Can a Panic Attack Cause a Heart Attack?

Heart attacks and Panic attacks are quite common these days, and many people fear that they may get these attacks someday too. So, everyone must know the major symptoms, the causes, the treatment options, and the answer to the question “Can a panic attack cause a heart attack?”

Well, there are many common symptoms between a heart attack and a panic attack like chest pain, sweating, shortness of breath, feeling nauseous, and feeling of impending doom. Physically they may feel similar however while panic attacks are intensely uncomfortable they are not life-threatening but heart attacks can be fatal if untreated.

So a person having panic attacks often starts thinking it’s a heart attack. But is it? To answer that question, we must understand what heart attacks and panic attacks are.

1. About Heart Attack

Approximately 7 million people from the general population die from heart attacks every year. And cardiac disease which causes heart attacks and other problems like strokes is the world’s leading killer. So, what causes a heart attack? First, let us understand how a heart works.

1.1. How Does a Heart Attack Take Place?

The heart pumps blood around the body and provides cells with the oxygen they need to survive. The heart muscle in the wall of the heart produces the constant pumping action. Moreover, the heart needs oxygen like all muscles But a heart attack happens when it cannot get enough oxygen.

How to Know if You're Having a Heart Attack

This happens when fatty deposits (plaque) develop on the walls of our coronary arteries. The heart receives the oxygenated blood from these vessels. These plaques grow as we age. Sometimes getting chunky, hardened, or inflamed.

Eventually, the plaques can turn into blockages. Coronary heart disease(coronary disease) is a type of cardiac disease. This happens when the blood supply to the heart is blocked or interrupted by fatty deposits in the coronary arteries.

A heart attack (acute myocardial infarction) happens when this fatty material ruptures or cracks, a blood clot forms around it in minutes, and a partially closed artery can become completely blocked.

And this cuts off the blood flow to the cardiac muscle and the oxygen-starved cells start to die within several minutes. Things can rapidly worsen if there is a lack of treatment. The possibility of death in a heart attack is 12%. In the absolute worst case, a heart attack can cause immediate death.

1.2. Heart Attack Symptoms

How to identify if someone is having a heart attack? The most common heart attack symptoms include chest pain caused by the oxygen-deprived heart muscle. Patients describe it as crushing or vice-like. It can radiate to the left arm, jaw, back, or abdomen but it’s not always as sudden and dramatic as it is shown in the movies.

Some people experience nausea or shortness of breath. Symptoms are usually less obtrusive in women and the elderly. Weakness and tiredness are the main signals for women and older people. Diabetes affects the nervous system, so diabetic people have silent heart attacks that are not painful.

1.3. Treatment Options

A close-up of a screen of Electrocardiogram machine.
Photo by Jair Lázaro on Unsplash Copyrights 2017

If you think that a person might be having a heart attack the most important thing is to provide immediate medical attention to the patient. Always keep access to emergency medical services, they are the fastest way to get to a hospital.

In the emergency room, doctors can do a heart attack diagnosis. Doctors use electrocardiograms to measure the heart’s electrical activity and a blood test to assess heart muscle damage1. The patients are then taken to a high-tech cardiac suite where tests are done to locate the blockages. cardiologists can reopen the locked artery by inflating it with a balloon in a procedure called angioplasty.

Doctors frequently also insert a metal or polymer stint that will hold the artery open. Coronary bypass surgery is performed in the case of extensive blockage. Using a piece of vein or artery from another part of the body doctors can re-route blood flow around the blockage. This treatment establishes circulation to the cardiac muscle restoring heart function.

1.4. How to Prevent Heart Attacks?

Though there are advanced treatments available out there, prevention is vital. Genetics and lifestyle both affect your risk factors. The fortunate part is that you can always change your lifestyle. A healthy lifestyle is important for good heart health. Exercise, a healthy diet, and weight loss, all lower the risk factors whether you have had one before or not.

A doctor recommends exercising a few times a week, doing both aerobic activity and strength training. For example, a diet low in sugar and saturated fats would be good for heart health which is both linked to cardiac disease. So what should you eat? Fibre from vegetables, chicken, and fish instead of red meat, whole grains, and nuts like walnuts and almonds all seem to be beneficial.

10 Rules to Prevent Heart Attack (No one thinks of the Last One)

A good diet and exercise plan also keeps your weight in a healthy range which will lower your risk for a heart attack as well. And of course, medication can also help prevent heart attacks.

A doctor often prescribes low-dose aspirin, for example, particularly for patients who already have heart attacks and for those prone to be at high risk. Drugs that help manage risk factors like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes will make heart attacks less likely too. Heart attacks may be common but they don’t have to be inevitable.

A healthy diet, avoiding tobacco use, staying fit, and enjoying plenty of sleep with lots of laughter all go a long way in making sure your body’s most important muscle keeps on beating.

2. About Panic Attacks

What is a Panic Attack?

People who experience panic disorder have panic attacks, a sensation so overwhelming many people mistake it for a heart attack, stroke, or other life-threatening crisis. Though panic attacks don’t cause long-term physical harm, afterward, the fear of another panic attack can limit someone’s daily life and cause more panic attacks.

Studies suggest that almost a third of us will experience at least one panic attack in our lives and whether it’s your first, your hundredth or you are witnessing someone go through one no one wants to repeat the experience.

2.1. How Does a Panic Attack Take Place?

A panic attack is an overreaction to the body’s normal physiological response by the autonomic nervous system to the perception of danger.  This response starts with the amygdala, the brain region involved in the process of fear. when the amygdala perceives danger, it stimulates the sympathetic nervous system that signals the body to go into a fight or flight mode, which triggers the release of adrenaline and cortisol.2

Adrenaline prompts an increase in the heart rate and breathing temporarily increasing the blood pressure and diverting blood from non-essential organs to the arms and legs. This also sends oxygen to the brain making it more alert and responsive. Some people also experience repeated panic attacks when this happens.

2.2. Symptoms of a Panic Attack

Signs of a Panic Attack

During a panic attack, this response is exaggerated well past what would be useful in a dangerous situation causing rapid heartbeat, heavy breathing, or hyperventilation. The changes in blood flow cause some physical symptoms like lightheadedness and numbness in the hands and feet.

A panic attack usually peaks within 10 minutes, and then the pre-frontal cortex takes over from the amygdala and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. This triggers the release of a hormone called acetylcholine which causes decreased heart rate variability and gradually winds down a panic attack.

2.3. Why do Panic Attacks Happen?

In a panic attack, the body’s perception of danger independent of whether it is dangerous or not is enough to trigger the response we would have to a real threat. It is still not clear why it happens. Several factors in the environment remind us of traumatic experiences which can trigger a panic attack.

Panic attacks can be part of anxiety disorders like PTSD, social anxiety disorder, OCD generalized anxiety disorders, and other panic disorders. It can also be a greater risk for people with anxiety and who experience panic disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. Recurring panic attacks, frequent worry about new panic attacks, and behavioral changes to avoid panic attacks can lead to a diagnosis of a panic disorder.

2.4. Treatment

The two main treatments for panic disorder are anti-depressant medication and cognitive behavioral therapy. Both have about a 40% response rate, though someone who responds to one may not respond to the other. However, anti-depressant medication carries some side effects and 50% of people relapse when they stop taking them.

CBT meanwhile is more lasting, with only a 20% relapse rate. The goal of CBT treatment for panic disorder is to help people learn and practice concrete tools for physical exertion and in turn mental control over the sensations and thoughts associated with a panic attack.

12 Ways To Stop A Panic Attack

CBT is done through muscle and breathing exercises specifically designed to help people control panic breathing patterns.

Next comes cognitive restructuring which involves identifying and changing the thoughts that are common during the attacks. Such as believing you will stop breathing, have a heart attack, or die and replacing them with more accurate thoughts.

The next stage of treatment is exposure therapy, which focuses on exposure to bodily sensations and situations that typically trigger a panic attack. The goal is to change the belief through experience that these physical sensations and situations are dangerous. Taking the therapy(CBT) alone isn’t going to ease holding on a grip during an attack.

But with practice, these tools can both prevent and decrease the frequency of attacks and ultimately reduce the hold of panic on a person’s life. Outside formal therapy, many panicked find relief from the same belief CBT aims to instill that fear can’t hurt them but holding on to it will escalate panic.

2.5. How to Prevent a Panic Attack?

2.5.1. Understanding Panic Attacks

Firstly, the person needs to understand that these are short-lived experiences and usually pass in about a few minutes. The big issue is that believing panic attacks are dangerous, they may feel very uncomfortable, they can be embarrassing, and they interfere with what you want to be doing but they’re not physically dangerous.

All these uncomfortable symptoms are just the body tossing you into a fight-flight-freeze mode which makes it less likely for you to pass out stop breathing or any of those fears.

How to prevent a panic attack

You pass out when you have low blood pressure, a panic attack takes your blood pressure up. Our society constantly talks about how bad stress is. Now at its root, stress is not dangerous, chronic stress is dangerous but stress itself isn’t. So, it is important to accept your situation before changing. You must understand you are not in a dangerous or life-threatening situation.

2.5.2. Feel the Feeling, Don’t Escape

Secondly, don’t try to leave the situation. Feel the feeling of rushing in you rather than fighting them. You can’t always predict when panic will come but you can prepare for it to a degree. You can prepare by learning to notice your triggers and get better at predicting when you are going to feel some anxiety or physical symptoms. And that way you could prepare yourself to use your skills instead of trying to avoid or control your attack.

Don’t try to avoid your triggers because that tells your brain that they are more dangerous than they are which makes your panic worse. It is always better to not hyper-fixate on stopping the attack which may exacerbate or increase the symptoms. They spiral out of control when you catastrophize about these symptoms or you try to force them to go away.

A close-up of a woman scratching her head and hair because of a panic attack.
Photo by Simran Sood on Unsplash Copyrights 2021

2.5.3. Panic Is Normal and Safe

If you want to stop having repeated panic attacks, learn to accept panic as normal, safe, and natural. You need to believe that it doesn’t control your life and over time you can retrain your brain to think that the feelings of panic cannot hurt you and the panic attacks will greatly decrease or stop altogether.

Following these can help a person pass through the episode a bit easier.

3. Can a Panic Attack Lead to a Heart Attack?

Can Anxiety Panic Attacks Cause a Heart Attack | Dr.Education

In a panic attack, the heart rate can be frighteningly fast leading people to think that they have a heart attack. But it would be a pretty bad design if every time our hearts speed up to deal with danger we have a heart attack and drop dead. Our hearts are well-designed to help us run from or fight anything that threatens us.

But then why do people have heart attacks when they exert themselves? Well, the most common cause is that the fast heart rate and increased blood pressure cause the plaque to break away in their already clogged-up arteries. The root cause of a heart attack is not exertion, it is the build-up of plaque in the arteries.

Hence, it is very unlikely for a person to have a heart attack as a result of a panic attack, especially if they are young and healthy.

4. How to Identify the Difference Between a Panic Attack and a Heart Attack?

Although they share several similar symptoms, these conditions result from two different disease processes. Panic attacks arise when stress hormones trigger the body’s “fight or flight” response, often resulting in heart palpitations, chest pains, and shortness of breath.

In the case of a heart attack, a blockage in the coronary arteries may result in the same symptoms. Chest pain, heart palpitations, and breathlessness may result when an insufficient amount of blood reaches the heart muscle.

Heart Attack or Panic Attack?

One of the key differences between a heart attack and a panic attack is that a panic attack can occur at rest, whereas a heart attack often onsets during physical exertion. Another distinction is between the duration of the two: Panic attacks tend to gradually de-escalate and resolve on their own within about 10 to 15 minutes. A heart attack will often continue, escalate symptoms, and may worsen over time.

You should always seek immediate medical attention if there are any questions. In women, heart attack symptoms may be milder and could include unusual weakness, fatigue, and discomfort in the chest instead of chest pain. Because of these less prominent symptoms in women, people often minimize the symptoms, which deteriorates the situation. Never stall calling for medical attention.

5. The Difference in Symptoms of a Panic Attack and Heart Attack

Below listed are some distinct symptoms that can help you understand the difference between the two conditions. Although it is always best to seek immediate medical attention during a crisis.

5.1. Heart Attack Symptoms

  • Squeezing pain and pressure in the chest
  • Pain that radiates toward the arm, jaw, or shoulder blades
  • Sudden onset during or following physical activity (i.e., climbing the stairs or heavy physical activity)
  • Symptoms that escalate over time
  • Shortness of breath
  • Near fainting
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • vomiting

5.2. Panic Attacks Symptoms

  • Increased or racing heart palpitations
  • Sudden onset
  • Onset during extreme stress or anxiety
  • Pain that gets better over time
  • Symptoms usually de-escalate under 15 to 20 minutes
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Tingling in the hands

Well, now I hope you are all clear on what is a panic attack and what is a heart attack.

  1. Kasper, Christine E., Laura A. Talbot, and Jean M. Gaines. “Skeletal muscle damage and recovery.” AACN Advanced Critical Care 13.2 (2002): 237-247. ↩︎
  2. Tønnesen, E., N. J. Christensen, and M. M. Brinkløv. “Natural killer cell activity during cortisol and adrenaline infusion in healthy volunteers.” European journal of clinical investigation 17.6 (1987): 497-503. ↩︎

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