When I work with women in therapy who struggle with panic they are often concerned about panic attacks and whether they are symptoms of a heart attack. Sorting through whether symptoms are due to panic attacks or your heart is a complicated issue, and not one I will pretend will be solved easily. The American Heart Association describes heart attack warning signs as chest discomfort, pressure, or pain. Other signs are breaking out in a cold sweat, shortness of breath, or lightheadedness. You can see how similar they are to a panic attack.
According to Dr. Craig Sawchuck of the Mayo Clinic, there are some key physical differences:
A panic attack is often sudden and brought on during times of extreme stress.
A heart attack is more likely to be brought on during times of physical exertion or upon waking.
Sharp stabbing pain is more likely a panic attack, and it will subside within 10-15 minutes.
Pain that is squeezing or throbbing and involves radiating pressure that moves to the arm jaw, shoulder blades, and back is more likely a heart attack. I’m not sure when I am scared I would be able to tell the difference or that I would want to risk the chance of it being a heart attack.
The sudden onset of symptoms during extreme stress is more likely to be caused by a panic attack.
Mentally, you are much more likely to feel you are going crazy when you are having a panic attack or feeling of derealization or depersonalization than when you are having a heart attack.
Complicating things even further is the relationship between anxiety, heart disease, and heart rate. Anxiety changes can cause high blood pressure and heart rate, and rhythm disturbance. Research has shown that it can make it MORE likely that you will have a heart attack. Panic attacks are associated with other anxiety disorders and stress. This is nothing to mess around with, so this particular symptom of panic needs to be taken seriously.
Another heart/panic issue for women. Supraventricular Tachycardia
A condition is known as supraventricular tachycardia or SVT occurs when faulty electrical signals in the heart override the heart’s normal pacemaker, triggering a series of fast heartbeats. Unfortunately, ESPECIALLY in women, this is misdiagnosed as panic disorder or panic attacks.
For women who have issues with panic attacks and their heart, it’s very important to get thorough medical attention and clearance. ESPECIALLY IF YOU ARE POST MENOPAUSAL because all of these risks are higher.
For women, they often are treated in a dismissive way by the medical professionals charged with healing them.
In fact, for years, doctors didn’t even believe panic was a real condition but psychosomatic. These experiences may make it difficult to trust medical professionals when you are struggling with the fear that you are having a heart attack if it is an actual panic attack.
When your in a panic and your heart rate increases, is is caused by our brain misreading a situation as an emergency when it is not. It has the specific purpose of mobilize you if you were in danger to cope with and deal with that danger. It is so EASY to misread that as actual danger or a heart attack, particularly when the symptoms are mimicked. Be kind to yourself.
GOOD MENTAL HEALTH TIP
It’s okay to be concerned here. It’s very difficult to sort through. Lean heavily on a TRUSTED doctor and request your doctor and therapist collaborate if necessary. In order to break the panic cycle, you need a doctors reassurance that the panic isn’t a heart attack, so you will need medical clearance that you are okay.
Anxiety and heart disease: A complex connection. (2017, 09). Harvard Health Publications.Harvard Heart Letter, Retrieved from http://nclive.org/cgi-bin/nclsm?url=http://search.proquest.com/magazines/anxiety-heart-disease-complex-connection/docview/1993044906/se-2?accountid=13217
Corliss, J. (2021, 05). Anxiety: Cause or effect of a racing heart? Harvard Health Publications.Harvard Heart Letter, Retrieved from http://nclive.org/cgi-bin/nclsm?url=http://search.proquest.com/magazines/anxiety-cause-effect-racing-heart/docview/2538181576/se-2?accountid=13217
Medical information obtained from this website is not intended as a substitute for professional care. If you have or suspect you have a problem, you should consult a healthcare provider.