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panic or heart attack

Panic Attack or Heart Attack – Here’s How To Tell the Difference

December 13, 2023

By Javid Alakbarli, MD

Because panic attacks and heart attacks share similar symptoms, including chest pain, experiencing one or the other can understandably cause confusion and fear. Knowing the difference between the two and how to manage them is critical and could be the difference between life and death.

Characteristics of Panic Attacks

Panic attacks are described as intense episodes of sudden fear or apprehension and can occur without any apparent trigger. They are usually short and can happen during the day or awaken you from your sleep. Anyone can experience a panic attack, regardless of whether they have a panic disorder diagnosis.

panic or heart attack 

If you’re experiencing a panic attack, you may have the following symptoms:

  • Rapid heartbeat (known as tachycardia)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain or discomfort (usually in the center of the chest)
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • Nausea or abdominal distress
  • Fear of losing control or impending doom

A surge of adrenaline primarily causes these unsettling symptoms, the body’s natural response to perceived stress. While panic attacks can be debilitating, they aren’t life-threatening. However, if you experience them often, you should speak to your healthcare provider, as frequent panic attacks can negatively impact your overall well-being and quality of life.

Characteristics of Heart Attacks

Heart attacks occur when blood flow to the heart muscle is blocked. They tend to happen after physical strain or exertion, an important characteristic distinguishing them from panic attacks, or emotional stress.

Signs you may be having a heart attack include:

  • Pain or discomfort in the chest, which may feel like pressure, squeezing, or fullness
  • Pain that radiates (moves) to the arms, neck, shoulder, or back
  • Shortness of breath, with or without chest discomfort
  • Nausea, vomiting, and lightheadedness
  • Breaking out into a cold sweat

Heart attack symptoms are typically persistent, worsen over time, and don’t usually subside with rest.

panic or heart attack 

If you’re experiencing symptoms that are concerning and you’re not sure if you’re having a panic attack or a heart attack, it’s always better to err on the side of caution and seek immediate medical care as early intervention is vital to minimizing damage during a heart attack.

Taking Control of Your Health

Heart attacks and panic attacks are serious and frightening. Taking control of your health and knowing what is “normal” for you and your body may give you peace of mind.

Adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle through regular exercise, eating a balanced diet, and ensuring you get plenty of rest can contribute to your overall wellbeing, reducing the risk of both panic and heart attacks.

It’s also important to understand your personal risk factors for heart disease, including age, family history, and lifestyle habits.

Integrating stress management techniques into your daily routine, including deep breathing exercises, meditation, and yoga, may prevent and manage panic attacks when they strike. Relieving stress through exercise or engaging in enjoyable hobbies is also good for your heart.

Learning how to distinguish the differences between panic attacks and heart attacks is essential for cardiovascular health. Adopting a healthy lifestyle and working with your healthcare provider will give you the tools to navigate various health challenges as they arise.

Portrait of Javid Alakbarli, MD, Interventional Cardiology specialist at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic.

About the Author

Dr. Javid Alakbarli is an Interventional Cardiology specialist at Kelsey-Seybold and is board certified in Cardiovascular Disease, Echocardiography, and Internal Medicine. His favorite part of practicing medicine is helping his patients feel better and live longer and happier lives.
Dr. Adesina from Kelsey-Seybold Clinic

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