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Is it an anxiety attack or a heart attack?

Anxiety attacks may be the result of a reaction to a specific situation, such as a phobia of public speaking (diagnosed as a “Specific Phobia”) or being in social situation (diagnosed as a “Social Phobia”), or the anxiety attacks may come unexpectedly, in which case they are more formally known as “Panic Disorder”. If you think your anxiety attack is triggered by a specific situation, then you, like most people avoid the situation and develop a phobia, such as avoiding elevators (claustrophobia), social gatherings (social phobia). If the anxiety attack comes on for no reason that you can determine, you may look for things that are causing it, and with each anxiety attack the list of people/places/things to avoid can become longer, eventually leaving you limited in how you live your life. If you end up avoiding being outside, going to the market this is called agoraphobia (literally this means fear of the marketplace) or fear of going out into the world.

Anxiety Attack Symptoms

The symptoms of the anxiety attack itself include at least four or more of the following symptoms, including at least one from the psychological group of symptoms:
  • Psychologically, there is a sense of terror (e.g. public humiliation,
         claustrophobia) , fear of dying, going crazy, or losing control;
         feeling outside of one’s body or a sense of reality being altered
         is common
  • Cardio-vascular symptoms including rapid heart rate, palpitations,
         lightheadedness/faintness, chest pain
  • Respiratory symptoms including sighing, rapid breathing, a sense of
         suffocation, difficulty breathing, shortness of breath
  • Neuro-muscular symptoms including shakiness, tremor, tingling,
         numbness, trouble with speech
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms including dry mouth, nausea, stomach
         pain, diarrhea, and vomiting
  • Skin symptoms including sweating, clamminess, flushing and
         tingling (often in the hands or around the mouth)

Jack E. Dawson Jr., MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)
Sometimes chest pain, shortness of breath, palpitations and feeling weak and shaky can signify an anxiety attack; but that is for a professional to decide. It is best to call 911 or go to an emergency department of the nearest hospital for evaluation until you are sure the symptoms are not cardiac. Going in is recommended if you are having a heart attack, for it can be diagnosed and the artery opened to save you from damage that would result if you didn't go in. Early evaluation and intervention are always preferred, and indecision can negatively affect one’s survival and heart consequences.

It can be difficult to determine whether you are experiencing a heart attack or a panic attack.

Ask yourself these questions to help you determine whether your anxiety is warranted or not:

  • Does your anxiety seem completely irrational?
  • Is this the first time you are experiencing this kind of anxiety?
  • Does it feel like a sense of impending doom? as if something awful is about to happen, but you do not know what it is?
  • Are you also feeling nauseous, dizzy, sweaty or clammy?

If you have any of these symptoms, you may be having a heart attack or you may be experiencing a panic or anxiety attack. Call 911 and sort it out later. If you are having a heart attack, heart cells are dying. Medical attention is likely warranted whether you are having a heart attack or a panic attack.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.