Panic Attack vs. Heart Attack: Is Anxiety Lethal?

Although 4 in 5 women who suffer from heart attacks are over 40, you shouldn’t assume you’re having one just because you're experiencing some of the symptoms. The good news is, you may just be having a panic attack! PS: Here’s the part where we tell you to consult a professional regardless, seriously.

By Mara Santilli
stressed woman


Panic attack symptoms vs. heart attack symptoms

There is some symptom overlap, like chest pain, gastric upset, shortness of breath, sweating, and feeling uneasy, experts say, but one major difference between the two is timing: Panic attacks typically last anywhere from 5 minutes to 30 minutes before they’re completely resolved, and come on suddenly, sometimes without warning, while heart attack symptoms will last much longer than a half hour, and may even begin to appear gradually, a couple of days in advance of the event. The physical symptoms of a panic attack, your body’s adrenaline-fueled reaction to a physical or mental stressor or fear, might include feeling like you’re choking or being smothered, feeling detached from your body, or feeling out of control of what’s happening to your body, explains Jeremy Tyler, Psy.D., Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine Psychiatry Department. Heart attack symptoms, a sign of a blockage in the coronary arteries, will be physically and mentally different, Dr. Tyler says. “If you feel strong pressure in your chest, radiating to your arm, or jaw, that’s more indicative of a heart problem,” he says. 

What causes a panic attack?

It’s also important to consider the cause of the symptoms. For example, heart attack symptoms may manifest themselves after too much physical exertion, Dr. Tyler says, while anything anxiety-related is more often tied to some sort of emotional trigger. “A panic attack could come out of the blue, but typically there is something that’s linked to it, whether that’s interpersonal problems, bereavement, or stress at work that’s emotionally taxing,” Dr. Tyler explains. Heart diseases or conditions do not typically come about because of emotional distress alone. 

The relationship between anxiety and heart disease

Research hasn’t proven a definitive link between anxiety disorders and increased risk for heart attacks or other heart conditions. But stress and anxiety that goes untreated does not bode well for the cardiovascular system in general. “If the heart is stressed for prolonged periods of time, it works too hard and then is prone to illness. Anxiety is a manageable illness, and if dealt with, should not cause cardiac illness,” says Gayani DeSilva, MD, a psychiatrist and author.

Tips for panic attack relief

The first step to treating panic attacks is to get help from a counselor or therapist, who will likely incorporate Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques to help you understand what triggers your anxiety and how you can alleviate the panic when it arises.  Dr. Tyler also recommends practicing mindful breathing techniques regularly so you can employ them when you’re having a panic attack or a surge of anxiety. Free apps like Tactical Breather or Breathe to Relax can walk you through those breathing techniques right from your phone. 

When it comes to anxiety, it’s most important to remember that panic attacks can happen for a variety of reasons, which are often inexplicable, but avoidance of possible panic-inducing scenarios is not the right tactic; that will just make things worse. “A panic attack has never killed anyone, and it will not kill you,” Dr. Tyler says. “It’s your body going into fight-or-flight mode and trying to save you, without a threat in front of you,” he adds, and you’ll make it through. Bottom line: breathe easy.

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