Panic Attack vs. Heart Attack

Panic Attack vs. Heart Attack: Can You Tell the Difference?

Panic attack and heart attack symptoms can feel frighteningly similar, both causing chest pain, racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, sweating, dizziness, vertigo, numbness in the feet and hands, trembling and feeling like you’re going to die. So, what’s the difference between a heart attack and a panic attack?

Panic Attack Symptoms and Causes

Panic attacks are sudden attacks of fear and anxiety. They’re not life-threatening but can negatively affect your quality of life and mental health. Panic attacks can be triggered by a stressful or emotional event or occur without warning.

Some people experience isolated panic attacks, while others have recurring panic attacks. Recurrent panic attacks may be a sign of panic disorder, a treatable anxiety disorder. Panic attack symptoms include:

  • Chest pain
  • Racing or pounding heart
  • Intense feelings of anxiety and fear
  • Impending sense of doom
  • Sweating
  • Trouble breathing
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Stomach pain
  • Nausea
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness

If you’ve been diagnosed with panic disorder and fear having a heart attack, ask your primary care provider to assess your heart health. If you’re at risk of a heart attack, you can take steps to improve your heart health.

Heart Attack Symptoms and Causes

A heart attack is often caused by a blocked artery and occurs when you don’t have enough blood flow to your heart. The symptoms of a heart attack include:

  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Lightheadedness or fainting
  • Racing or pounding heart
  • Impending sense of doom
  • Pain or discomfort in your jaw, neck, arms, back or shoulders
  • Sweating, including cold sweats
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea or vomiting

Is There a Connection Between Heart and Panic Attacks?

Panic attacks generally don’t cause heart attacks, though it’s possible. However, mental health concerns like chronic stress, depression and anxiety may increase your risk of heart problems.

How to Tell the Difference Between a Heart Attack and Panic Attack

It’s difficult to tell the difference between a heart attack and panic attack without medical tests. That’s why we always recommend seeking medical care if you have any of the symptoms mentioned above. Here are a few possible differentiators between the two types of attacks:

How your chest pain feels. Heart attacks often feel like heartburn or an elephant sitting on your chest. People who have heart attacks may experience chest pain (angina) in the days or weeks before their heart attack. Panic attacks are more likely to cause stabbing or sharp chest pain, racing heartbeat, or chest comfort that’s difficult to describe.

How you experience your symptoms. Panic attack symptoms can last for a few minutes to an hour, but then go away and you feel better. Heart attack symptoms can intensify, temporarily get better and then return. With a heart attack, time is muscle, so it’s crucial to call 911 if you have any of these symptoms.

Potential triggers. While emotional stress can trigger both types of attacks, it’s more often a trigger for panic attacks. Heart attacks are often triggered by physical exertion, like exercising or shoveling snow.

When to Seek Medical Care

Without medical testing, it can be almost impossible to tell the difference between heart and panic attack symptoms on your own. Call 911 if you have any of the symptoms mentioned above. It’s always better to be safe than sorry, and a physician can help determine the root cause of your symptoms.

If you have questions about your mental or heart health, talk to your primary care provider. Find a provider near you


Dr. Daniel Johnson

Daniel Johnson, MD


UNC Health Pardee

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