Panic attacks are intense, physical events that resemble heart attacks. Despite the term "panic," these are not simply moments of severe anxiety. These are attacks so advanced that they can cause people to be hospitalized, because not even doctors can rule out a heart attack until further testing has been completed.
One of the main symptoms that causes panic attacks (and leads to their similarity to heart attacks) is chest pain. The following article explores panic attacks and chest pain, how to tell the difference, and what you can do to prevent it.
Chest Pain = Panic Attack?
Chest pain is a clear sign of panic disorder, but could also be a health issue. Contact your doctor first, and don't forget to take my free 7 minute anxiety test now to learn more about your panic.
Talk to a Doctor
Even though heart attacks in the young and healthy are exceedingly rare, and even though panic attacks are incredibly common, it's still a smart idea to visit a doctor at least once. You never want to leave your heart health to chance. But rest assured that it is very likely what you suffered from was a panic attack. Start with my anxiety test if you haven't yet.
It's not only the chest pains that cause heart attack fears. Other symptoms that are similar between the two include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Rapid heartbeat
- Trouble thinking/concentrating
- Muscle weakness
They can be so similar that their symptoms are practically interchangeable. Even the chest pain has similarities, although chest pains from panic attacks do differ slightly.
How to Tell the Difference
Panic attack chest pains tend to be sharper and more towards the center of the chest. They are nearly always located near the heart, and the pain - while painful - is rarely severe.
Heart attack chest pains tend to radiate around the shoulder. The pain can be extreme (although not always) and while both chest pains can make you feel like your heart is being squeezed, heart attacks tend to feel more crushing. Most of the time, they are differentiated by other symptoms, such as:
Vomiting (heart attacks are more likely to cause vomiting)
Passing out (panic attacks can make you feel like you're going to pass out, but rarely does fainting occur).
Heart damage (heart attacks tend to damage the heart permanently.
Heart attacks are, of course, also more difficult to survive. Those with panic attacks are at no risk of long term danger, so as severe as they feel, survival is one of the key differences between the two.
Even still, vomiting, passing out, and even in some cases the perception of radiating pain can occur, so even with those differences there may be rare cases of chest pains from panic attacks causing the same types of symptoms.
Heart Attacks Are Rare
Heart attacks are one of the most common causes of death, but it's extremely rare for a heart attack to occur in someone without any known heart health issues. That's the reason that seeing a doctor is still important. If you're someone that isn't an age where heart attacks occur or you're in good health, the likelihood of a heart attack is so incredibly rare that anxiety is very likely to be the cause - especially if you've been going through stress recently. If your doctor checks your heart and finds nothing, the chances of it being a heart attack are extremely low.
What Causes Chest Pains From Panic Attacks?
Panic attacks cause chest pains as a result of hyperventilation. Despite what you may have learned when you were younger, hyperventilation is when you have too little carbon dioxide in your body. It occurs because of breathing too quickly or inefficiently. Your body needs time to create Co2 (which it needs to function), and when you breathe too fast, your body expels it faster than it can create it.
Most people think carbon dioxide is bad for your body, and certainly too much of it can be harmful (such as when you're choking), but carbon dioxide plays a role in a variety of bodily functions, so when you breathe poorly (due to adrenaline from anxiety and general poor breathing habits), you expel it all and your body struggles to adapt.
One of the symptoms of hyperventilation is known as a "paradoxical effect." Hyperventilation causes you to feel as though you're not getting enough oxygen, when in fact the opposite is true. That causes people to try to breathe in more/faster, which continues to over-oxygenate the blood and leads to worse hyperventilation.
Hyperventilation causes chest pains by causing the blood vessels to constrict, which in turn makes the heart work harder and causes pain around the heart. Those with panic attacks also have a tendency to start inefficiently breathing even when they don't have any anxiety, which can unfortunately lead to chest pains and trigger a panic attack.
How to Reduce Chest Pains From Panic Attacks
Unfortunately, once hyperventilation occurs, you cannot simply stop it right away. Holding your breath to try to get your carbon dioxide back may only cause you to feel light headed.
Instead, you can renew some of your carbon dioxide levels in two ways:
Go For a Walk Walking builds up carbon dioxide faster and improves breathing rate. By walking while you have chest pains, you improve blood flow, reduce oxygenation, and do so without necessarily altering your breathing that much.
Controlled Breathing You should also try more controlled breaths that take longer but do not involve holding your breath. Try to take at least 5 seconds breathing in, then hold for 3 seconds, then take 7 seconds breathing out. This will control some of that carbon dioxide in a more natural way.
Still, anxiety is the reason that hyperventilation occurs in the first place. When you have anxiety, the adrenaline your body releases naturally causes you to breathe differently, which unfortunately means that you're going to be at risk for further hyperventilation. That's why you need to control your anxiety as well.
I've helped thousands of people with panic attacks and chest pains control their symptoms. Start with my free 7 minute anxiety test, where you'll learn the best way to reduce some of that anxiety.
Start the test here, now.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.