Can You Differentiate Between a Panic Attack and a Heart Attack?

Anxiety and stress have, unfortunately, become integral parts of our everyday lives. Children stress about their academics, sports and other activities, parents stress about work, finances and more and older adults may worry about their health.

Regardless of the causes of stress and worry, it can all lead to health conditions like panic attacks or even cardiovascular ailments.

Panic attacks and heart attacks have very similar symptoms, so, would you know how to identify an attack if you or a loved one experience it?

Panic Attacks vs Heart Attacks?

A panic attack is defined as, “A sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause.” Data shows that nearly 2-3 percent of the American population may suffer from panic attacks every year.

Experts studying these episodes believe that a panic attack is related to the reaction of the nervous system and the amygdala, the part of the brain that can identify danger.

Though there may be no imminent danger, such episodes usually develop because of traumatic experiences and are accompanied by symptoms that mimic a heart attack in the first glance. The only consolation is that the stressors causing a panic attack can diminish with time, unlike those causing a heart attack.

Symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • An intense episode of fear that develops quickly, within 10 minutes or so
  • A feeling of extreme fear
  • Trembling
  • Profuse sweating
  • Shortness of breath
  • Palpitations
  • Numbness in the limbs
  • Short but sharp pain in the chest that may last for a few seconds
  • Localized pain

A heart attack, on the other hand, is defined as, “A sudden and sometimes fatal occurrence of coronary thrombosis, typically resulting in the death of part of a heart muscle.” The definition itself shows the imminent danger associated with such an episode and makes it clear that it can be very different from a panic attack.

Symptoms of a heart attack include:

  • Pain or pressure in the chest
  • Discomfort or burning in the esophagus
  • Shooting pain in the left arm that can move all the way to the jaw
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Shortness of breath

Tips to differentiate a panic attack from a heart attack:

  • The pain may vary from being sharp and localized in a panic attack to widespread and accompanied by pressure in a heart attack
  • Heart attacks may develop due to physical exertion while a panic attack is usually caused by a traumatic experience
  • Most panic attacks last only 20 to 30 minutes after which they diminish; a heart attack can last longer and the symptoms tend to worsen

Though a panic attack and heart attack can be different in nature, understand that the same panic and anxiety that can cause a panic attack can also lead to a heart attack, hence, be aware of your risks and take precautions if required.

Though a panic attack is not life-threating, the similarity of symptoms may make it difficult to distinguish it from a heart attack. So, in case you or someone you know happen to experience any of the above symptoms, it is recommended to call 911 immediately so that the right diagnosis can be made.

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Vascular Institute. (2018, August 29). Is This an Anxiety Attack or Heart Attack? How to Know the Difference. Retrieved from

Pietro, M. D. (n.d.). How to tell if it is a panic attack or a heart attack. Retrieved from

Anxiety and Panic. (n.d.). Retrieved from