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Panic Attack vs. Heart Attack: How to Spot the Signs and Symptoms

It’s a fact: Every 40 seconds, someone in the United States has a heart attack. Experiencing chest pains, a rapid heartbeat and a numbness or tingling sensation should not be taken lightly.

These signs and symptoms, along with other unique warnings, can mean that you’re experiencing a heart attack or a panic attack, and depending on the situation, need to seek immediate medical attention. Because experiencing a panic attack can be so debilitating and severe, many people believe they are having a life-threatening heart attack.  And while some of the signs and symptoms of a panic attack and heart attack overlap in similarities, and others are unique to each condition, it is still recommended to get these symptoms – shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat and chest pains – evaluated by your doctor.

Panic Attack Signs and Symptoms

The cause of a panic attack is not yet known, although it has been shown that panic attacks and panic attack disorders are genetic. In addition, monumental life changes are known to incite panic attacks, such as moving, getting married or having a baby. Stressful times, such as a breakup or divorce, job loss or the death of a loved one, can also trigger a panic attack

Like a heart attack, a panic attack can strike at any time, even when you’re relaxed or asleep. A panic attack can trigger severe physical reactions, such as:

  • – Sweating
  • – Trembling
  • – Rapid heart rate
  • – Chest pain
  • – Numbness and/or tingling sensation
  • – Hot flashes

Oftentimes, people who experience panic attacks develop a fear of having another attack, as they can leave a lasting memory. These symptoms may appear out of the blue and usually reach their peak within ten minutes of first exhibiting. Typically, a panic attack lasts between 20-30 minutes and usually does not exceed more than one hour.

The frequency of panic attack occurrence is different for everyone; some people may only have one or two panic attacks in their lifetimes, while other people may have recurring panic attacks that are brought on by stressful situations. If you’re experiencing recurring panic attacks, you may have panic disorder, a disorder that affects more than six million Americans with women twice as likely than men to develop the disorder.

Preventing a Panic Attack

Having a panic attack or experiencing symptoms of its onset can be overwhelming. However, there are a few helpful tactics for prevention and/or decreasing the severity of a panic attack:

  • Deep breathing: If you’re hyperventilating, try deep breathing to control and focus on your breathing. Deep breathing is a form of relaxation and causes you to divert your attention to your breathing rather than the symptoms of the panic attack.
  • Close your eyes: If you’re in an overwhelming environment and can sense fear or anxiety, try closing your eyes to block out what is going on around you.
  • Find something to focus on: Find an object in your line of vision and focus on it. Honing in on an object can take your focus off of what is happening around you and cause you to relax.
  • Exercise: Physical activity allows you to relieve stress and release endorphins, hormones that make us feel happy. If you’re feeling stressed, try completing a light exercise, such as walking or jogging.

Heart Attack Signs and Symptoms

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. A heart attack, also called a myocardial infarction, occurs when a part of the heart muscle is blocked and does not receive enough blood. The blockage is from plaque that forms from the buildup of fat, cholesterol and other substances.

Have you ever heard the phrase “It’s as serious as a heart attack”? Heart attacks can be fatal. Don’t hesitate. If you or a loved one experiences any of the following symptoms, it’s critical to seek medical assistance immediately. The Mayo Clinic states the following symptoms of a heart attack:

  • – Pressure, or tightness in your chest or arms that may spread to your neck, jaw or back
  • – Nausea, indigestion, heartburn or abdominal pain
  • – Shortness of breath
  • – Cold Sweats
  • – Fatigue
  • – Lightheadedness or abrupt dizziness

However, it is important to note that heart attack symptoms and severity may vary. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and include one or all of the symptoms. It’s important to know that the more symptoms you are experiencing, the more likely that you are experiencing a heart attack.

Preventing a Heart Attack

There are a number of risk factors for developing heart disease that you cannot change, such as age, gender, race or ethnicity and family history. Fortunately, the World Health Organization states that this is something you can take control of as 80% of cardiac and stroke events may be prevented through lifestyle changes

To lower your risk of having a heart attack, it is recommended to:

  • Maintain a healthy weight: Being obese or overweight can put you at risk for a number of heart disease factors, such as high cholesterol, triglyceride levels and diabetes. Staying within the appropriate BMI-index can reduce your risk of developing a heart attack. Your BMI is a simple calculation involving your height and weight, and the National Institutes of Health provide a useful BMI calculator here.
  • Monitor your blood pressure: Did you know that having high blood pressure is a risk factor for developing a heart attack? If you have normal blood pressure, it is recommended to get your blood checked once a year. However, if you have high blood pressure, your doctor may recommend checking your blood more frequently.
  • Get consistent exercise: Regular exercise can actually strengthen your heart muscle and improve circulation. Getting consistent exercise can also lead to a healthy weight, further lowering your risk of developing a heart attack.
  • Eating a heart-healthy diet: Certain foods can help to decrease your body’s blood pressure, triglycerides, blood cholesterol and inflammation, which are all risk factors for developing heart disease. Heart-healthy foods include healthy nuts, fatty fish that are high in Omega-3 fatty acids, whole grains and berries.

Panic Attack vs. Heart Attack

One distinction of a panic attack vs. heart attack is when they are likely to occur. Heart attacks often occur when one is physically active while a panic attack can happen when you’re completely at rest.

Panic attacks often occur when your body’s “fight or flight” response is triggered. This is why people who experience a panic attack feel a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath or chest pain. When a panic attack happens while you’re sleeping, called a nocturnal panic attack, it may be the result of unresolved worries or anxiety. While a heart attack may have similar symptoms, it is the result of coronary blockage and is not psychological.

Learn more about how your body’s physical and mental health are connected here.

A panic attack in itself does not pose an immediate danger and does not require prompt medical attention like a heart attack does. However, if you are in doubt whether you are experiencing a panic attack vs. heart attack, it is best to quickly seek medical attention.

At PACT, our doctors and specialists are dedicated to delivering high-quality patient-centered care. If you or a loved one are searching for a primary care provider, click here to search PACT’s list of Connecticut based, board-certified doctors near you.

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