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What is a panic attack?

A panic attack happens when you experience sudden and intense anxiety, fear and worry that causes physical and mental distress. A panic attack can happen to anyone. The triggers can be a significant life change or stressor. Or, less obvious, like a hot summer day—heat causes an increase in cortisol, the stress hormone. Often, a panic attack occurs for no apparent reason.

Symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • Heart pounding or racing
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Trouble breathing, including shortness of breath or hyperventilating 
  • Chest pain
  • Sweating
  • Nausea or upset stomach
  • A feeling of impending doom
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Feeling cold or hot
  • Feeling disconnected from yourself (depersonalization)

The overwhelming sensation of a panic attack can make you convinced that something is medically wrong with you. A panic attack, however, is not life-threatening and can be over in as little as 10 minutes. For others, panic attack symptoms may take up to 30 minutes or a few hours to entirely disappear.

Some people are diagnosed with panic disorder, an anxiety disorder that causes recurring panic attacks and requires treatment that may consist of cognitive behavioral therapy, medication and lifestyle changes, and relaxation and coping exercises.


What is the difference between a panic attack and heart palpitations? 

Heart flutters, also called heart palpitations, make your heart feel like it is beating too fast or missing beats. For some individuals, heart flutters are corrected with lifestyle modifications. For others, it may be a symptom of atrial fibrillation (AFib).

“Panic attacks and heart palpitations can sometimes feel similar, resulting in sensations of your heart racing,” said Navid Ahmed, MD, Catholic Health Cardiologist. "Often, an individual cannot tell the difference between the two, so it is important to have a proper evaluation with your cardiologist to assess for cardiac arrhythmia before the symptoms are labeled a panic attack.”

Learn more about heart flutters.

Learn more about AFib.


What is the difference between a panic attack and a heart attack? 

Unlike a panic attack, heart attack symptoms do not eventually disappear and will escalate with severe, sometimes fatal, consequences without prompt medical attention.

A heart attack, or myocardial infarction, occurs when blood flow to the heart is blocked or significantly reduced. Heart muscle will begin to die without blood flow.

Heart attack symptoms can vary from person to person. Some people do not experience chest pain. Also, women are more likely to experience back, neck or jaw pain, nausea and vomiting, and trouble breathing.

Numerous factors can cause a heart attack, such as a cardiac condition like coronary artery disease or physical exertion and strain from an activity like shoveling snow. 

Learn more about heart attack warning signs.

Learn more about the different types of heart attacks.


Is there a difference between a panic attack and an anxiety attack?

Yes. An anxiety attack is typically less intense than a panic attack and results from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). A medical professional diagnoses GAD, so talk to your doctor about your symptoms for the best treatment options. 


Does a panic attack damage my heart?

A panic attack triggers your body’s fight or flight mode, a natural response to perceived danger, that releases adrenaline into the bloodstream. The flood of adrenaline during a panic attack can increase your heart rate (tachycardia), raise your blood pressure, cause rapid breathing, and increase the amount of blood pumped to the heart. 

An isolated panic attack typically does not cause long-term damage, but talk to your doctor if you have frequent panic attacks, have a history of heart disease, or are at high risk for heart disease.


When should I seek help?

"Understanding the signs and symptoms of a panic attack versus heart palpitations and a heart attack is essential for knowing when to get help and talk to your doctor about treatment options," said Dr. Ahmed. "An individual should never second guess if they are not feeling well. Seek immediate medical treatment, especially if you have chest pain and a history of heart disease."

Diagnostic tests run at the emergency room will evaluate and determine if you are experiencing a heart attack so you can receive fast, appropriate treatment.

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Find Care at Catholic Health

Call 9-1-1 if you have chest pains or are showing other symptoms of a heart attack. Getting immediate help can reduce long-term damage to your heart.

All Catholic Health hospitals in Nassau and Suffolk counties have 24-hour, seven-days-a-week emergency departments. Catholic Health is also home to St. Francis Heart Center, Long Island’s most-awarded heart program.

Our chest pain centers at the St. Francis Heart Center at St. Francis Hospital (Roslyn, NY), St. Catherine of Siena Hospital (Smithtown, NY) and Good Samaritan University Hospital (West Islip, NY) provide prompt, highly skilled assessments and treatment of acute chest pain in a matter of minutes. Learn more about our cardiology services.

Call 866-MY-LI-DOC (866-695-4362) to find a Catholic Health physician near you.

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