Anxiety Attack or Heart Attack: How To Tell The Difference

Anxiety is a mental health disorder that can sometimes become so severe that the symptoms mimic the sensations of having a heart attack. Anxiety can come at unexpected times during the day, and with more severe causes a person may experience panic attacks. Anxiety (panic) attacks are scary and can cause a person to think that he or she is having a heart attack. This is because the symptoms of both panic attacks and heart attacks are so similar. Both panic attacks and heart attacks have the following symptoms:

  • Chest pain
  • Hyperventilation
  • Shortness of breath
  • Stomachache or sharp pains through the abdomen
  • Pain in the shoulders, arms, upper back and neck
  • Lightheadedness
  • Fainting spells
  • Blackouts
  • Sweating
  • Flushed cheeks
  • Disorientation
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Racing heartbeat

Considering that both panic attacks and heart attacks have symptoms that are similar it makes sense why those who are suffering from a panic attack may mistake it for a heart attack, and vice versa. Many people tend to believe that their first few panic attacks are heart attacks, so it takes time to understand the sensations of the symptoms, where they come from, and how to know that the symptoms are not indicative of having a heart attack.

How To Tell The Difference Between An Anxiety Attack And A Heart Attack

Even though panic attacks are very similar to heart attacks, there are key features to both heart attacks and anxiety-induced panic attacks that help a person identify one from the other. For example, a heart attack will generate a sharp shooting pain up and down the left arm. This is indicative of a heart attack because a panic attack would not produce such a pain, as it is not related to the circulation or functioning of the heart. The left arm experiences pain because the nerve cells that alert pain from the heart to the brain are close to the nerve cells that alert pain in the arm to the brain. The proximity of these two nerves creates confusion, resulting in pain in the left arm.

Panic attacks are the result of anxiety. This means that if you are anxious you will likely be experiencing a panic attack, not a heart attack. If you were having a panic attack there would be symptoms present that would not be present if you were having a heart attack. The following are symptoms of anxiety that would be present during a panic attack:

  • Racing thoughts
  • Heightened emotional state
  • Jitters or uneasiness
  • Numbing or burning sensation in parts of the body that are not related to the heart, chest or left arm (legs, feet, face, head, ears, etc.)
  • Crying spells
  • Tightness in the chest

Another factor that is indicative of a panic attack is that coping strategies that are used to reduce anxiety and the effects of a panic attack would not be effective for a person having a heart attack. Common coping strategies people use to reduce or alleviate the experience of a panic attack are deep breathing, rationalization of racing thoughts, or mindfulness exercises to bring the body and mind in a relaxed state. Such coping strategies target and reduce the stress response, and therefore would not be effective in reducing the symptoms of a heart attack.

What To Do If You Cannot Tell The Difference

A panic attack is not a medical emergency. A person cannot die from a panic attack. A panic attack is a reaction to anxiety, and can cause a person to believe that he or she is dying. It is a scary feeling, but a person cannot and will not die from a panic attack. A panic attack will reach its highest state of discomfort and decline back to normal within 10 minutes. After a panic attack the affected person may feel a bit rattled and fatigued, but physically and medically should remain unharmed. A heart attack however, is a medical emergency that requires immediate medical attention. Considering the consequences of the two are very different from one another, it is important that the affected person understands the difference between a panic attack and a heart attack, especially if that person has a history of anxiety, panic attacks, or cardiovascular issues.

Both panic attacks and heart attacks are very scary experiences that cause people to feel out of control of their bodies and in danger of dying. It can be difficult for a person who is experiencing either attack to identify the difference because both involve a state of panic and uncertainty that prevents people from being able to tell the difference. If you feel you are in danger, or cannot identify whether you are having a heart attack or a panic attack, seek medical attention. A doctor will be able to tell the difference between a heart attack and a panic attack and help you understand the difference between the two. Typically, if a person is experiencing panic attacks, he or she will learn how to identify a panic attack with practice. He or she will also likely be referred to counseling for stress management and coping skills for anxiety. In counseling, you will learn what anxiety is, why you have it, and how you can control it to reduce your experience of panic attacks.

If you are in fact having a heart attack, it is critical to not only seek emergency medical intervention, but also follow up with your primary physician. Heart attacks are dangerous and can cause serious harm and even death, so it is important to seek the medical attention needed to return back to good health. After recovering from a heart attack, you may be asked to make lifestyle changes, including:

  • Diet modifications
  • Exercises to strengthen the heart
  • Regular check ups with a cardiologist or primary physician

You may also be asked to receive counseling for stress management. This is because anxiety and stress can contribute to the onset and recurrence of a heart attack. While anxiety itself will not cause a heart attack, reducing anxiety and learning how to manage stress will decrease the chances of you experiencing a heart attack again in the future.