Panic attack and heart attack can have similar symptoms. When in doubt, you should always seek emergency medical care.
The symptoms of a panic attack versus those of a heart attack can be surprisingly similar:
- chest pain
- trouble breathing
- a cold sweat all over
In fact, these symptoms are so similar that
But for as much as a panic attack can feel like a heart attack, sometimes symptoms like chest pain, sweating, and trouble breathing do indicate that something more serious is happening.
So, if you’ve found yourself wondering about the differences between the two, we’ve broken down everything you need to know about the signs of a panic attack versus a heart attack — including when to get medical attention.
Panic attack symptoms
A panic attack can cause a handful of overwhelming physical and mental symptoms, including:
- a racing or pounding heart
- lightheadedness or dizziness
- cold flashes or hot flashes
- shaking, trembling, or shivering
- sweating, including sweaty palms
- nausea, stomach upset, or diarrhea
- chest pain or trouble breathing
- a sudden feeling of impending doom
- intense feelings of worry, anxiety, and fear
- feeling disconnected from yourself (depersonalization) or the world around you (derealization)
Heart attack symptoms
A heart attack is a serious medical condition that can cause a wide range of
- shortness of breath or trouble breathing
- chest discomfort, usually on the left side or in the center of the chest
- squeezing, pressure, or pain in the chest that is persistent or goes away and returns
- discomfort, pressure, or pain in the neck, jaw, or upper back
- discomfort, pressure, or pain in the arms or shoulders
- lightheadedness, dizziness, or weakness
- sweating, nausea, or vomiting
- unexplained tiredness or fatigue
According to the
- neck pain
- jaw pain
- back pain
- trouble breathing
- nausea or vomiting
What happens to your heart during a panic attack
A panic attack triggers what’s known as “fight or flight” mode, our body’s natural response to a perceived threat. When the body enters fight or flight mode, adrenaline is released into the bloodstream, causing a cascade of physiological changes that help prepare the body to fight or flee.
During a panic attack, the flood of adrenaline can impact the heart and lungs in several different ways, including:
- increasing how quickly the heart beats
- expanding the amount of blood being pumped
- raising blood pressure levels
- increasing respiratory (breathing) rate
Although a panic attack can feel dangerous, symptoms like chest pain and difficulty breathing result from the impact of adrenaline on the heart, lungs, and other organs.
One of the reasons why people sometimes mistake a panic attack for something scary like a heart attack is because there’s some overlap between the symptoms. For example, both a panic attack and a heart attack can cause:
- shortness of breath
- chest pain
- other uncomfortable physical symptoms
Many times, the fear of a panic attack being a heart attack also comes from the panic attack itself — the feeling of impending doom, the strong sense that something is wrong. Of course, these feelings are typical during panic attacks, but when it comes to a panic attack, feeling like something is wrong doesn’t always mean that it is.
In the moment, it may feel impossible to decide if your uncomfortable symptoms are more than just a panic attack. Here are some of the ways to distinguish between the two.
For most people, a panic attack usually only lasts for about 10 minutes. When it starts, it comes on very suddenly, sometimes in response to a trigger, and tends to peak within that time. Most panic attack symptoms will disappear within 30 minutes — although sometimes they can take a few hours to fully go away.
When someone is having a heart attack, however, the symptoms can come on gradually or suddenly — and usually do so after exertion. A heart attack can cause pain that ranges from a sharp pain to a crushing sensation, and this pain often spreads to the jaw, neck, or back. Rather than disappearing within a short time, the symptoms of a heart attack can last for hours.
When to seek emergency care
If you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms, especially symptoms that don’t go away or get worse, you should seek medical attention immediately:
- severe chest pain, discomfort, or pressure
- pain that spreads to the jaw, neck, back, or shoulders
- difficulty breathing or gasping for air
- chills or a cold sweat
- nausea or vomiting
When in doubt, don’t wait to see if these symptoms will pass — instead, call emergency services right away.
If you’ve recently experienced the symptoms of a panic attack, reach out to your doctor to discuss more. Once your doctor makes sure that your symptoms were not due to another underlying condition, they can refer you to a mental health professional for a proper diagnosis and treatment.
Treating a panic attack
Whether you’ve just had your first panic attack recently or are dealing with another mental health condition that causes frequent panic attacks, treatment is available to help you navigate recovery. Various treatment options are available to help reduce your symptoms, including:
- Therapy: Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most used therapy approaches for anxiety and panic disorders. CBT can help you address and change the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that might be contributing to your panic attacks.
- Medications: Certain medications can help reduce the symptoms of anxiety that may be causing your panic attacks. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), two types of antidepressants, are commonly prescribed for chronic anxiety.
- Lifestyle changes: Many people experience panic attacks in response to increased life stressors, so making changes to help reduce your overall stress can help. And for people who experience panic attacks as a symptom of another condition — like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — treating the underlying conditions can also make a huge difference.
Once a heart attack starts, it’s important to get to a hospital for diagnosis and treatment as soon as possible. At the hospital, the doctors can use a variety of
- Electrocardiogram (ECG): An electrocardiogram (ECG) measures the electrical signals of your heart to determine if there are any abnormalities.
- Troponin test: A troponin test is a blood test that is used to check for troponin, a protein that leaks into the bloodstream when the heart muscle is damaged.
- Imaging tests: X-ray, computed tomography (CT), or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan of the chest can help check for abnormalities within the heart or nearby organs.
Treating a heart attack
According to the
Aspirin is often one of the first medications administered during a heart attack to help thin the blood and prevent the formation of additional clots. In addition, thrombolytics can be used to help break up any clots that may be present, while nitrates (nitroglycerin) may be prescribed to help the heart and arteries pump blood more easily.
In severe heart attacks, surgical or nonsurgical procedures may be necessary to help stop the attack and restore blood flow to the heart:
- Percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI): A PCI (sometimes known as angioplasty) is the most common nonsurgical intervention for severe heart attacks. During a PCI, the doctor uses catheters to identify areas of damage to the heart, as well as reopen any blocked arteries.
- Stenting: In some cases, a stent may be inserted during the PCI to help hold any weak or narrow arteries open. Inserting a stent into these arteries can help restore blood flow to the heart.
- Coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG): A CABG is a surgical procedure in which healthy arteries from elsewhere in the body are attached to the arteries above and below the blocked artery. By “bypassing” the blocked artery, blood flow can be restored to the heart.
It’s common for people to confuse the symptoms of a panic attack versus a heart attack, so here are a few more things to keep in mind.
Can a panic attack cause a heart attack?
A panic attack in someone living with coronary artery disease
How can you rule out a heart attack at home?
If you’re experiencing any type of severe chest pain that starts suddenly and lasts longer than a few minutes, you should always seek medical attention as soon as possible.
What else can mimic a heart attack?
A panic attack isn’t the only thing that can feel like a heart attack. Sometimes, common conditions like heartburn, GERD, or even strained chest muscles can cause chest pain and discomfort. Other medical conditions that may cause similar symptoms to a heart attack include pulmonary embolism, pancreatitis, and pneumonia.
In the heat of the moment, when you’re feeling uncomfortable and scared, it can be difficult to tell the difference between the false alarm of a panic attack and something potentially life threatening like a heart attack. But certain symptoms, especially severe chest pain or pain that spreads to your jaw, neck, or back, can indicate it’s time to get medical attention.
When in doubt, if you’re worried that you’re experiencing something more than a panic attack, never hesitate to seek emergency care — ultimately, it could save your life.