Key Points
  • Symptoms like chest pain, shortness of breath and dizziness can occur in both heart attacks and panic attacks.
  • Experts stress the importance of seeking immediate medical help if you experience any heart attack symptoms.
  • Links between heart conditions, anxiety and depression have been found.
Emily didn't think she had anxiety. She thought there might be something wrong with her heart.

She had her first panic attack while wearing a Fitbit. After seeing the device's heart-rate monitor record her resting heart rate at 142 beats per minute, she called an ambulance.

The medical team ended up having to take blood tests because, "even from their observations, they didn't know".

"I still don't know the difference most times that I'm having a panic attack. I still think, 'Should I call an ambulance?'" Emily told SBS News.

What are the symptoms of panic attacks and heart attacks?

New research led by Monash University has revealed one in five Australians don't know the symptoms of a heart attack.
Natalie Raffoul, healthcare programs manager at the Heart Foundation and a clinical cardiology pharmacist, said panic attacks and heart attacks have a number of overlapping symptoms.

Chest pain is the most common sign of a heart attack.

"It can be a dull throbbing pain, or it can be sharp and shooting. It can radiate to your arm, to your neck, your jaw, your shoulder, and even your back," Ms Raffoul told SBS News.
"And unfortunately, that sort of radiating chest pain or pressure is also present during a panic attack."
Other overlapping symptoms include breathlessness and difficulty breathing, nausea, cold shivers and sweating, fainting, fatigue and dizziness.

"Women are more likely than men to experience these non-chest-pain type symptoms in the case of a heart attack," Ms Raffoul added.

What should you do if you experience those symptoms?

Ms Raffoul stressed the importance of seeking immediate help, such as calling Triple Zero, if you are experiencing the symptoms of a heart attack even if you're not sure if it's an anxiety attack or heart attack.

Emily is now better able to identify her mild panic attacks. But if she's experiencing more stress than normal, she still finds it hard to tell whether she's having a panic attack or something else.
Her GP ultimately referred her to a cardiologist to rule out any underlying cardiac problems.

Emily believes people with anxiety need more guidance about when they should call for help. She also wants to see more awareness around the symptoms of anxiety.

"There [is] definitely not enough ... information around anxiety. It's so bad and so crippling, and there is so little support and little information about it available," she said.

Managing anxiety and panic attacks

Panic is a "really sharp fear response", according to Linda Williams, a psychologist and clinical lead for youth mental health and wellbeing organisation ReachOut.
Panic attacks tend to come on quickly. As well as physical symptoms, they often include a sense of fear or danger.
"It's really common for people to experience a sense of disconnection from their surroundings, or a really intense fear," she said.
Ms Williams said people who experience panic attacks should check in with their doctor.

"It is important to rule out [if there is] anything physical that's contributing to these symptoms," she said.

One of the most important things someone experiencing panic attacks can do is breathe slowly and deeply - which can be difficult in the moment.
"When we breathe fast and shallow, it creates a bit of a feedback loop, where it makes us feel more like there's a threat," Ms Williams said.

To help with this, people can phone an urgent helpline, such as Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 as speaking to someone or being guided through the breathing process "can be really calming", she added.

Are there any links between anxiety and heart problems?

According to Ms Raffoul, there are two main links between anxiety and heart problems.
The first is that emotional stress, such as strong grief, can trigger a heart attack, especially if someone already has blockages in their arteries.

The other is a "two-way relationship" between mental health conditions and heart disease.

"We know that people that have significant mental health conditions like depression and anxiety have a higher risk of developing a heart attack or stroke in the future. And we also know that people that are diagnosed with heart disease are more likely to develop anxiety and depression," she said.
She recommended people speak to their GPs and ensure they are getting regular heart health checks, especially from age 45 onwards.
Emily ultimately quit smoking and drinking after a cardiologist told her that eliminating potential risk factors was the best way to alleviate her anxiety around cardiac issues. She also "improved [her] lifestyle", including exercising regularly.
"I don't know if it helped my anxiety or helped my overall health, but it's definitely reduced my number of panic attacks ... it makes me feel more confident that I'm taking care of my cardiac health too," she said.
If experiencing symptoms of a heart attack, seek immediate medical help including calling Triple Zero.
Support information for young people with anxiety is available on the
Readers seeking support with mental health can contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. More information is available at . supports people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

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