Panic disorder is one of the many types of anxiety disorders. Yet unlike other anxiety disorders, panic disorder causes panic attacks - periods of severe physical and mental anxiety that is overwhelming to both the mind and body. These panic attacks can be hugely distressing, and create several intense physical symptoms that affect the heart, lungs, and more.
In fact, the physical symptoms of panic attacks tend to be so significant that many mistake them for heart attacks. The symptoms of panic attacks, when compared to heart attacks, are so similar that at times, some doctors even have trouble telling the difference.
How Are Panic Attacks Like Heart Attacks?
Although for many it is obvious that heart attacks are more dangerous than panic attacks. But many do not know the difference, especially if they have never experienced a panic attack before. While only a medical doctor can officially assign a diagnosis, there are still several signs and symptoms that can help a person discern whether or not what he or she is suffering from is a panic attack or heart attack.
The Difference Between Panic Attacks and Heart Attacks
Because the symptoms of panic attacks and heart attacks present so similarly, doctors often use the process of elimination along with their knowledge of heart conditions to discover a true diagnosis.
It is important to note is that a “hidden” heart problem for a person who is relatively healthy is uncommon. While it may occur in very rare cases, most individuals who are 40 and younger (without a previously diagnosed heart condition) will not suffer a heart attack.
This means, if a person who has significant anxiety and no pre-diagnosed heart problem experiences the symptoms that match both a panic attack and a heart attack, the likelihood of it actually being a heart attack is very low.
Unfortunately, panic attacks still come with some difficult health and/or physical symptoms, which can cause people to continuously worry about an undiagnosed health condition. And while the physical effects can look similar, there are subtle ways to tell the difference between panic attacks and heart attacks.
Both panic attacks and heart attacks have chest pains, and both can cause what feels like a squeezing of the heart. But heart attacks cause chest pains that tend to radiate all along the shoulder. The pain is not localized to the heart area and instead can cover a significant portion of the left side of the body. Panic attacks tend to have more focused chest pains and rarely does this pain radiate to other parts of the body.
Both heart attacks and panic attacks can cause nausea. And while in some cases panic attacks can lead to vomiting, it is far less common than the nausea associated with heart attacks. But because vomiting can occur in both heart attacks and panic attacks, this physical symptom is not one to be used in terms of “ruling out” the possibility of a heart attack.
Loss of Consciousness
It is possible for those with panic attacks to faint, but it occurs very infrequently. Heart attacks, however, are more likely to cause a loss of consciousness. Thus, if a person has loss of consciousness it is possible he or she is suffering from a heart attack and should see a doctor immediately.
Peak and Decline
Heart attacks can vary in time and severity with symptoms that tend to get worse as time goes on. Panic attacks tend to get worse and peak after 5 to 10 minutes, then begin a slow decline after. Some people will have multiple panic attacks in a row, which makes this a somewhat unreliable indicator, but if you do notice a peak and a decline it is less likely to be a heart attack.
Trouble Breathing and Solution
Heart attacks can cause trouble breathing, specifically a shortness of breath. Panic attacks can cause trouble breathing as well. During severe panic attacks, a person may have serious challenges getting a breath, and the difference between that and a heart attack is minimal. Thus it is not necessarily a good indicator.
But as you learn more about panic attacks, you may start to notice that you can somewhat control your breathing to be a bit more efficient. Instead of shortness of breath, you may notice that you have this intense desire to get more air that isn’t fulfilled by yawning or trying to take a deep breath. That is more of a symptom of hyperventilation.
Hyperventilation is when you breathe too quickly and expel too much Co2. But it causes what’s known as a paradoxical reaction, where you feel like you can’t get enough oxygen and try to breathe deeper. Since your body already has enough oxygen, your ribs don’t expand and the breaths feel less fulfilling. If that describes your experience, it is more likely to be a panic attack.
Of course, panic attacks are not life threatening (although they can feel very scary). Everyone survives them with no long-term health issues. On the other hand, heart attacks are life-threatening and statistically, many do not survive them (especially if the heart attack occurs outside of a hospital where medical attention is immediately available).
Talk to a Doctor
While there are clear distinctions between heart attacks and panic attacks, in many cases the two are very hard to differentiate. Panic attacks also cause a mental symptom that’s known as "worst case scenario" thinking, which is why those that have panic attacks are often going to fear that they're going through a heart attack. The only way a person can truly know whether or not he or she is having a heart problem is to seek professional medical advice.