Symptoms of a panic attack

If your chest feels tight and you find it hard to breathe, is it a heart attack or a panic attack? You age, how long symptoms last, and what you are doing when symptoms come on help determine if you are having a panic attack or a heart attack.
If your chest feels tight and you find it hard to breathe, is it a heart attack or a panic attack? You age, how long symptoms last, and what you are doing when symptoms come on help determine if you are having a panic attack or a heart attack.

All of a sudden, your chest feels tight and you find it hard to breathe. Your heart starts to race and you feel a wave of panic. Am I having a heart attack? Am I having a panic attack? How do I know if it’s a panic attack or a heart attack?

Experiencing these symptoms can be very scary. While many people may think they are having a heart attack, they may actually be experiencing a panic attack. These two conditions are very different but have some symptoms that overlap, so, in the moment, it can be confusing to know exactly what is happening. Here’s what you need to know about a panic attack versus a heart attack and what can cause either one.

A panic attack is a sudden burst of intense anxiety that has physical symptoms. Panic attacks can come on suddenly with no apparent reason as to why. They may last anywhere from just a few minutes to a few hours. Most commonly, they go away within 20  to 30 minutes. Studies show that panic attacks are quite common, as up to 35% of people will experience one at some point in their life.

During a panic attack, you may feel a number of physical symptoms, including:

During a panic attack, your body goes into fight-or-flight mode. This usually happens when you’re in danger and your body releases chemicals and hormones, including adrenaline, that cause your muscles to tense up and your breath to quicken. However, during a panic attack, there is no real threat. Even though you might feel like something is really wrong, you normally don’t need medical attention for a panic attack.

Causes. Panic attacks don’t have a clear cause as they can happen at any time, but doctors think that there are certain factors that may bring them on, including stress and genetics. You might be more likely to have a panic attack if you’re more sensitive to stress or negative feelings.

Symptoms of a heart attack

A heart attack, on the other hand, is a serious medical problem that needs immediate attention from a doctor. During a heart attack, the blood supply to your heart suddenly becomes blocked, usually because of a blood clot. If your heart doesn’t get enough blood, it can cause serious damage or even death. If you suspect that you’re having a heart attack, you should call 911 right away.

Common symptoms of a heart attack include:

  • A feeling like pain, pressure, squeezing, tightness, or aching that starts in your arms or chest and can continue through your jaw, neck, or back
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded all of a sudden
  • Fatigue
  • Cold sweats
  • Nausea
  • Indigestion
  • Heartburn
  • Abdominal pain

As you can see, some of these symptoms are the same or similar to those of a panic attack. The biggest clue that you might be having a heart attack is the feeling of pressure in your chest. This usually doesn’t happen during a panic attack.

How do I know if it’s a panic attack or heart attack?

Since there are overlapping symptoms, how do you know if you’re having a panic attack or a heart attack? One thing to keep in mind is your age. If you are under 40 years old and relatively healthy, chances are that you’re having a panic attack. This is even more true if you’ve had a panic attack in the past.

Another clue can be how long the event is taking place. Normally, a panic attack lasts only a few minutes. While it can be longer, a panic attack will eventually end. A heart attack doesn’t end and is one of the reasons that you need to seek immediate care.

Panic attacks normally occur while your body is at rest whereas a heart attack is more likely to happen while you’re exerting your heart. This could be during exercise, doing yard work, or simply running up the stairs. People who don’t do much physical activity are at higher risk than those who do.

SLIDESHOW

Heart Disease: Causes of a Heart Attack See Slideshow

Anxiety and your heart

Recent research suggests that anxiety can have an effect on your heart. Some studies show that people under the age of 50 who have been diagnosed with panic attacks or panic disorder are more likely to later have a heart attack or develop heart disease. There needs to be more research done to fully understand the effect that panic attacks can have on your heart health, though.

Anxiety puts extra strain on your heart and can cause more damage to people who already have heart disease. Some studies have shown that anxiety might be linked with heart disorders and risk factors like:

  • Increased blood pressure. This can lead to heart disease, weakening of the heart muscles over time, and even heart failure.
  • Rapid heart rate. Also known as tachycardia, a rapid heart rate can hinder normal heart functions and lead to cardiac arrest.
  • Decreased heart variability. This can cause a higher chance of death after an acute heart attack.

If you’re having recurring panic attacks, you should make an appointment with your doctor. If the source is anxiety, your doctor can help you come up with a plan to help, which might include therapy, medication, or both things together. The most common treatment for anxiety is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). In this practice, a mental health professional will help you learn how to manage your anxiety and change the way that you think about things.

Your doctor might also check for some other conditions that have physical symptoms that are similar to those of panic or heart attacks. This includes:

If you’re middle-aged or older and you’re experiencing symptoms of a heart attack, even if it could be a panic attack you should get help anyway. This is even more true if you’ve experienced a panic attack in the past and your symptoms feel different this time around.

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Medically Reviewed on 6/29/2022
References
SOURCES:

Anxiety & Depression Association of America: "Am I having a panic attack or a heart attack?"

Beth Israel Lahey Health: "Panic Attack vs. Heart Attack: How to Tell the Difference."

Better Health Channel: "Panic attack."

Cape Cod Healthcare: "Is this a panic attack or a heart attack?"

Cedars Sinai: "Is it a Heart Attack or a Panic Attack?"

Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Anxiety and Heart Disease."

Mayo Clinic: "Panic attacks and panic disorder."

NHS: "Heart attack."

NHS inform: "Are you having panic attacks?"