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Panic Attack vs Heart Attack: How Can You Tell the Difference?

December 18, 2018

 

A panic attack and a heart attack can be very frightening and confusing. Knowing the difference is important when deciding how to treat the symptoms.

 

Panic attacks and heart attacks are often confused because some symptoms are similar. However, there are significant differences between the 2 that will help you tell the difference between a panic attack and a heart attack.

 

The most important thing to do if you begin experiencing the following symptoms is to get a medical examination to assess for any heart related conditions.

 

If you have never had a panic attack or a heart attack before, DON'T ASSUME IT'S A PANIC ATTACK. Seek medical evaluation.

 

If your doctor concludes that you do not have an underlying heart condition, then your symptoms are most likely due to panic attacks.

 

First the difference between a Heart Attack and Cardiac Arrest

 

Cardiac Arrest

 

Cardiac arrest is triggered by an electrical malfunction in the heart that causes an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia).

 

The pumping action of the heart is disrupted so that the heart cannot pump blood to the brain, lungs and other organs. Within seconds a person will lose consciousness and have no pulse.

 

Losing consciousness and passing out does not occur with panic attacks. 

 

The symptoms of a panic attack have nothing in common with cardiac arrest.

 

Heart Attack

 

A heart attack occurs when a blocked artery prevents oxygen-rich blood from reaching a section of the heart.

 

Without treatment this causes significant damage to a part of the heart. This causes feelings of achy pain and squeezing pressure in the chest.

 

A person will typically not lose consciousness within seconds. A heart attack is more gradual and lasts longer.

 

Heart Attack Symptoms

  • Chest pain and pressure: Heart attacks create pain in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes. It may go away and then return but typically becomes worse over time. You may experience pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain.

  • Shooting pain that travels down the arm: Symptoms of pain or discomfort often travel and occur in one or both arms, shoulders, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach.

  • Pain between the shoulder blades

  • Shortness of breath

  • Fainting

  • Other symptoms: Other symptoms can include nausea, feeling light headed, and breaking out in a cold sweat.​

 

Panic Attack Symptoms

  • Pounding heart

  • Sweating

  • Trembling

  • Shortness of breath

  • Feeling of choking

  • Chest pain

  • Nausea

 

The release of adrenaline (cortisol, epinephrine, norepinephrine) causes your muscles to constrict and your breathing and heart rate to increase. This can then create the sensation of chest pain (muscle tension), a pounding heart, and tingling sensations in the hands.

 

You can see that the symptoms of a panic attack and heart attack have similar similar symptoms but they have their differences.

 

The major differences are with the chest pain, onset, and duration of the symptoms.

 

 

How can you tell the difference between a panic attack and a heart attack?

 

Chest Pain

 

Chest Pain during a panic attack is localized: The pain experienced during a panic attack is usually sharp and localized in the chest.

 

Chest pain during a heart attack is felt as achy pressure or squeezing that travels: The pain during a heart attack is experienced more as pressure and squeezing, and often starts in the chest and radiates or travels to other parts of the body such as the arms, back, and jaw.

 

 

Onset and duration

 

The symptoms of a panic attack start abruptly, often when feeling nervous or anxious, and last between 15 and 20 minutes.

 

The symptoms of a heart attack may also start abruptly but often begin gradually. The symptoms of a heart attack also last longer and increase as time goes by.

 

 

Causes

 

Panic attacks are caused by anxiety, stress, and/or trauma.

 

Heart Attacks are caused by coronary artery disease. A heart attack occurs when a blocked artery prevents oxygen-rich blood from reaching a section of the heart.

 

 

 

Important Note

 

Again, If you have never had a panic attack or a heart attack before, DON'T ASSUME IT'S A PANIC ATTACK. Seek medical attention immediately.

 

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Russell Hunter, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist

I want to help you. Please feel free to contact me confidentially by email below with any questions or if you need some advice about the content posted on The Fear Blog.

Attacking Panic: The Power To Be Calm. Copyright © 2017 Russell A. Hunter, Psy.D. All rights reserved. Attacking Panic is available in paperback and Kindle edition at Amazon and in paperback at Barnes & Noble and other online retailers.

How to Stop A Panic Attack Quickly.

Russell A. Hunter, Psy.D. Psychology Today Profile

National Register of Health Service Psychologists

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