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Heart Attack or Panic Attack: How to Tell the Difference

Racing heartbeat, chest pain, shortness of breath, tingling sensations, sweating. These symptoms are downright terrifying to experience. You may recognize that these are symptoms of a heart attack. But did you know that panic attacks have similar symptoms? Many patients who experience panic or anxiety attacks describe these exact symptoms. In fact, it’s very common for people having a panic or anxiety attack to mistake their condition for a heart attack, and vice versa. How can you tell the difference and protect yourself and your heart?

What is a Panic Attack?

Panic or anxiety attacks come on suddenly and have many of the same symptoms as a heart attack. They may happen as a result of stress or for no reason at all. They are characterized as an extreme sense of fear or impending dread that manifests itself in physical pain and discomfort. Panic attacks typically start in the late teens or early adulthood. Some people may experience only one or two panic attacks in their lifetime due to high stress levels. Other people experience chronic panic attacks, which is a condition called panic disorder.

What is the Difference Between a Panic Attack and an Heart Attack

Although heart attacks and panic attacks have similar symptoms, they happen for very different reasons. In a panic attack, increased stress triggers the body’s “fight or flight” instinct. Heart attacks occur when there is a blockage in a coronary artery, causing a shortage of blood to the heart. One way to tell the difference is onset. Panic attacks tend to happen when you are at rest, whereas heart attacks tend to happen during physical activity. Another difference is in the duration of the symptoms. Symptoms of a panic attack usually subside within about 20 minutes without intervention. However, heart attack symptoms typically only worsen over time. Finally, age and medical history are a major factor. A young person under 40 with a history of panic attacks is more likely to be experiencing a panic attack than a heart attack. Middle-aged and older adults with no history of panic attacks or anxiety are more likely to be experiencing a heart attack.

Panic Attack Treatment and Prevention

Anyone who is experiencing a new onset of chest pain and pressure, shortness of breath, numbness or tingling, sweating, or lightheadedness should seek immediate medical attention. Doctors in an emergency room setting will be able to determine if you are experiencing a heart attack or panic attack. There are many treatment options available if you are diagnosed with a panic attack.. An ER doctor may prescribe a limited prescription of anti-anxiety medication to help control your anxiety levels until you can see your doctor. Your doctor may suggest more long-term medication and therapy to help you manage your anxiety symptoms. Additionally, meditation and exercise can help you reduce stress, which is also good for your heart. 

Brookhaven Heart Cares About Your Heart and Your Mind

At Brookhaven Heart, we believe in caring for the whole patient. We counsel patients in managing their stress as part of our holistic approach to preventing heart disease. For nearly 15 years, our local Patchogue, New York community has trusted us for comprehensive cardiovascular care. We would love to care for your heart. Give us a call today to schedule your consultation.