Disentangling the Phrase: Panic Attack Heart Attack

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“Will panic attacks and anxiety cause a heart attack? I am scared because I have a lot of muscle tension and pain.”

Response:

If you are initially having these symptoms, and like some who have visited this site online searching terms such as “panic attack heart attack”, consult with your doctor. Don’t diagnose without a physician. Dr. Una McCann, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, states the following, which is very telling: “Panic attacks and heart attacks can share similar if not identical symptoms”

The tricky part is that even people who have been through the process several times (having a panic attack and thinking they’re having a heart attack) – even after being checked out and found to be in good physical health – seem to still worry that they’re having a heart attack (or at least it runs through their mind).

However, it is reassuring to know that a panic attack is not a heart attack. My experience (including my own first hand experience as a sufferer and in working with others) is that panic attack sufferers can benefit from adequate explanations.

So I would specifically like to explain the difference between a heart attack and panic attack.

A heart attack usually occurs when a blood clot blocks the flow of blood through a coronary artery. A coronary artery is a blood vessel that feeds blood to a part of the heart muscle. This interruption of blood flow to the heart can damage or destroy a part of the heart muscle. (Mayo Clinic)

A panic attack typically occurs when the body releases a series of chemicals such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream which causes a series of physiological effects known as the “Fight or Flight” response – when no actual threat is present. (Mayo Clinic)

Such physiological changes can include a racing heart, dilated pupils, increased respiration, and can include an additional symptoms. This of course causes psychological distress and you may begin to panic.

However, the whole process is a cyclical because while your physiological symptoms can cause and/or increase your racing thoughts and worries, your racing thoughts and worries can also cause and/or increase our physiological symptoms.

During a panic attack your thoughts begin to race and you are on heightened alert. You are hypersensitive to things that normally wouldn’t bother us.

For example, if you had muscle pain or chest pain – that, for example, might be related to an anatomical issue, – you hone in on these things – and in the moment become very stressed over it because you are in a heightened alert state.

As you can see from above explanations, a panic attack and a heart attack are not the same process, even though many panic attack sufferers incorrectly link the two things together in their mind.

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Reference

John Hopkins Medicine. Anxiety and Heart Disease. Retrieved on June 18, 2013, from:
http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/heart_vascular_institute/clinical_services/centers_excellence/womens_cardiovascular_health_center/patient_information/health_topics/anxiety_heart_disease.html

Mayo Clinic. Heart Attack. Retrieved on June 18, 2012, from:
http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/heart-attack/DS00094

Mayo Clinic. Panic Attacks. Retrieved on September 2, 2011, from:
http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/panic-attacks/DS

 

The mission of this site is to provide comprehensive, easy-to-understand information to help those with panic attacks, panic disorder, anxiety, and agoraphobia.