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Panic Attack vs Heart Attack: Understanding Triggered Responses

By Dr. Ori Shinar

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When it comes to the question of panic attacks vs heart attacks, it is easy to get the two confused, when you’re in the throes of either one and they can both be deeply frightening. But to truly understand a panic attack vs heart attack, we need to examine further.

This is especially true when you don’t know which one you’re experiencing or what is causing it.

All of a sudden, it feels like you can’t breathe, you experience a pain in your chest, and you start to think the worst.

“Is this a life-threatening emergency or is it all in my head?”

Whether it is panic attacks or heart attacks that you are concerned about, I am here to clarify them both for you as well as the very important similarities and differences between them.

With this new understanding, it is my hope that you will be able to go forward with less anxiety and more calm.

Panic Attack Vs Heart Attack

The Similarities

While there are very large differences between heart attack and panic attacks which I will cover shortly, it is worth mentioning and going over a few of the similarities. 

This is not an exhaustive list, but it should be helpful to you all the same.

  1. Both Heart Attacks And Panic Attacks Can Affect Anyone

Regardless of race, age, or socio-economic status, anyone, anywhere can experience either a heart attack or a panic attack.

We must not fall into the trap of thinking that both events are caused by the same thing though.

As I will cover in the next section, a heart attack is a cardiac event which is caused by a physical blockage in an artery while a panic attack has no known purely physical cause.

A heart attack is, from a purely medical standpoint, a much more immediately dangerous event.

  1. Much Can Be Done To Prevent Both

We started off a bit grim, but it’s not all cold rain and darkness.

On the upside, positive measures are also highly effective in improving the odds of preventing both panic attack and heart attacks regardless of who you are.

While one is purely physical (cardiac) and the other is at least mostly mental health-related, the odds of experiencing either a panic or heart attack can be reduced by making certain choices.

And, fortunately, these choices are mostly the same for both.

They include things like eating healthy, getting enough sleep at the right times, abstaining from alcohol and tobacco, abstaining from illicit drugs, and getting regular physical exercise.

Since mental and physical health are both inextricably connected, a person could only benefit from taking care of their mental health as well as their physical health.

Some ways to do that might be cognitive behavioral therapy and work-life balance, but, whoever you are and whatever your situation is, there are at least a few small things you can do.

What's the issue?

If you want to know a few things you can do when you are already having a panic attack, Medical News Today has a great article about it.

  1. Certain Symptoms

There are a few symptoms which both heart attacks and panic attacks have in common, especially in the first moments, and this is the main reason why so many people confuse them.

Let’s take a look at some of the most common ones: 

  • Fast or pounding heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Chest pain
  • Sweating
  • Nausea

Don’t immediately jump to the conclusion that you are having a heart attack just because you are experiencing some or even all of these symptoms but do take it seriously.

Whenever in doubt, it is best to consult a medical professional rather than relying on your own hunches.

Signs of a panic attack chart

The Differences

Now that we have gotten a firm grasp on some of the common similarities between heart attacks and panic attacks, let’s focus on some of the important differences between them.

Here are a few that stand out.

  1. The Cause Of Panic Attacks Vs Heart Attacks

This is the most serious and obvious difference.

A heart attack is caused by a physical blockage in an artery which prevents blood flow into or out of the heart.

This absolutely requires immediate medical attention as it may potentially be life-threatening.

By contrast, a panic attack is, fundamentally, a mental health event involving the perception (true or false) that a particular situation or imagined situation is life-threatening.

Unlike a heart attack, a panic attack does not involve the physical obstruction of an artery and is, thankfully, almost never life-threatening on its own.

Also unlike a heart attack, a panic attack can be experienced by someone who has no significant underlying cardiovascular issues.

  1. The Response Of A Panic Attack vs Heart Attack

When a heart attack occurs, it generally requires immediate medical (often surgical) intervention while a panic attack can be handled through non-surgical means.

When a panic attack occurs, there is much less cause for serious alarm. 

This is not to say that a panic attack is not a serious event, but it is to say that it is, medically speaking, a less serious event than a heart attack.

This is good news if you are experiencing a panic attack like 5% of Americans will at some point in their lifetime.

A panic attack is certainly not fun while it is happening, but your odds of getting through it are extremely high.

This is great as worrying about things is not what you generally want to be doing either during or after a panic attack.

If you experience a heart attack, your situation is physically much more dangerous as 12% of those who experience a heart attack will die from it and there is no way to sugarcoat that.

However, there is good news even in that case.

A 12% chance of dying still means an 82% chance of surviving.

I survived!
  1. Lethality

As I mentioned previously, a person who has a panic attack is exceedingly unlikely to die from it provided that they do not have some other underlying health condition.

The numbers for heart attacks however are a bit different.

As I mentioned, of those who experience a heart attack, roughly 12% will die from that heart attack.

In more relatable terms, that equates to around 1 American dying from a heart attack every 40 seconds.

This is why, regardless of which one you believe you are experiencing, it is highly recommended to see professional medical help as quickly as possible.

However, I do not believe in being an alarmist, so I will work out a bit of the math on that for you now so that you can take this information in with calm and clarity.

Math Can Be Calming

There are 24 hours in a day with each hour having 60 minutes and each minute having 60 seconds.

24 (hours) x 60 (minutes) x 60 (seconds) = 86,400 seconds in a day

What this means is that, while one American will experience a heart attack around once every 40 seconds, your odds of being that one American in any given day are only 1 in 2160.

That’s only a 0.046% chance of dying from a heart attack on any given day.

Of course, those odds go up or down depending on your own personal health factors and heart disease still remains the leading cause of death for Americans.

The United States has over 330 million people in it and nearly half of them have some form of heart disease, so most of the heart attacks which do occur do not exactly come out of nowhere.

If you have not been making the sorts of choices that we all know lead to cardiac problems and you are a generally healthy individual, your daily odds are even lower than 1 in 2160.

If you have reason to be concerned about potentially having a heart attack, you likely already know and, if you don’t, it makes sense to worry less about what is a relatively slim possibility.

Humans are mortal and we will all die from something eventually no matter what. 

While 1 in 4 Americans will ultimately die of heart disease, your odds of being one of those who die from one today are relatively low and you can make them lower.

Heart attack infographic

What This All Means To You

Worrying will not improve your situation whether you have had a heart attack, a panic attack, or are simply concerned that you might have either.  

I said that I’m here to help and that is what I intend to do.

As I mentioned, neither panic attacks nor heart attacks are always necessarily random or unpredictable.

There are a number of things you can do now to both decrease your odds of experiencing either and improve your quality of life while doing so.

Next Steps For A Panic Attack vs Heart Attack

When in doubt, always consult a licensed medical professional.

Unless you are a practicing cardiologist, you probably do not have all the answers here and, even if you are one, you still may not know everything that’s going on with your own heart.

And that’s ok.

Fortunately for you, there are plenty of professionals that you can consult like those at Nebraska Medicine or any other reputable medical center near you.

And, once you have gotten the medical all-clear from them, you can turn to a mental health professional next to help you get your anxiety under control.

If you happen to be in the New York City area, here is a helpful list of 16 of the best CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) Therapists in NYC.
If you are elsewhere in the country or in the world, don’t worry as you can simply search for “CBT therapists near [insert your area here]” in your search engine of choice.

Whatever the case may be and whatever you are going through, always know that you are not going through it alone. Hopefully you now understand the difference between a panic attack vs heart attack and what you need to do to recover.

Schedule an appointment with dr ori

Are you ready to start living fully?

To learn more about individual therapy schedule your FREE 15-minute consultation and we’ll help determine if our services are a good fit for you.

Schedule an appointment with dr ori

Are you ready to start living fully?

To learn more about individual therapy schedule your FREE 15-minute consultation and we’ll help determine if our services are a good fit for you.

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