Heart Attack, Panic Attack, Anxiety and Indigestion: What’s the Difference?

Understand the difference and when to seek care

A woman grabs her chest, wondering if she has indigestion or a heart attack.

Understand the difference and when to seek care

Chest pain or tightness, burning sensations, shortness of breath, sudden sweating — any of these can be heart attack symptoms, but they also may indicate something less serious.

Other common causes of chest pain include a panic attack, anxiety attack and indigestion. Learn how to tell these symptoms apart and when to seek care.

Heart attack

Symptoms of a heart attack often include severe chest pain and tightness, pain in the jaw, shoulder or arm, sweating and shortness of breath. In women, heart attack symptoms may be more subtle.

“Both men and women may have chest pain and shortness of breath during a heart attack, but women also may have nausea, significant fatigue, lightheadedness or an upset stomach that starts up to a month before,” says Todd Hitchcock, MD, a cardiologist at Scripps Clinic Carmel Valley.

If you experience these symptoms, call 911 or go the emergency department. Don’t wait to see if you feel better or if the symptoms go away. Even if it’s not a heart attack, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Panic attack

A panic attack is an unexpected, sudden and often overwhelming feeling of fear, impending danger or loss of control that often seems to come out of nowhere.

Panic attack symptoms can mimic some heart attack symptoms, including chest tightness, trouble breathing, a pounding or racing heart, nausea, sweating and trembling. However, unlike heart attack symptoms, panic attack symptoms usually do not cause severe chest pain or pain in the neck or arms.

Panic attack symptoms may last for 10 to 20 minutes or go away as quickly as they came. They won’t lead to a heart attack.

Panic attacks can happen often, from a few times a year to several times a week. People who have frequent panic attacks usually have a panic disorder. If you experience symptoms of a panic attack and have never had one before, consider visiting the emergency room to rule out any serious heart conditions.

If you have frequent panic attacks, counseling and behavior changes can help manage your symptoms. Sometimes, simply acknowledging what’s happening and taking deep, focused breaths can reduce symptoms. Therapy or medication can also treat panic attacks.

Anxiety attack

An anxiety attack may feel much like a panic attack. Both have similar symptoms, such as a fast heartbeat, shallow breath, nervousness, sweating and trembling. But there are differences that set them apart.

Anxiety attacks tend to last longer — often for days or weeks, and typically occur in response to a specific threat or stressful event. Also, unlike a panic attack, feelings of anxiety tend to increase slowly over time, ultimately leading to an anxiety attack.

Recognizing and acknowledging that you are having an anxiety attack can help reduce nervousness, as can relaxation techniques. Therapy or medication may help treat recurring anxiety attacks.


Indigestion, also known as heartburn or acid reflux, can cause discomfort in the upper abdomen, which may feel like chest pain. Indigestion usually occurs after a meal, especially if you are sensitive to rich or spicy foods or eat more than usual. Indigestion may respond to changes diet and activity after eating.

“However, some symptoms of a heart attack may feel like indigestion, especially among women,” says Dr. Hitchcock. “If your acid reflux symptoms seem associated with activity or exertion rather than food or drink, you should get checked for cardiac issues just to be on the safe side.”

If you develop new or concerning chest pain, adds Dr. Hitchcock, always go to the emergency department — it’s best to get checked out when your symptoms are active.

Related tags: