How To Tell The Difference Between A Heart Attack And A Panic Attack

How To Tell The Difference Between A Heart Attack And A Panic Attack

Your heart is racing, and you feel a stinging pain in your chest. Are you having a heart attack or a panic attack?

It can be confusing to tell the difference between the two since both have such similar symptoms. Overwhelming chest pain, sweating, heavy and uneven breathing, a strange prickly sensation, and nausea are a few symptoms that are common to both conditions. To make matters worse, the fact that a heart attack can induce panic further adds to the confusion and leads people to think they’re probably just facing a panic attack when the condition is so much more dangerous.


Fortunately, despite the deceiving similarity between the two, one can still learn to distinguish between a heart attack and a panic attack effectively. Since either one of these could happen to anyone, anytime, anywhere – it is vital to know the difference so you can help the patient as accurately as possible.

First, let’s take a look at what a heart attack is and how to recognize one.


What Happens In A Heart Attack?

When the heart muscle is starved for oxygen, it will eventually die leading to a heart attack.

The muscles of the heart need a constant flow of oxygen-rich blood for nourishment. The coronary arteries are crucial because they’re responsible for providing the heart with this critical blood supply.


If you have a coronary artery disease, it means that your arteries will become narrow and blood will no longer be able to flow as well as it should. As a result, you will have fatty matter, proteins, calcium, and inflammatory cells building up along the walls of the arteries to form plaque deposits of various sizes that are hard on the outside but soft and mushy on the inside.

When the plaque deposit is hard, the outer shell eventually cracks (also known as plaque rupture in medical terms). This causes platelets (tiny disc-shaped particles in the blood that trigger the clotting of blood) to enter into this area, causing blood clots to form around the plaque. If one of these blood clots ends up blocking the artery completely, the heart muscle gets starved for oxygen. Within a short span of time, the heart muscle will eventually die, and this is what is called a heart attack.


How To Recognize A Heart Attack

People who have survived heart attacks often describe a constricting pain in the chest during the attack.

Here are some helpful tips on diagnosing a heart attack.

  • People who have survived heart attacks often describe a constricting pain in the chest during the attack.
  • As a rule, the pain will always appear in the center of the chest and may eventually move downwards along the length of the left arm and along the back.
  • The pain may also spread to the areas of the neck, teeth, and jaws.
  • The intensity of the pain may change. Usually, the pain lasts for much longer than five minutes but doesn’t affect a person’s breathing.
  • A prickly sensation is also commonly felt during a heart attack. It is almost always restricted to the left arm. Very often, this will be accompanied by a sticky, cold sweat and feelings of nausea. You may even throw up.
  • When a heart attack reaches its peak, people experience a fear which is focused exclusively on the feelings of pain in their chest. This leads them on to believe that they might die, thus inducing fright and anxiety.
  • As a rule, in addition to the above, the individual will also often experience fast-paced breathing, apart from certain cases when the heart attack triggers a panic attack.

What Happens In A Panic Attack?

A panic attack happens when your body suddenly gets flooded with adrenaline even in ordinary circumstances.

A panic attack happens when your body suddenly gets flooded with adrenaline at a time that apparently makes no sense. You may face a deep fear of something completely inexplicable and irrational such as driving off the edge of a cliff, while you’re sitting safely on a couch in your living room.


Once all that adrenaline is released, your body goes either into flight mode or fight mode. The former is impossible since it’s impossible to run from yourself and your fears. So the next best thing that your body can do is to gear itself up for a fight. This decision made by your body is the root cause of a series of undesirable occurrences that lead up to one huge panic attack.

Almost immediately, your body will resort to one of the primary methods of survival, i.e. increasing your heart rate so that more oxygen-rich blood may be supplied to the muscles and limbs for excess energy. This explains why people prone to panic attacks often report a pounding through their chest as if it’s about to explode. At the same time, the sudden instant rush of blood stimulates the nervous system to up your reaction time. In the case of a panic attack, it will trigger an uncontrollable trembling in your limbs.


The sudden rush of adrenaline and increase in heart rate will also cause you to perspire profusely. To further add to your problems, you will also find it extremely difficult to catch your breath. The increase in your heart rate, hand in hand with the heavy flow of blood to your extremities will cause a bigger demand for oxygen to keep all that blood well oxygenated. This is what is responsible for causing a shortness of breath.

In an attempt to drive more oxygen into your bloodstream, you will start hyperventilating which further leads to dizziness and disorientation. You end up breathing out so much carbon dioxide that your brain loses control in maintaining that fine balance between carbon dioxide and oxygen. As a result, it will start overdosing on oxygen, causing you to become lightheaded. Very often, this even distorts the way your brains perceives things – leading to make you start believing and feeling that the world is beginning to close in on you.

How To Recognize A Panic Attack

When suffering from panic attacks, people experience irrational fears.

Here are some helpful tips on diagnosing a heart attack.

  • It is possible for a panic attack to strike you even in the most ordinary of circumstances.
  • The symptoms of most panic attacks usually reach their very peak after about 10 minutes.
  • The pain is mainly concentrated around the chest region and will keep rising and falling.
  • Just as in the case of a heart attack, a prickly sensation along with a feeling of numbness can occur during a panic attack. This is, however, not restricted to the left arm but may also appear on the right arm, fingers, and legs.
  • When suffering from panic attacks, people experience irrational fears, for instance – a fear of being suffocated or going crazy.

What To Do In Case Of A Heart Or A Panic Attack

Regardless of whether it is a heart attack or a panic attack – seek immediate medical help.

If you can’t work out whether you’re experiencing a panic attack or a heart attack, see a doctor immediately. Waiting is not the best solution in either case.

If it turns out that you or someone else is having a heart attack, it could lead to death if you don’t receive or seek immediate medical help. If you find yourself or anyone else displaying the above symptoms for more than 4 to 5 minutes, call an ambulance without any further delay. If that’s not possible, ask someone around to take you or the patient to the nearest hospital as soon as possible.

In the case of a panic attack, the lack of medical support can make the symptoms worse and lead to an increase in the frequency of attacks. Timely examination and dedicated care from a specialist could drastically help improve not just the quality of your life, but also your life expectancy.