Anxiety Attacks vs Heart Attacks: Comparing and Contrasting

Your heart races in your chest. You're sweating, and you feel like you can't breathe. Your chest aches. 

Are you having a panic attack or a heart attack? For many people, the symptoms can feel very similar. However, it's imperative to know the difference so you can seek the right treatment. 

Keep reading to learn more about anxiety attacks vs. heart attacks and how to respond to both. 

What Are the Symptoms of an Anxiety Attack?

Anxiety attacks can be incredibly distressing, and understanding their symptoms is essential for managing them effectively. While the experience may vary from person to person, there are some common signs to look out for.

Physical Symptoms

You might experience rapid breathing or shortness of breath during an anxiety attack. Your heart may race, and you could feel chest tightness or pain. Sweating profusely, trembling or shaking uncontrollably, and feeling lightheaded or dizzy are also possible physical manifestations.

It's also not uncommon to experience tingling sensations in your extremities, such as fingers and toes. This is an unsettling symptom that adds further distress to the overall episode.

Emotional Indicators

Intense feelings of fear, panic, or impending doom often accompany anxiety attacks. You might find yourself constantly worrying about things that typically wouldn't bother you as much.

Cognitive Changes

Difficulty concentrating and a sense of detachment from reality are cognitive symptoms associated with anxiety attacks. Some individuals may even experience racing thoughts or a feeling of being overwhelmed by negative thinking patterns.

Behavioral Changes

Restlessness and irritability are common behavioral indicators during an anxiety attack. You might feel the urge to flee your current environment due to a perceived threat.

What Are the Symptoms of a Heart Attack?

Sometimes, it can be difficult to distinguish between an anxiety attack and a heart attack based on symptoms alone especially since anxiety attacks can sometimes mimic specific cardiac-related symptoms.

Chest Pain or Discomfort

Chest pain or discomfort is one of the most common heart attack symptoms. This can range from a mild ache to intense pressure or tightness in the chest.

It may come on suddenly or gradually, lasting for several minutes or longer. Some people describe this feeling as an elephant sitting on their chest.

Other Physical Symptoms

In addition to chest pain, other heart attack symptoms can include shortness of breath, lightheadedness, nausea, and sweating. You may also experience pain or discomfort in other upper body areas such as the arms (most commonly the left arm), back, neck, jaw, or stomach.

Men vs. Women

Regarding heart attacks, there are also some gender differences in symptom presentation. Men typically experience the classic signs of a heart attack, such as severe chest pain radiating down the left arm. Women may have less typical symptoms like back pain, jaw pain, nausea, or vomiting.

It's important to note that these gender differences are not absolute. Both men and women can experience any combination of symptoms during a heart attack.

Anxiety Attacks vs. Heart Attacks: What Are the Differences?

Anxiety attacks and heart attacks can both be incredibly frightening experiences. Part of distinguishing between the two is the ability to understand the differences. 

The Trigger

Intense feelings of fear or worry typically trigger anxiety attacks. These episodes often come on suddenly and might last a few minutes or even several hours.

On the other hand, heart attacks are caused by a lack of blood flow to the heart muscle due to a blockage in one or more coronary arteries.

Symptom Presentation 

While anxiety attack symptoms may include rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, and chest discomfort, these sensations are usually temporary and subside once the anxious episode has passed. In contrast, heart attack symptoms often consist of persistent chest pain or pressure that may radiate into the arm(s), jaw, neck, back, or stomach.


Age is another differentiating factor between anxiety attacks and heart attacks. Anxiety disorders tend to develop during childhood or early adulthood and can persist throughout life if left untreated. Conversely, heart attacks predominantly occur in individuals over 40 (although younger people can also experience them).

Responding to a Heart Attack

When responding to a heart attack, time is of the essence. The quicker you react and seek medical help, the better your chances are of surviving and minimizing damage to your heart. 

Call 911

Call emergency services immediately. Don't wait or try to tough it out on your own. Every minute counts in these situations, so don't hesitate to make that call.

Avoid driving yourself or having someone drive you directly to the hospital without first seeking professional advice from emergency responders over the phone. They will guide you through the proper steps based on your specific situation.

Stay Relaxed

Encourage the person experiencing the heart attack symptoms to sit down and rest to reduce strain on their already stressed heart.

Remain calm throughout this process and reassure the individual experiencing the heart attack that help is coming. Stress and anxiety can exacerbate symptoms, so staying calm can be beneficial for all parties involved.


If they have medication prescribed for angina (chest pain), such as nitroglycerin tablets, assist them in taking it as directed by their doctor. These medications work by relaxing blood vessels and improving blood flow. This can provide some relief during an episode.

Do Not Eat or Drink

It's important not to offer any food or drink unless instructed explicitly by medical professionals once they arrive on the scene. Eating or drinking anything may interfere with potential treatments that need to be administered at the hospital.

Responding to an Anxiety Attack

When faced with an anxiety attack, it's important to remember that you're not alone. These episodes can be incredibly overwhelming and frightening, but there are steps you can take to help manage your symptoms.

Find a Safe Space

Try to find a quiet and safe space where you can sit or lie down comfortably. Taking deep breaths can help slow your heart rate and calm your mind.

Inhale deeply through your nose for a count of four, hold for a moment, then exhale slowly through your mouth for another count of four. Repeat this process until you feel more grounded.

Ground Yourself

Another technique that may prove helpful is grounding yourself in the present moment. This involves using all five senses to anchor yourself in reality and divert attention away from anxious thoughts. Focus on what you hear around you, what objects look like in detail, or even touch various textures nearby.

Be Compassionate With Yourself

During an anxiety attack, it's crucial not to fight against your feelings or berate yourself for experiencing them. Instead, practice self-compassion by acknowledging that these sensations are temporary and will pass in time.

Reach Out for Support

Reaching out for support is vital when dealing with such intense emotions. Confiding in a trusted friend or family member about what you're going through.

In addition, consider seeking professional mental health services from a therapist who specializes in anxiety disorders. Talking about your experience can alleviate some of the burden.

What If You're Not Sure?

What if you're not sure whether you're experiencing an anxiety attack or a heart attack? It's natural to feel confused and worried when faced with these symptoms. However, it's important to remember that seeking medical attention is always the best course of action if you're not sure.

Don't Ignore Your Symptoms

If you're feeling chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness, or a racing heartbeat, don't hesitate to call the emergency services immediately. It's better to be safe than sorry when it comes to matters concerning your health.

Remember that healthcare professionals are trained to distinguish between anxiety attacks and heart attacks. They'll look at various factors, including the following:

  1. Medical history
  2. Physical examination findings
  3. Diagnostic tests like electrocardiograms (ECGs) or blood workups

Be prepared for questions by healthcare providers about your symptoms and their duration. These details will help them make an accurate diagnosis so the appropriate treatment can be given promptly.

Stay Calm

Try not to panic. Easier said than done, right?

But panicking will only exacerbate your symptoms and make thinking more complicated. Take slow, deep breaths and focus on calming yourself down as much as possible while waiting for help.

Ask For Help

If you have access to someone who can assist you during this time, inform them about how you're feeling. They can provide emotional support and potentially help communicate with emergency responders should the need arise.

Find the Help You Need

Sometimes, telling the difference between a heart attack and an anxiety attack can feel impossible. If you're debating anxiety attacks vs. heart attacks, it's time to seek help from a healthcare provider. 

Don't leave your health to chance. Choice MD is here to help you make the right choices about your care. Our platform is designed to help you not only find information but the providers you need as well. 

Whether you're looking for a cardiologist or mental health provider,start your searchwith us today.