What is the Difference Between a Panic Attack, Anxiety Attack, and Heart Attack

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When you are experiencing high levels of anxiety or panic, there is an undoubtable fear about your safety and wellbeing. However, while there may be similar physical and emotional sensations between these events, there are distinctive differences in these terms, what they mean, and how they are experienced. There is a difference between a panic attack vs anxiety attack, and a very stark difference between those two events, and a heart attack. 

A panic attack is an intense period of fear and anxiety that can have environmental triggers, but may also occur without any known warning. These attacks last for about 15-20 minutes on average but can feel a lot longer than that if you are experiencing one. Someone may experience any number of these symptoms when having a panic attack:

  • Increased heart rate.
  • Chest pain or discomfort.
  • Sweating.
  • Trembling or shaking.
  • Feeling that you might be choking.
  • Dizziness.
  • Chills or overheating.
  • Nausea.
  • Fear that you’re dying or going crazy.
  • Numbness.
  • A feeling that what’s happening around you isn’t real.

If you experience frequent panic attacks, you may be considered for the diagnosis of panic disorder. Luckily, panic attacks are very treatable. Understanding and recognizing a panic attack can help decrease the frequency and severity of them.  

The term anxiety attack is commonly used and is largely considered as interchangeable with the term panic attack. However, there is no clinical diagnosis or term for “anxiety attack” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM) that clinicians use to diagnose mental health conditions. You can experience high levels of anxiety and worry that extend for a long period of time but are not as intense as a panic attack. In some scenarios, an anxiety attack may be a precursor to a panic attack. Also, anxiety attacks are not necessarily a part of an anxiety disorder. Depending upon the situation, anxiety is a completely natural response to fear or danger. Panic attacks, however, may be a sign of a mental disorder. Simply put, the main difference between panic attacks and anxiety attacks is severity. 

A heart attack is a completely different event altogether. If someone is experiencing a panic attack for the first time, it is not uncommon for them to appear in emergency medical departments fearing a heart attack. With symptoms such as increased heart rate, sweating, and shaking, it can appear to be a medical or physiological “problem”. During a heart attack, blood flow to the heart is blocked. The clinical term is myocardial infarction (MI). The interrupted blood flow can ultimately damage or destroy part of the heart muscle. A panic attack, while scary, is not life threatening. A heart attack, or MI, can be life threatening. Common heart attack signs and symptoms include:

  • Pressure, tightness, pain, or a squeezing or aching sensation in your chest or arms that may spread to your neck, jaw or back
  • Nausea, indigestion, heartburn or abdominal pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cold sweat
  • Fatigue
  • Lightheadedness or sudden dizziness

It’s easy to see why a panic attack may be considered a heart attack if a panic attack is new and unexpected to someone as there are many similarities. However, there are very different physiological processes at play. Myocardial infarction can be diagnosed or determined through medical testing and may be needed to rule out when determining if it is a panic attack. If this is a new symptom for you, or you have a history of heart problems, visiting an emergency department to determine panic attack or MI may be appropriate. 

Treating Depression Linked Anxiety With TMS Therapy

If you’re experiencing panic attacks or have anxiety because of depression, consider treatment via Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS). TMS is a non-invasive brain stimulation therapy that targets the prefrontal cortex with magnetic pulses. These impulses stimulate nerve cells in the prefrontal cortex, as this area is often responsible for controlling mood. Research and clinical trials show that these impulses impact neurotransmitters in the brain and decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety for an extended period of time. This is an FDA cleared, non-invasive pain-free solution that is covered by most major insurance companies. 

This blog post is meant to be educational in nature and does not replace the advice of a medical professional. See full disclaimer.

Works Cited

Cleveland Clinic. (2019, November 27). Are Anxiety Attacks and Panic Attacks the Same Thing? Retrieved January 26, 2020, from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/are-anxiety-attacks-and-panic-attacks-the-same-thing/

Mayo Clinic. (2018, May 30). Heart attack – Symptoms and causes. Retrieved January 26, 2020, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-attack/symptoms-causes/syc-20373106

Rauch, J. (2019, November 15). What’s the Difference Between an Anxiety Attack and Panic Attack? Retrieved January 26, 2020, from https://www.talkspace.com/blog/anxiety-attack-vs-panic-attack-one/

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