dizziness. Basically, the spike in adrenaline and cortisol makes you feel out of control – and you may feel as if you’re at death’s door.

The physical symptoms of a heart attack are different for men and women. Chest pain is the most common symptom, but it can vary in intensity. The pain may also radiate to the neck, jaw, shoulder, and left arm. Sweating, dizziness, nausea, and shortness of breath also occur. In women, heart attack symptoms may be milder and could include unusual fatigue and chest discomfort rather than chest pain.

The key difference here is that chest pain and tightness during a panic attack generally don’t last longer than 30 seconds. This is one of the first ways you can tell the difference between these two experiences.

Chest pains that disappear and reappear could be a sign of a heart attack.

Think you might need to see a cardiologist? Here’s how to prep.

The Emotional Symptoms

Both panic attacks and heart attacks bring up strong emotions such as fear. A panic attack, however, is accompanied by a sense of a loss of control.

During a heart attack, most people are focused on surviving instead of a loss of control.

However, heart attack survivors tend to experience many of the emotions associated with panic attacks after the fact, including anxiety, depression, and a loss of control.

Source: Unsplash

The Onset

The onset of a person’s symptoms may help determine if they’re having a heart attack or panic attack. While both conditions can develop suddenly without warning, some heart attacks come on due to physical exertion, like climbing the stairs.

This is another key reason why panic attacks are often mistaken for heart attacks because they can happen unexpectedly. Yes, crowds, flying, or general stress can trigger a panic attack, but they can also appear out of nowhere.

There still isn’t any definitive information about why panic attacks occur for no reason, but research shows that a predisposition to stress and genetics both play a role.

The Duration

The symptoms of a heart attack can last up to 45 minutes and get worse over time.

For example, chest tightness can escalate to the point of feeling like you have a ton on your chest and breathing becomes even more difficult. Some patients may even lose consciousness.

When To Seek Medical Help

While the symptoms of panic attacks and heart attacks are similar, patients should never fail to seek medical attention should they be unsure about whether they’re having a panic or heart attack.

It’s crucial to seek emergency medical treatment if any of these symptoms develop:

  • Sudden, severe chest pain
  • Pressure in the chest lasting more than 2 or 3 minutes
  • Chest pain radiating down the arm or into the jaw

Knowing the differences between these two medical emergencies is the first step to regaining some form of control.

Those with a predisposition to stress, anxiety, and depression should consider taking additional steps to care for their mental health to avoid unnecessary panic attacks.

Whether or not heart problems run in the family, people over the age of 40 should also consider revaluating their physical health to avoid heart attack and stroke.






FAQS

How Long Do Anxiety Attacks Last?

A study by Mayo Clinic showed that panic attacks peak after a few minutes and are completely over in about 20 minutes. Panic seems to slow time down, making it feel like the attack is lasting far longer than it really is. The fact that panic attacks feel so long-lasting unfortunately exacerbates the negative emotions.

What Does a Blocked Artery Feel Like?

The symptoms of an artery blockage include chest pain and tightness and shortness of breath. This means that even if you’re not having a heart attack, these symptoms may be an early warning sign that something is wrong, and you need to get it checked.

Can You Check for a Heart Blockage at Home?

You can check for a heart blockage yourself, but you will need a blood pressure monitor. There are many kinds, so you’ll need to follow the instructions that came with yours. Measure your blood pressure in a quiet room after you’ve been still for 5 minutes. Keep still during the reading and take two or three readings – each about 1-2 minutes apart. Keep a record of your measurements. A regular blood pressure level is less than 120/80 mmHg.

Can a Blocked Artery Clear Itself?

No. While there are lifestyle changes that you can take to prevent plaques, these won’t remove existing plaques. Invasive treatment is the only way to remove artery blockages, and the best course of action is to stop plaque development and prevent future buildups by making healthy lifestyle changes.

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Jenny Cohen Drefler

Jenny Cohen Derfler

Air Dr CEO & Co-Founder

Jenny is the CEO and one of the Co-Founders at Air Doctor. She spent more than 20 years at Intel, most recently as general manager of its manufacturing facility in Israel and before that in various engineering and manufacturing roles in Silicon Valley. Air Doctor is her second startup having previously founded electric vehicle company ElectRoad.