Heart Attack vs Panic Attack

Panic Attack or Heart Attack? How can you tell?

heart attack vs panic attack

You feel “off.” Your chest hurts, your heart starts pounding and you get shaky.  Your stomach is queasy and you are lightheaded and feel like you need to sit or lie down. Are you having a heart attack? Or is it a panic attack? In this article we’re covering the differences of heart attack vs panic attack.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, a “Panic Attack” is defined as 4 or more of the following symptoms:

  1. Heart palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
  2. Excessive sweating
  3. Trembling or shaking
  4. Sensations of shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, or smothering
  5. Feeling of choking
  6. Chest pain or discomfort
  7. Nausea or abdominal distress
  8. Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
  9. Feelings of unreality or being detached from oneself
  10. Fear of losing control or going crazy
  11. Fear of dying
  12. Numbness or tingling sensations (paresthesias)
  13. Chills or hot flushes

Eerily, a lot of the same symptoms can be associated with a heart attack. Chest pain, sweating, shortness of breath, nausea, lightheadedness, numbness or tingling, and chills or hot flashes, can all be potential signs of a heart attack. So how do you know if it is your heart or your mind?   

heart attack or panic attack

Without treatment, a heart attack can ultimately end in sudden cardiac arrest and death, so recognizing the symptoms is crucial. In cases of heart attack, symptoms are usually caused by an on-going condition and typically come on over time. Heart attacks can last minutes, hours, days or even weeks. The difference in chest pain is probably the most significant. While panic attack sufferers typically complain of a pounding, rapid heartbeat, a heart attack is characterized by a feeling of tightness and a crushing sensation. The “tingling” associated with a heart attack is actually more of a shooting pain and numbness on the left side of the body, usually down the left arm, while panic attack tingling can affect all extremities. Additional symptoms such as jaw or back pain have also been reported while someone is having a heart attack, but not during panic attacks.

Panic attacks come on sudden and intense and are usually situational. The symptoms rush the sufferer all at once, peak within about 10 minutes and then subside. While someone suffering a panic attack may have subsequent attacks, they come and go and rarely involve loss of consciousness. Panic attacks can be brought on by the feeling you may be having a heart attack, thereby compounding the situation.    

If you have a combination of the above list of symptoms, see your doctor. Panic attacks can be treated with therapy, and symptoms can sometimesheart attack and panic attack be treated in the short term with medications. If your symptoms are related to cardiovascular issues, your doctor will discuss your options and may suggest lifestyle changes, medications or procedural intervention. In the case of both panic attack and heart attack, finding the cause can improve your quality of life and may, indeed, save your life. Never ignore your feelings when “something just isn’t right”.  

One Response to “Heart Attack vs Panic Attack”

June 04, 2016 at 7:55 pm, Albert J Janschewitz Jr said:

As a panic attack sufferer for roughly seven years before the medical community recognised that such a thing existed, my panic symptoms were thrown into every trash bin practitioners had available. My family ridiculed me. It was not until I happened upon a research MD/PhD who focused on orphaned psychological disorders that the door to this jail was locked with an understanding of what was happening (Mom was wrong! I wasn’t just a pain in the a**), and appropriate medication (alprazolam, then brand new). The take-away: ignorance dies hard. If you or someone you love have the symptoms of panic repeatedly, be kind (my family insults still hurt over 40 years later) and gently suggest a visit to a psychiatrist (I think meds at the onset of treatment are essential, and psychologists cannot prescribe). You may be giving your friend a blue sky and restore forgotten happiness. What a gift!


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