If you've ever struggled with anxiety, then you know how scary and, at times, debilitating it can be. In the summer of 2016, I was going through a particularly stressful time and I ended up in the emergency room on three separate occasions due to panic attacks. At the time I didn't know they were panic attacks, because it didn't feel like panic. It felt like something much worse, like a heart attack or stroke. So what's the difference between a heart attack and a panic attack? Here's how to know and what you can do about it.
First things first, if you feel like you're having a heart attack, don't wait it out. It's always best to get checked out even if it is just a panic attack — better safe than sorry. But while the symptoms between a heart attack and a panic attack are very similar, there are some key differences. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), people who suffer from panic attacks and heart attacks both experience "shortness of breath, palpitations, chest pain, dizziness, vertigo, feelings of unreality, numbness of hands and feet, sweating, fainting, and trembling". This is why people with panic attacks end up in the emergency room. When it's happening, it does not feel good. In fact, it's scary AF.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), signs of a heart attack in women are "uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest. Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach. Shortness of breath, with or without chest discomfort. Other signs such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, or lightheadedness". On their website, the AHA also mentioned that with heart attacks, chest pain is often accompanied with one or more of these other symptoms of discomfort, especially in women.
Doctor Reid Wilson offered some advice in an article on the ADAA website, and explained that knowing your triggers can help determine if what you're experiencing can possibly be a panic attack. From my personal experience, knowing your triggers can help not only understand if what's happening is a panic attack, but it can help in minimizing panic symptoms or avoiding panic attacks all together. For me, my panic attacks don't look like panic attacks. I can go about my day while suffering in silence. It's not like you see in the movies where someone is breathing into a brown paper bag. I tough it out and wait for it to pass, and it does. But before I knew these scary symptoms were panic, it was almost impossible for me to ignore because it feels like something is very wrong.
If you do suffer from panic attacks, know that there are effective treatment options. First, you'll need an evaluation by a doctor to make sure what you're experiencing is panic related and not a cardiovascular problem. If in fact you are suffering from panic attacks, try hiring a licensed therapist to help you understand the root cause(s) of your anxiety. Be picky and patient when it comes to choosing the right therapist, too. Each therapist has their own style and approach, so don't settle for the first one you find it if doesn't feel right.
Other things that can help include meditation — there are tons of apps that you can download with guided meditations or you can find some on YouTube for free — and exercise is another effective way to cope with anxiety and reduce your panic attacks. Find something that feels good to you. I like to switch it up but for me, it's boxing and indoor cycling. There's just something so therapeutic about punching a bag as hard as your can or letting it out on the bike that make me feel so powerful. Also, consider creative outlets like writing, coloring, drawing, music or whatever your feel good thing is. And don't forget that eating well and drinking enough water are crucial not only to your physical health, but your mental health as well. I know it sounds so simple and basic, but you'd be surprised what dehydration can do to your body and your brain.
While panic attack symptoms can feel so similar to heart attacks, you can protect yourself by knowing the key differences. If you are someone who suffers from panic attacks, know that there is help out there and there is something you can do about it. Find what works best for you and know that you do not have to suffer in silence.