How can you tell if you are experiencing a heart attack or an anxiety attack?
Imagine experiencing the following: It feels like your heart is getting squeezed; like someone is sitting on your chest. You feel dizzy and nauseous. You have palpitations and are sweating, and feel like you are going to pass out. You can’t get a deep breath. You have chest pains. You feel weak. You genuinely feel as though you’re about to die.
Then it all goes away.
What happened? Many people worry they suffered from a heart attack. Anxiety attack symptoms can happen suddenly and without warning, just like heart attack symptoms. And because anxiety attack symptoms are similar to heart attack symptoms, its little wonder many anxious people end up in the emergency department due to a concern about having a heart attack when they are having an anxiety attack.
Because heart attack symptoms can represent a serious medical emergency, it is best to seek immediate medical attention if you are not sure if you are having a heart attack or an anxiety attack. Fortunately, most medical professionals can easily tell the difference between the two.
Why are these anxiety attacks so powerful and how can we better deal with them?
The Anxiety Attack Experience
Panic attacks are often misunderstood because of the word “panic.” In truth, they are filled with primarily physical symptoms. Some of the physical signs and symptoms of anxiety are:
- Chest tightness or pain.
- Upper body pain (or pain anywhere in the body).
- Stomach upset and pain.
- Shortness of breath.
- Light-headedness or dizziness.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Feel like passing out.
- Unusual fatigue or exhaustion.
Panic attacks often cause an intense feeling of doom and panic, the same feeling of doom you would likely experience if you were suffering from a heart attack.
Why are the Symptoms so Similar?
Panic attacks tend to cause a chain reaction in the body that triggers many of these physical symptoms. Some of these reactions include:
- Hyperventilation: Poor breathing can cause chest pains, shortness of breath, etc. It can also lead to light-headedness and muscle weakness.
- Adrenaline: The anxiety from a panic attack leads to an adrenaline rush, causing rapid heartbeat. Like hyperventilation, it can cause tingling in the extremities and other heart attack-like symptoms.
- Hyper-sensitivity: It is when the person experiences a lesser symptom more intensely than someone without hypersensitivity would experience. For example, a small amount of chest pain might physically feel more severe, when any other person would shrug it off.
So how can you tell the difference between an anxiety attack and a heart attack?
The best way is to simply visit the doctor and have your cardiovascular health checked. If your heart is in good health, it is very unlikely you are suffering from a heart attack, especially if you have signs of anxiety. The good news is that there are plenty of easy tests to rule out any serious heart problems.
The Difference Between Anxiety and Heart Attacks
If you are having a hard time telling the difference between the symptoms associated with an anxiety attack and those of a heart attack, here are some things to watch for:
- Anxiety attacks generally produce more symptoms than a heart attack. For example, anxiety attacks often produce body-wide sensations and symptoms that heart attacks don’t. Again, most medical professionals can spot the differences easily.
- Anxiety attacks generally don’t cause people to pass out. Even though you might feel like passing out due to an anxiety attack, most people don’t. While some people do, this is the exception and not the rule.
- Anxiety attacks can cause hyperventilation, which can cause symptoms similar to those of a heart attack. Calming yourself down, relaxing your breathing, and giving your body a few minutes to adjust usually alleviates symptoms that are solely related to hyperventilation and anxiety. Within a few minutes, you should be able to tell the difference as heart attack symptoms generally don’t subside this easily or quickly.
- While anxiety attacks can upset the stomach and make it feel like you need to vomit, most people generally don’t. Yes, some people do, but this is the exception not the rule.
- Calming yourself down can end an anxiety attack, which will cause the cessation of anxiety attack symptoms. Calming yourself down does little to alleviate a heart attack and its symptoms. While calming yourself down may reduce some of the symptoms of a heart attack, it generally doesn’t eliminate all of them, or as quickly or easily.
Moreover, many people become anxious if they think they are having a heart attack, which can cause an anxiety attack and its symptoms. So, anxiety attack symptoms can coexist with heart attack symptoms. Furthermore, being anxious can aggravate heart attack symptoms. With all this combined, it may be difficult to tell which is which. This is why it’s best to seek immediate medical attention if you are concerned that you are having a heart attack.
Don’t be Afraid to Seek Help!
Keep in mind, most medical professionals prefer you seek their assistance if you believe you are having a heart attack. They are not bothered or annoyed by being cautious. Even if you are not having a heart attack, it is better to be cautious than uncertain. It is also better for you to know your symptoms are solely anxiety attack related and not those of a heart attack, as worry is a common cause of anxiety and anxiety attacks.
So – can an anxiety attack cause a heart attack?
No. If you don’t have an underlying heart issue, anxiety attacks don’t cause heart attacks.
If you have an underlying heart condition, however, anxiety attacks stress the body and can aggravate an existing heart condition … and even bring on a heart attack if your heart condition is serious.
If you have an existing heart condition and are experiencing anxiety disorder and anxiety attacks, it’s best to talk with your doctor and work at addressing your anxiety and its underlying factors so that your body’s stress can become lower overall.
Author: Willem van den Berg, B SocSci (Psychology & Criminology), B SocSci (Hons) (Psych), MSc Clinical Psychology.
Willem van den Berg is a Brisbane Psychologist with a compassionate, positive and non-judgmental approach, working with individuals, couples and families. His therapeutic toolbox includes evidence-based therapies including Clinical Hypnotherapy (Medical Hypno-Analysis), CBT, ACT and Interpersonal Therapy. William is fluent in both English and Afrikaans.
To make an appointment try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call Vision Psychology Brisbane on (07) 3088 5422.