Panic attack and heart attack cause almost related pain and discomfort making it difficult to distinguish one from the other. Most people who have a panic attack are confused and think they may be having a heart attack due to similarities in symptoms. When faced with these symptoms, one can’t help but wonder, “Am I having a panic attack or a heart attack?” That’s why it’s important to know how to distinguish a panic attack from a heart attack because it might just save your life. Let’s take a closer look at these two conditions.

Panic Attack

A panic attack is an abrupt trigger of your “fight or flight” response without a valid reason. It usually involves a sudden intense feeling of nervousness or fear and the fact that they occur without warning is reason enough to sort treatment.

When a person suffers from a panic attack, they experience a combination of symptoms that could lead to a feeling of terror and imminent doom making the person feel like escaping from their situation.
One fact to note about panic attacks is the intensity and duration of the symptoms. Typically, during a panic attack, the intensity of the symptoms reaches its peak in about 10 minutes, after which it starts to subside. Although the symptoms affect people differently, they last 20 minutes tops. These symptoms often mimic a heart attack and cause many people to rush to the emergency room. A panic attack happens out of the blue and the circumstances that triggered the attack may remain a mystery to the affected person. In other occasions, acute stress, drug abuse, caffeine, and certain medications may trigger an episode of a panic attack.

Symptoms of a Panic Attack

  • Lightheadedness and dizziness.
  • Tingling in the arms, hands, and legs.
  • Fear of going crazy.
  • Fear of losing control.
  • Excessive sweating.
  • Feeling like you’re chocking.
  • Fear of having a stroke which could lead to a disability.
  • Fear of dying.
  • Hot flushes and chills.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Heaviness in the chest.
  • Accelerated heart rate or heart palpitations.
  • Shaking or trembling.
  • Abdominal pain and nausea.
  • Numbness.
  • Derealization (disconnecting from reality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)

A panic attack can occur while you’re sitting and without any reason. Usually, the person involved experiences irrational fears such as feeling they are suffocating, even when they are in an open room or field.

Heart Attack

A heart attack, also called myocardial infarction, is a common condition and is among the leading cause of deaths in America. Its distinct symptoms are easy to detect and they are highly fatal. A heart attack occurs when the vessels supplying blood to the heart are blocked, limiting adequate blood flow to the heart. Without blood, the supply of oxygen to the tissue is severed, and the tissue dies. Heart attacks are caused by a build-up of fat, cholesterol and other compounds which block the normal flow of blood in the arteries.

The severity of the symptoms of a heart attack varies from one person to another and they mostly have warning signs. However, there are occasions when a heart attack may be sudden and it’s always advisable to call 911 when you think you or a loved one might be having a heart attack. Men usually experience different symptoms than those experienced by women.

Common Heart Attack Symptoms in Men

  • Shortness of breath.
  • Nausea.
  • Dizziness.
  • Constricting chest pain that begins in the center of the chest and spreads downward along the left arm and back.
  • Pain in the jaw, teeth, and neck.
  • The acute pain may not affect breathing .

Common Heart Attack Symptoms in Women

  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Unusual fatigue.
  • Some women experience pain in the arm, neck, shoulder, throat and/or back rather than the chest.


Unlike a panic attack, the symptoms of a heart attack may start when doing a physical activity such as carrying something heavy, climbing the stairs, or walking. While a panic attack may take up to 20 minutes to subside, a heart attack takes longer and gets worse with time. Another point to consider when it comes to distinguishing a panic attack from a heart attack is the difference between chest pains. During a heart attack, chest pain is not restricted to one spot. The pain travels or radiates from the center of the chest outwards to the neck, left arm, back, shoulders and abdomen. In a panic attack, the chest pain is localized in one area and can worsen or be relieved by changing positions. Another important factor to note is breathing.

During a panic attack, taking deep breathes through the nose and then breathing out through the mouth can make it more manageable. However, taking deep breathes during a heart attack won’t help the situation. If anything, it’s going to hurt. A panic attack is a treatable condition through medication and behavioral therapies. Most of these medications are antidepressants that regulate and control the release of hormones that trigger a panic attack. A heart attack is more lethal and requires immediate medical treatment.

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