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Racing Heart? Pain in the Chest?


You’re short of breath, your heart’s racing, your chest hurts, you feel dizzy and nauseous, you’re light-headed, your temperature is all over the place, and now you start feeling quite anxious. These are common symptoms in two very different conditions. Panic attacks and heart attacks can feel very similar, but there are some important differences.

If you think that you may be having a heart attack — even if you’re not sure — immediately call 000 for emergency medical assistance.

Symptoms of a Heart Attack

• Constricting and intensifying chest pain that starts small and progressively increases over time

• Pain that lasts for more than five minutes

• Pain or discomfort that starts from the centre of the chest and radiates to other areas like arms (one or both), shoulders, neck, jaw, stomach or back.

• Shortness of breath

• Feeling dizzy or light-headed

• Hot or cold sweats

• Nausea or vomiting

• Fatigue

There are NO chest pain symptoms in 8-10% of heart attacks in women.

This is not an exhaustive list. See your doctor for more information about the signs and symptoms of a heart attack.

Symptoms of a Panic Attack

Panic attacks are characterised by intense feelings of anxiety, fear or impending doom, and can occur for no apparent reason and without warning. They can severely disrupt a person’s life but are treatable with the right help and strategies.

• Increased heart rate, palpitations or pounding heart

• Hyperventilating

• Sweating

• Nausea

• Weakness, numbness or tingling sensations

• Chest pain – usually concentrated in one area and with an undulating character (i.e. it rises, then falls).

• Fatigue or exhaustion

Key Differences

The pain of a heart attack may feel like chest pain from anxiety. However, there are some hints that can help us differentiate between the two conditions.

Start and Timing

• The chest pain from a heart attack often starts during exertion and will typically stop after ten to fifteen minutes. Anxiety induced chest pain is usually not related to exercise and doesn’t stop due to resting.

Type of Pain

• The chest pain from a heart attack is usually sharp or dull and feels like pressure, almost as if someone is sitting on your chest. This pain often radiates down your left arm, jaw, or back. Chest pain during a panic attack tends to feel more localized and is usually restricted to a certain area of the chest.

Accompanying Symptoms

• Feeling breathless after small amounts of physical activity could be a symptom of a heart attack. Anxiety can also result in shortness of breath – however it is due to hyperventilating rather than physical exertion.

• A panic attack is unlikely to cause light-headedness or a loss of consciousness.

• Both heart attacks and panic attacks can cause nausea – however it’s more common for people suffering a heart attack to end up vomiting.

• Hyperventilation is a symptom more commonly associated with panic attacks.

• Numbness and tingling in the feet is a symptom more commonly associated with panic attacks.

Remember medical symptoms can be idiosyncratic (or individual). If you are concerned, please seek professional help immediately.

Can a Panic Attack Cause a Heart Attack?

While frightening, a panic attack cannot cause a heart attack. However, in some cases, a heart attack may trigger a panic attack.

How to Manage During a Panic Attack

While a heart attack requires immediate medical attention, there are things you can do to alleviate a panic attack. An effective coping strategy is to breathe through it. Five to ten minutes of deep, active breathing will loosen up your tightened chest and will help the panic attack to slowly abate. Doing jumping jacks may also bring relief as it is difficult to breathe quickly while exerting yourself in this way. You can also take proactive lifestyle steps to maintain a healthy lifestyle. This will make you less susceptible to panic attacks and keep your anxiety at a more manageable level.

The steps can include (but not limited to):

• Looking after your physical wellbeing, including exercising and having a healthy diet

• Practising mindfulness

• Learning cognitive behavioural strategies – learning about what you tell yourself during a panic attack and how your thoughts can impact your feelings, sensations, and behaviour, finding out the ways you can interrupt progression into a panic attack.

For More Help


If you are experiencing frequent or recurrent panic attacks or your anxiety is causing problems in your life, please contact us at or call us on 1300 208 680.

If you think that you may be having a heart attack — even if you’re not sure — you should immediately call 000 for emergency medical assistance.


Author: Claire Mansveld from Hey Zeus! Creative and edited by Rebecca Dallard

Photo: Osman Rana via Unsplash