If you experience shortness of breath, a racing heart, and a strange feeling in your chest, you may be wondering if you have a heart attack or a panic attack. Since they share some common symptoms, it can be difficult to tell the two apart. To make things even more confusing, one hallmark of a panic attack is the fear that you are having a heart attack or dying.
This article discusses the symptoms of panic attacks and heart attacks, how to tell them apart, and when to seek medical attention.
A heart attack occurs when a blockage impairs blood flow in the arteries that supply blood to the heart. The most common symptom is chest pressure or discomfort. However, other symptoms such as fatigue, nausea, dizziness, and shortness of breath may occur, especially in women.
The following are symptoms associated with a heart attack:
- Substernal chest discomfort
- Discomfort radiating to the neck, jaw or upper arm
- shortness of breath
- feeling of doom or death
risk factors for heart attack
Some risk factors for heart attack include:
- high cholesterol
- sedentary lifestyle
A history of angina, or heart pain due to insufficient blood supply to the heart muscle, is a very worrying symptom and may be a sign of a blocked coronary artery. It should be evaluated by a doctor immediately.
according to Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a panic attack is a sudden intense feeling of fear and discomfort that subsides within a short period of time. They include four or more of the following symptoms:
- Intense fear and thoughts of racing
- feeling out of control
- fear of death
- Feeling disconnected from your surroundings
- fast heartbeat or palpitations
- chest discomfort
- shortness of breath or shortness of breath
- numbness or tingling
- feeling hot or cold
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
Panic disorder is diagnosed in people who experience recurrent panic attacks that cause distress and affect their lives.
location and characteristics of pain
During a heart attack, pain is usually felt under the breastbone, which is a blunt pressure. It may radiate up to the neck and jaw, or down to the left arm. It’s a vague pain that you can’t pinpoint with your fingertips. Severe pain or pain that you can point with your fingers is unlikely to come from the heart.
Panic attacks, on the other hand, may cause chest pain with a sharp or tingling sensation, or a choking sensation in the throat.
Never ignore chest pain
Never ignore chest discomfort or assume it’s caused by a panic attack, especially if you’ve never been diagnosed with a panic attack.
Both heart attacks and panic attacks can share the following related symptoms, which can make them difficult to distinguish:
- shortness of breath
- feeling of impending doom
A heart attack can also be accompanied by fatigue, fainting, or loss of consciousness.
Panic attacks, on the other hand, are characterized by a racing heart, racing thoughts, shaking, tingling or numbness, and a feeling of suffocation.
duration of symptoms
Angina, or heart pain caused by insufficient blood supply to the heart (such as when a coronary artery is blocked) lasts longer than a few minutes and may come and go. It may be aggravated or worsened by physical exertion.
A heart attack can also happen suddenly, and symptoms can last for hours or until the blocked artery is treated.
During a panic attack, on the other hand, symptoms usually peak after about 10 minutes and subside after half an hour.
Any chest discomfort caused by exertion should be taken very seriously, as it may be a sign of a blocked coronary artery. However, heart attacks can also occur without warning or during periods of physical exertion.
Panic attacks can start randomly or can be triggered by psychological distress. For example, some people experience a sudden panic attack, while others may experience panic attack symptoms when confronted with a phobia, such as claustrophobia or fear of heights.
Heart attack prevention includes managing risk factors such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, avoiding smoking and alcohol abuse, eating a healthy diet, and living an active lifestyle.
Triggers of a heart attack include:
- Exertional chest discomfort
- shortness of breath on exertion
- Stress from emotional or mental health issues
- any heart attack symptoms previously discussed
Panic attack prevention includes attention to mental health. Stress and anxiety management, talk therapy, exercise, and medication can all help prevent recurring panic attacks.
Triggers of panic attacks include:
- feeling extremely anxious or stressed
- Racing thoughts that feel out of control
- Any panic attack symptoms previously discussed
When to seek medical assistance
If you suspect you may have a heart attack, seek medical attention immediately. Chest pain can be a sign of a serious heart attack and is never worth risking your health or life.
Because panic attacks can be difficult to distinguish from other, more serious problems, the first episode of a suspected panic attack should prompt you to seek medical attention.
People diagnosed with recurrent panic disorder will be familiar with the symptoms and can rest assured that the symptoms will go away over time.
While heart attacks and panic attacks share some symptoms, there are some differences and warning signs that can help differentiate them, including the location of pain and the duration of symptoms. A medical evaluation is the best way to determine the cause. Always seek medical attention if you experience any chest discomfort.
It’s normal to feel anxious about chest pain. Never ignore chest discomfort as it is the most common sign of a heart attack and can be serious and life-threatening. Any signs of a panic attack or heart attack should be discussed with a healthcare provider, who can perform necessary tests to rule out other conditions and develop a treatment plan.
Frequently Asked Questions
Will you die from a panic attack?
A panic attack won’t kill you, but it can definitely make you feel like something very serious is going on. Panic attacks activate the nervous system’s fight-or-flight response, putting you on high alert. If you are experiencing a panic attack, try to relax by taking deep breaths and remember that panic attack symptoms are a normal response to your body’s alarm system.
Can a Panic Attack Cause a Heart Attack?
Panic attacks do not cause a heart attack due to blocked arteries in the heart. By definition, panic attacks subside over a discrete period of time. If symptoms persist, a heart attack may remain the diagnosis.
On the other hand, there is a syndrome called stress cardiomyopathy, also known as Takotsubo cardiomyopathy or “broken heart syndrome,” in which an acute stressful event triggers a stress response in the heart. Often, this happens during distressing and unexpected events, such as hearing the news of the death of a loved one.
How can you help someone with a panic attack?
Be with someone who is experiencing a panic attack and instruct them to take deep and slow breaths. If this is the first time the person has symptoms of a panic attack, it is best to seek medical help, as these symptoms may be from a more serious condition, such as a heart attack. If the person has no worrisome symptoms and has had a previous panic attack, offer reassurance and keep it until symptoms improve. Offer to accompany the person to a more private setting and find a place to rest.
How long do panic attacks last?
During a panic attack, you may feel like your symptoms will never end, but usually symptoms peak and begin to improve after 10 minutes. Panic attacks usually go away after half an hour.
What to do after a panic attack?
First, reassure yourself that the symptoms of a panic attack are part of the body’s normal response to threats. Take some time to relax and practice deep breathing. Do activities that promote relaxation, such as yoga, reading, or taking a bath. When you feel calm and rested, think about what might have triggered a panic attack. Sometimes it can be a specific trigger, other times it can be chronic stress and anxiety levels. Talk therapy is very helpful for establishing healthy ways to deal with stress and anxiety.
How many beats per minute indicate a heart attack?
There is no specific heart rate that indicates a heart attack. In fact, during a heart attack, the heart rate may be slow, normal, or fast. Your heart responds to signals from your body to increase your heart rate when appropriate. During exercise, when the fight-or-flight response is activated, such as a panic attack, the heart beats faster. This is normal and expected.
How long does a heart attack last?
When a heart attack is caused by an unstable blockage in a coronary artery, symptoms may be intermittent or “stutter” or last for hours until the blocked artery is treated.