Skip to content Skip to footer

How to Know the Difference Between a Panic Attack vs. Heart Attack

It can happen without notice, a sudden onset of terrifying symptoms. Your heart races, your chest tightens, you have shortness of breath and find yourself trembling. Your first thought is that you are experiencing a heart attack, but chances are it is a panic attack.

When you are swept up in the moment, it is hard not to become extremely frightened. But knowing the symptoms of a panic attack vs. heart attack and help put you at ease. Read on to learn the difference between these events that share symptoms but are very different indeed.

What is a Panic Attack?

Although scary, panic attacks are not fatal events. A panic attack is triggered by anxiety, although it isn’t always clear what the exact trigger is.

Symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • Rapid heart rate
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Shortness of breath
  • Heart palpitations
  • Chest pain
  • Chills
  • Sweating
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Fear of losing control
  • Nausea, diarrhea, vomiting
  • Choking feeling
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Feeling detached from reality
  • Intense dread, feeling threatened
  • Fear of dying

The Difference Between Panic Attacks and Heart Attacks

While both a panic attack and a heart attack can be very frightening to endure, the two are totally unrelated events. Let’s consider the key differences between them.

Heart attack. A heart attack occurs due to a blockage in a coronary artery, and often happens while engaged in physical exertion. Heart attacks usually come on gradually, with symptoms creeping in over a period of time. A heart attack also takes longer to subside, and of course, the result could be fatal. Common symptoms include fatigue, chest pain or pressure, numbness in left arm, sweating, and shortness of breath.

Panic attack. A panic attack tends to strike suddenly with no warning. The cause is usually related to feelings of fear or dread, sparking the fight or flight response. A panic attack has its origin in mental health versus physical health such as a heart attack. Common symptoms include racing heart, sweating, shaking, nausea, and chest pain or pressure.

What to Do When You Have a Panic Attack?

If you believe you experiencing symptoms that could be either a panic attack or a heart attack, first consider using relaxation techniques. Finding a quiet place to sit down and rest can allow you to discern whether it is a panic attack vs. a heart attack. In the event of a heart attack, the symptoms will continue to worsen, where a panic attack will subside in about ten minutes.

Obviously, if your symptoms do not pass then it is important to get to an E.R. where you can be evaluated. They will run various tests to determine if you have had a cardiac event, and will provide medical interventions as needed.

What is Panic Disorder?

Panic disorder is on the anxiety disorder spectrum and features repeated panic attacks. Someone with panic disorder may experience sudden, unpredictable panic attacks often, brought on by intense fear or dread.

The NIMH reports that about 2.7% of Americans struggle with panic disorder. Also, data show that about twice as many women than men experience panic disorder.  

Panic disorder can adversely impact your daily life. The unexpected panic attacks often lead to isolating behaviors as the person becomes so fearful of triggering the next one. As you become more isolated and withdrawn, the disorder may cause impairment in several areas of life.

Research is ongoing as to the exact cause of panic disorder. Factors that may increase the likelihood of developing panic disorder include:

  • Family history of anxiety or mental illness.
  • Undeveloped coping skills.
  • Abnormal brain chemistry that features an irregular fear response.

6 Ways to Manage a Panic Attack

As soon as you sense the familiar symptoms of a panic attack coming on, try using these tips, They may succeed in minimizing the effect and duration of the attack.

  1. Have a script ready. If you have panic disorder then you are used to having panic attacks. Write down a script that you can quickly refer to when you feel the symptoms emerge. Tell yourself that no, you are not going to die, and this is a temporary event that will soon pass.
  2. Deep breathing. Deep breathing, or focused breathing, is a quick and effective stress reducer. Deep breathing slows the heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and reduces body tension. 
  3. Access coping tools. To counteract the effects of the attack, listen to soothing music, picture your happy place, or go for a walk. Distract yourself with an activity that makes you feel calm, such as knitting or singing.
  4. Body relaxation. Lie down in a quiet place and close your eyes. Focus on one muscle group at a time, starting with your feet. Flex the feet, then relax. Move to the calf muscles. Tighten the calves, then relax. Do this on all major muscles to bring about a relaxed state.
  5. Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness helps us quickly reduce stress by focusing thoughts on the present moment instead of becoming distracted by our worries. The goal is to acknowledge what you are feeling and to accept it, and know that it will soon pass.
  6. Grounding. It has been found that the natural electrical activity of the earth can be calming to us. Grounding techniques might include walking in the grass, dirt, or sand barefoot, or even just standing in the dirt.

Treatment for Panic Disorder

Panic disorder is a highly treatable mental health disorder using a multi-modal treatment strategy. This includes:

  • Medication. The use of benzodiazepines can reduce the effects of the panic attack by bringing about a relaxed state. Antidepressants have also be shown to help patients with panic disorder.
  • Psychotherapy. Two effective therapies for panic disorder are CBT and panic-focused psychodynamic psychotherapy (PFP). CBT guides you away from negative thoughts and can help desensitize you to the fear trigger. PFPP helps you examine past experiences and resolve emotional conflicts.
  • Holistic. Because panic disorder is a form of anxiety it is helpful to acquire some tools to help you relax. Yoga, meditation, and massage are useful in this regard.

LifeSync Malibu Residential Mental Health Treatment Center

LifeSync Malibu is a leading provider of primary mental health residential treatment program and can help you with panic disorder. If you are concerned about symptoms and wonder if it’s a panic attack vs. heart attack, reach out to us. Our team can provide the help you need in a timely manner. Call us today at (866) 491-4426