How to Tell the Difference Between a Heart Attack and a Panic Attack

These two incidents can be confused if you don’t know what to look for. Here’s what to know — and when to get help.

8:00 AM

Author | Jane Racey Gleeson

woman holding chest with hand sitting on park bench
Getty Images

This article was updated on February 16, 2021.

Your heart is racing, and you feel pain in your chest. Is it a heart attack or a panic attack?

Distinguishing between the two can be difficult, especially if you've never experienced either, says William Meurer, M.D., of the University of Michigan Health System Emergency Department. "There's an overlap in symptoms associated with heart attack and panic attack."

MORE FROM MICHIGAN: Sign up for our weekly newsletter

To further complicate things, the stress and anxiety that often cause panic attacks can also lead to heart attacks. "It's a complicated relationship," he says.

'Maximize' your symptoms

"People often blame their symptoms on stress. They minimize versus maximize their symptoms. 'Maybe I'm OK,' they tell themselves. But their situation may escalate very quickly," says Meurer.

SEE ALSO: Heart Attack vs. Cardiac Arrest: Do You Know the Difference? 

"The important thing is to seek medical attention if you're not sure about your health. Be vigilant, and get checked out promptly. If you're worried that it's a heart attack, call 911 to get an immediate evaluation."

If you're experiencing an episode that is similar to one you've had in the past that turned out to be stress-related, Meurer recommends practicing deep breathing or meditation to see if the symptoms subside. "If they don't, seek medical help," he says.

James Froehlich, M.D., U-M Frankel Cardiovascular Center cardiologist, agrees.

"Heart attacks are already often missed, and we don't want to discourage anyone who thinks they might be having a heart attack from getting checked out."

He also advises his patients to stay on their regular heart medications, even if they are feeling good and think they can stop taking them. "Preventive medications are very effective. If you keep up your meds, you may never know about the heart attack you didn't have."

What to look for

The two conditions can appear similar, but there are some key differences.

SEE ALSO: Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack: 6 Things to Know

Heart attack symptoms include:

  • Escalating chest pain that reaches maximum severity after a few minutes

  • Constant pain, pressure, fullness or aching in the chest area

  • Pain or discomfort that travels or radiates from the chest to other areas, such as one or both arms, abdomen, back, shoulders, neck, throat or jaw

  • Pain that is brought on by exertion

  • Shortness of breath

Panic attack symptoms include:

  • Increased heart rate

  • Sharp or stabbing chest pain that lasts only 5 to 10 seconds

  • Pain that is localized to one small area

  • Pain that usually occurs at rest

  • Pain that accompanies anxiety

  • Pain that is relieved or worsened when you change positions

  • Pain that can be reproduced or worsened by pressing over the area of pain

The bottom line: "Be vigilant and get checked out promptly," says Meurer. "If you think it's a heart attack, call 911 to get an immediate evaluation."

More Articles About: Heart Health Cardiovascular: Diseases & Conditions Mental Health
Health Lab word mark overlaying blue cells
Health Lab

This article is from the Health Lab digital publication.

Media Contact Public Relations

Department of Communication at Michigan Medicine

[email protected]


Stay Informed

Want top health & research news weekly? Sign up for Health Lab’s newsletters today!

Featured News & Stories gif of people with spinal injuries walking and sun setting purple pink yellow grey
Health Lab
For spinal cord injuries, acceptance and commitment therapy aids in recovery
Research from U-M suggests that Acceptance and Commitment Therapy can aid in the recovery of spinal cord injuries by helping patients learn to manage their emotions and thoughts surrounding their injury.
girl in yellow dress raising hands at podium
Health Lab
First-year residents reflect on their journeys and offer advice for Match Day
On Match Day, several recent medical school graduates recount their first years as working physicians.
storm trooper UM theme posing with women with mask on and jeans
Health Lab
Heart transplant inspires woman to go back to school
Amy Bacon was inspired to go to college after her heart transplant. She now has three academic degrees and is working on a fourth while also educating teenagers about the importance of organ transplants.
woman sitting on couch stripped shirt
Health Lab
Loneliness is down, but still high, among older adults
Older adults are less likely to feel isolated now than at the height of the pandemic, but levels of loneliness are still high.
kidneys blue yellow
Health Lab
Algorithm predicts females have higher risk for kidney damage after aneurysm repair
For an abdominal aortic aneurysm, female patients have a higher risk for kidney damage after endovascular repair, a Michigan Medicine study finds.
Health Lab
A ‘game changer’ for mental health
The MC3 program provides psychiatric expertise on-demand to primary care providers in Michigan as they manage mental health conditions in young or pregnant patients