Is it a panic attack – or a heart attack?

Pounding heart, shortness of breath, sweating, fear of losing control or of dying. Sound familiar? These are some of the typical symptoms of a panic attack and a heart attack. So how do you know the difference!?

Panic attack Heart attack

  • The pain lasts more than 5 minutes and the pain doesn’t affect the breathing.


  • Pain is concentrated in the chest, and fluctuates: rising & falling.


  • People describe the pain during a heart attack as constricting.
  • The intensity of the pain can change.
  • As a rule, the pain appears in the center of the chest and can move downward along the left arm and along the back.
  • The pain can also spread to the neck, teeth, and jaw area.


  • Numbness and prickly sensation is not restricted to the left arm. It can also appear in the right arm, fingers & legs.


  • Usually the prickly feeling is restricted to the left arm.
  • This is often accompanied by nausea, vomiting and a cold, sticky sweat.
  • During a panic attack, people have irrational fears, like fear they will suffocate, or that they are going insane.


  • During a heart attack, people usually fear that they might die, and this is concentrated on the pain in their chest.

Managing a panic-attack

  1. Consciously slow your rate of breathing, your racing thoughts, and your body, from head to toe.
  2. Picture a relaxing scene using all your senses. Now, imagine yourself in this scene.
  3. If you can, get up and take a walk even if it’s just to the bathroom. If there are people around you, make small talk.
  4. Picture a person you trust, someone who believes in you, supports you and cares about your wellbeing.
  5. Recall a time you handled a similar situation well, or try to recall a past success and the good feelings from that moment.
  6. Focus on a concrete object in front of or around you. Maybe it’s a paperweight on your desk. Focus on its colour, shape – try to absorb as many details as you can.
  7. Count backwards from 20 and with every number; picture a different image of someone you love, something that pleases you, something that calms you.
  8. Remind yourself that attacks always end. Always.
  9. Remind yourself that panic is not dangerous.
  10. Make yourself yawn, and stretch your body, head to toe.

Managing a heart-attack

If someone looks like they’re having a heart-attack, or you think you are, contact emergency services immediately. If you’re unsure whether it’s a panic attack or heart attack, don’t take the risk! Contact an ambulance.

While you wait for the ambulance, do the following:

  • Keep the person as calm as possible, and have them lie or sit down.
  • Have the person chew an aspirin (unless they are allergic).
  • If they stop breathing, someone who is qualified should perform CPR immediately. If you don’t know CPR, call the emergency services, and they can give you instructions while you wait.

When in doubt, always contact emergency services. Some people feel they don’t want to worry their relatives when they have symptoms of heart attack. Don’t make this mistake! You could risk your life!


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