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 July 27, 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, said 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 said.

'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," said 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 said.

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," said 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

Explore a variety of healthcare news & stories by visiting the Health Lab home page for more articles.

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 mushrooms in a microscope
Health Lab
How cannabis and psilocybin might help some of the 50 million Americans experiencing chronic pain
Recent developments represent a dramatic change from long standing federal policy around these substances that has historically criminalized their use and blocked or delayed research efforts into their therapeutic potential.
The Fundamentals Podcast Hero Card Final 1800 x 1350
The Fundamentals
Treating Diabetes & Weight: The Ozempic & Wegovy Effect
Today on The Fundamentals, our guest Dr. Martin Myers, Director of the U-M Elizabeth Weiser Caswell Diabetes Institute, discusses diabetes research in the context of Ozempic, Wegovy, and other drugs that are changing how people think about weight loss. You can learn more about Dr. Myers here, and you can follow the department of molecular and integrative physiology @UMPhysiology on X.
marijuana leaf drawing blue lab note yellow badge upper left corner
Health Lab
Data shows medical marijuana use decreased in states where recreational use became legal 
Data on medical cannabis use found that enrollment in medical cannabis programs increased overall between 2016 and 2022, but enrollment in states where nonmedical use of cannabis became legal saw a decrease in enrollment
heart organ yellow blue
Health Lab
Around 10% of deaths from coronary stenting, balloon angioplasty are preventable
Around 10% of all deaths following percutaneous coronary intervention are potentially preventable, a study led by Michigan Medicine finds.
Mothers Babies Postpartum
Health Lab
Rapid rise seen in mental health diagnosis and care during and after pregnancy
Perinatal mental health research shows more pregnant people and those who have recently given birth are getting diagnosed and treated for depression, anxiety and PTSD, but disparities remain.
Microscopic image of bone marrow with pink and white hues
Health Lab
Novel risk score for cardiovascular complications after bone marrow transplant
More bone marrow transplants, also known as hematopoietic stem cell transplantation, are being offered to older patients, a population at greater risk of cardiovascular disease.