Panic Attack vs. Heart Attack: How to Tell the Difference

Panic Attack vs. Heart Attack: How to Tell the Difference

Crushing chest pain. Shortness of breath. Sudden lightheadedness. Breaking out into a cold sweat. There’s no denying these symptoms are scary. They come on suddenly, and if you’re experiencing them, your first thought might be that you’re having a heart attack.

While it’s true that these are all signs of a heart attack, they’re also signs of something much less life-threatening: a panic attack. Panic attacks are sudden episodes of intense fear that aren’t in proportion to the situation, but the symptoms are so similar that it can be hard to tell the difference in the moment.

Kunal Patel, MD, and our team at NJ Cardiovascular Institute can help. We specialize in identifying the cause of your chest pain so you can get the care you need. Here, we share how to tell the difference between panic attacks and heart attacks, and what to do if you start experiencing symptoms.

Why panic attacks and heart attacks feel similar

Both panic attacks and heart attacks come on suddenly. Panic attacks happen when stress hormones trigger your body’s fight-or-flight response, which elevates your heart rate. A heart attack happens when your heart doesn’t get all the blood it needs.

Since they both impact your heart, panic attacks and heart attacks can cause symptoms that include:

Symptoms range in intensity, and they’re so similar that it’s not always easy to determine what the cause is — especially if you’ve never had a panic attack or a heart attack before.

However, learning the difference is very important. Although they’re scary, panic attacks aren’t life-threatening. Heart attacks are, and they require immediate emergency medical care to prevent serious complications or death.

Identifying the differences between a panic attack and a heart attack

Although they share some similar symptoms, panic attacks and heart attacks are very different medical conditions. Panic attacks are often triggered by mental or emotional stress. Heart attacks happen when something blocks blood flow to your heart.

Signs it’s a panic attack

Panic attacks can happen at any time, including when you’re resting or sleeping. Along with other symptoms, you might experience shaking, trembling, or weakness.

Panic attack symptoms typically last for a few minutes to about an hour. The symptoms go away on their own with time, and you feel better afterward.

Signs it’s a heart attack

Unlike panic attacks, heart attacks usually develop after physical exertion or strenuous exercise. Chest pain from a heart attack is intense. It doesn’t always stay in your chest — it may radiate to your arm, neck, or jaw. The pain might ebb and flow, but it doesn’t go away.

Your symptoms are more likely to be caused by a heart attack if you have a history of chest pain or other heart conditions. If you think you might be having a heart attack, don’t wait to seek help. Go to the nearest emergency room or call 911 immediately.

Heart attacks require immediate medical attention. Panic attacks don’t require emergency care, but still, you shouldn’t ignore your symptoms. If you’ve had a panic attack, talk to your health care team about possible causes and treatment to help you feel better.

Not sure what’s causing your symptoms? Get your chest pain checked out at NJ Cardiovascular Institute. Call one of our offices in Elizabeth, Lakewood, Paramus, or Secaucus, New Jersey, to schedule your appointment.

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