How to Tell the Difference between Heart and Panic Attacks

Typically most clients who struggle with panic attacks I have seen have already been to the emergency ward. Why? They found themselves experiencing heaviness in their chest, sharp pains in their chest, dizziness, nausea accompanied by a rapid increase in heart rate. Which led them to conclude that they were experiencing a heart attack, which led to trip to the emergency ward.

As you might have guessed, in all of the stories I have heard. they were all informed that their hearts were  just fine and that they had indeed experienced a panic attack. Panic attacks and heart attack symptoms are so similar that even a former client of mine who had experienced a heart attack, struggled to recognize the difference between the two.

So here are the differences between panic and heart attacks.

Chest Pains

During heart attacks, chest pain is begins in the middle of the chest. Survivors will describe this as a feeling of heaviness in the middle of the chest which compromises their breathing. The pain will sometimes radiate to the left arm, neck or back and will last for about fifteen minutes plus.

During panic attacks, the pain is localized just above the heart and doesn’t move. The pain is usually reported to come and go as the sufferer breathes and will last for less than ten minutes.

Nausea

During heart attacks, sufferers experience nausea which is immediately followed by vomiting and sometimes diarrhea. While during panic attacks, sufferers do experience nausea, but with no vomiting.

Hyperventilate

Heart attacks sufferers do not hyperventilate unlike sufferers of panic attacks who do hyperventilate.

Onset

Then there is the most defining of characteristics, which is the onset of the attacks. With heart attacks the onset is gradual and will last for hours during which the intensity of the pain and general discomfort becomes more severe. With panic attacks the onset is sudden and the intensity and severity of the pain and discomfort are high from the start and remain that way for about five to ten minutes, after which it slowly goes away. For some panic attack sufferers they report that the attack goes away as suddenly as it came.

This would make sense given that in most cases the panic ends only because the hormones producing adrenaline have become depleted, thus leaving the body no choice but to return to it’s former state. In most cases with panic attack sufferers this former state maybe a state of chronic anxiety.

Regardless, even if you recognize yourself as going through a panic attack, it is always advisable to have a medical doctor give you a thorough physical, for the sake of ruling out any medical issues.

In my next post, I will discuss how an contradictions between our realities and our thoughts can lead to chronic anxiety and panic attacks. 

Ugo is a psychotherapist and life coach.

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