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Am I Having a Panic or Heart Attack?

It's likely that you have experienced stress, anxiety, or panic at some point. But overwhelming worry, stress, and panic can cause your body to physically respond through cardiac symptoms. These symptoms may include heart palpitations, shortness of breath, or even chest pain. 1

For people who have never had a panic attack, the first panic attack can be very frightening. Often, it is difficult to tell the difference between a heart attack, anxiety, and a panic attack. A 2018 study found that 30 to 40 percent of people visiting the emergency room with chest pain are actually experiencing moderate to severe anxiety.1,2

Both panic and heart attacks can result in symptoms that include:3

  • Numbness of the hands and feet
  • Sweating
  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fainting
  • Chest pain or discomfort

Understanding the differences between panic attacks and heart attacks can help you get the right care.

Panic attacks and panic disorders

Nearly 5 percent of US adults have been diagnosed with a panic disorder sometime in their lives. And research shows that up to 11 percent of people in the United States experience a panic attack.4,5

Panic attacks are much more common than panic disorders. Panic attacks start off as a sudden, discrete feeling of intense fear and last for a few minutes. Symptoms of a panic attack often peak about 10 minutes after it starts. In some cases, a panic attack can last for up to an hour.4

On the other hand, panic disorder is defined by recurrent panic attacks, along with intense fears of having subsequent attacks. Panic disorders are twice as common in women as they are in men.4

Differences

The symptoms of a panic attack can overlap with those of a heart attack. But there are differences between the conditions.4

Chest pain

Chest pain is a common complaint for people who experience panic attacks. Hyperventilation during an attack results in chest pain, and sometimes even EKG changes. However, in panic attacks, the pain is often sharp and stabbing. In a heart attack, the pain is described more often as a squeezing-type pain with pressure. It is important to note that chest pain varies from person to person. One person can have a heart attack and describe the pain as “pressure” while another can have “crushing” pain.4

Some people do not ever have chest pain or discomfort with a heart attack and may not realize they are having a heart attack. These are known as “silent” heart attacks. Common symptoms of these include:6

  • Upset stomach
  • Increased fatigue
  • Sore muscles
  • Flu-like symptoms

Duration

In a panic attack, symptoms typically resolve within a few minutes or 1 hour at most. On the other hand, with a heart attack, the pain generally gets progressively worse and can radiate to the jaw, shoulder, and arm.4

Activity

Heart attacks can develop when someone is:

  • Physically exerting themselves, such as going up a flight of stairs
  • Going through something stressful, either physically or emotionally

Heart attacks often occur after activity because of the increased need for oxygen in the heart. But, heart attacks can occur with activity or at rest. On the other hand, panic attacks typically occur at rest.4

The role of stress

Can you get a heart attack from a panic attack? The short answer is that it's possible but not likely. However, emotional stress does play a role in both conditions. And people with anxiety, depression, or chronic stress may be at higher risk of heart problems. This is because chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure, which increases the risk of heart attack and stress. 4

It is important to understand the symptoms of both panic and heart attacks. But the only true way to know if you are having a life-threatening condition like a heart attack is to be checked by a medical professional. If you are having chest pain or shortness of breath, seek medical care right away.

Do you experience panic attacks? If so, were you able to distinguish your first panic attack from a heart attack? Share your experiences below!

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