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A Woman’s Heart, Anxiety vs. Heart Attack

By Blogger
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There is no doubt that women today are under more stress than ever. One of the “gifts” left to us by the women’s liberation movement is that we not only get to fry-the-bacon-up-in-a-pan at night, but we are also frequently out there in the workforce bringing-home-the-bacon as well.

Add to that the demands of children, homework, soccer practice, PTA, church and other civic activities, our cup truly RUNS over! Super Girl has nothing on us! It’s no wonder that heart disease is the number one killer of women. Sisters, we have STRESS in our lives!

Just how bad our stress level really is was recently brought home in a very real way to me. One of my best girlfriends just had the “pleasure” of a one-night stay at the local heart “hotel” (hospital). This definitely wasn’t her destination when she left for work that morning. She’s a single-parent of two small preschool children. She’s a widow and has no backup at home. (Are we getting the stress level picture yet?) In addition, she works for a company that’s been laying off workers for months and outsourcing jobs overseas. She’s been working 70-80 hour work weeks for months in an effort to ensure her job stays in the good old USA. (Bingo! Stress level gets a 120%!)

As she recalls it, her chest began pounding and hurting unbearably. She was short of breath and couldn’t breathe - sick to her stomach, sweating, dizzy and lightheaded. The pain radiated down her left arm. She tried to ignore it for a while but as the day progressed, the symptoms only increased in intensity. Finally, she phoned the nurse on call with her insurance company who promptly sent her straight to the hospital for evaluation.

Fortunately, this hospital visit had a happy ending. She was diagnosed with a panic or anxiety attack. Some of the symptoms of a panic attack are similar to those of a heart attack. Panic attack symptoms include: chest pain, sweating, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, hyperventilation (very rapid breathing), and dizziness/faintness. In addition, a panic attack may also be accompanied by a sense of fear or impending disaster. Other panic attack symptoms may also include trembling, headache, chills, hot flashes, stomach cramps, or tightness in the throat and trouble swallowing.

According to the Mayo Clinic, panic attack symptoms generally last about a half an hour. However, there are exceptions and they can last for hours. In addition, there are instances, such as my girlfriend's experienced, where the symptoms can last up to a day.

Symptoms of a heart attack also include chest pain (described as a “fullness or a crushing” type of pain which may radiate to your left arm, back, neck, jaw and shoulders), sweating, shortness of breath, nausea and an “impending sense of doom.” (Sound familiar?) In addition, symptoms in women can be somewhat different than those experienced by men. Women may also experience heartburn, severe/unexplained fatigue, sleep disturbances, dizziness and clammy skin. The Women’s Heart Foundation also reports that approximately 1/3 of all women do not experience any chest pain at all during a heart attack. In addition, 71% of women report that they experienced flu-like in the weeks leading up to the heart attack.

Since some of the symptoms are similar, you may not be able to easily tell whether you are experiencing a panic attack or a heart attack. While a panic attack is not life threatening, a heart attack certainly can be. When in doubt, seek treatment. It is always better to err on the side of safety than to leave a potential heart attack untreated until it’s too late.

Until next time, here’s wishing you a healthy heart.

Chest Pain Definition, The Mayo Clinic, 15 Nov 2007, http://mayoclinic.com/health/chest-pain/DS00016/DSECTION=symptoms

Roger S. Blumenthal, M.D., Is it a Panic (Anxiety) Attack or a Heart Attack?, The John Hopkins Heart Bulletin, 05 July 2006, http://www.johnshopkinshealthalerts.com/alerts/heart_health/JohnsHopkinsHeartHealth_397-1.html

Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder, The Mayo Clinic, 28 March 2008, http://mayoclinic.com/health/panic-attacks/DS00338

Heart Attack, The Mayo Clinic, 30 Nov 2007, http://mayoclinic.com/health/heart-attack/DS00094

McSweeney, Cody, OSullivan, Elberson, Moser, Garvin, Women’s Early Warning Symptoms of Acute Mycardial Infraction, Circulation – Journal of the American Heart Association, 03 Nov 2003, http://circ.ahajournals.org/

Heart Attack Symptoms: An Action Plan for Women, Women’s Heart Foundation, 2007, http://www.womensheart.org/content/HeartAttack/heart_attack_symptoms_risks.asp

Add a Comment21 Comments

It is common for individuals to see a women heart attack and symptoms associated with it as a panic or anxiety attack. When a woman is having a panic or anxiety attack, it is common for her body to start making a large amount of hormones. Hormones will lead to different changes in our body which leads to heart attacks. The best way to prevent women heart attack is to see your doctor before it occurs.

April 20, 2013 - 2:49am
EmpowHER Guest

I have been having what i think are panic attacks for about 5 months now. i have had 3 ekgs ( one was done while i was having an attack) 2 sets of bloodwork, a back and chest x-ray, and an ultrasound, all of which were normal. i am a 28 year old female with no heart problems throughout my life and no knowledge of heart problems in my immediate family ( not at a young age anyway) also 3 doctors have listened to my heart and everytime they check my bp it is fine. i sometimes get the shortness of breath but i don't feel it when my mind is distracted,and i have the chest discomfort sometimes. is this just anxiety or should i still worry about my heart.

January 15, 2013 - 1:21pm

This is a great post. I know when I experienced my first panic attack, I was sure I was having a heart attack. It was the absolute scariest moment of my life. Thank you for sharing this with us, Mary!

June 17, 2012 - 6:56am
Blogger (reply to anxietyangel)

I love your name - anxietyangel - - I LIKE IT!!!!

My first panic attack was no fun.  I was scared but pretty sure that it was a just a panic attack (thought I was too young for heart disease) but my doctor sent me straight to the ER and wouldn't even see me in the office. At the time, I was mad since the ER is obviously more expensive than an office visit. But then, I didn't know then what I know now about heart disease. In retrospect, he made the right call because you really don't know and unfortunately, there is no such thing as being too young for a heart problem.  I know a young woman who just had her first heart attack at age 31. Scary. 

Thanks so much for reading & taking time to post.  I appreciate it!  Mary


July 8, 2012 - 9:51pm
EmpowHER Guest

I forgot something else in that last comment. The ekg, xray & ct scan were normal. My heart rate is about 60-70 at resting, and I'm always conscious of every breath I take. Which in turn makes me feel like I'm hyperventilating often, & I get out of breath doing small things that I shouldn't get winded from. I also quit smoking a week after I left the hospital. All you women on here are so strong, someone help me feel that way.

February 12, 2012 - 6:58pm
Blogger (reply to Anonymous)

Hi Anon... You had a terrible experience at the hospital. Because you're young and at a healthy weight, they may have not viewed you as a candidate for a heart problem HOWEVER, that's not an excuse. The truth is that sometimes people have heart trouble who don't fit the "mold."  I know you mentioned that you don't have insurance and I can related to that because I was recently without insurance for over two years. But, if you're still having trouble, you need to see a doctor. I'm sorry that the hospital let you leave without giving you answers. You are your own best health advocate. Since they didn't give you answers - go find a doctor who will. It's possible that there is something else physical causing these symptoms other than heart disease.  You might want to see an internal medicine doctor and have the results from the hospital tests sent to the doctor. They may be able to help you determine if something else is causing this or if it's heart related.  Or, you could go directly to a cardiologist and have them look at the records and go over current symptoms.  Regardless of what you choose, I'd recommend making a list of your questions and taking them into the appointment with you and don't leave until they've answered your questions or given you a plan for how they are going to get the information needed to answer your questions.  You are your own best advocate  - don't be afraid to stand your ground about your health if you aren't getting answers. 

I don't mean to sound hard but when I was your age, I was sick and kept having doctors brush me off  - very patronizing and sent me away.  It turned out that I have a chronic incurable condition that could have been treated years before if they'd listened to me. It wasn't until one of them made me so mad that I decided I wouldn't put up with it anymore and found a doctor who actually took the time to listen. When they finally listened, they were able to diagnose. My one regret is that I didn't get aggressive about my healthcare sooner. I knew I was sick but the professionals said I wasn't.  Doctors are people just like us and sometimes make mistakes. If you're still having problems, find a doctor who will listen and don't be afraid to be your own advocate. Good luck and keep us posted.


March 26, 2012 - 7:58pm
EmpowHER Guest

Hello everyone on here. I'm looking for some advice, as soon as possible actually. I'm 21 years old, and on the 2nd of january this year, a little over a month ago, I spent the night in the ER because I was experiencing chest pain & pressure & what I felt like was an irregular heart beat. They rushed me in, asked me questions & asked me to disrobe from the waste up for an EKG. as I laid there, nervous & scared starting at my fiancée standing in the corner, they took 6 vials of blood. Shortly after they moved me into a room, hooked me up to a heart monitor to hero track of my heart rate & my blood pressure every hour. Then they took an x-ray of my chest & I waited...for 3 hours, for anyone to get back to me. At that point I was going to leave, I looked at my fiancée n said I guess there's no rush to help the chest pain girl, n he went to get my nurse. She came in & asked me if they came to get me for my CT Scan yet. I said no, & no ones seen me in hours why do I need a cat scan? She told me the doctor wanted to make sure I didn't have a pulmonary embolism. I looked to my fiancée once again, he told me you can wait for it or we can leave. I waited. It was scary & it hurt. But an hour later, at 3 in the morning, my doctor told me I was fine. I was free to go. But I left with no answer to my questions. Why did I feel this way? I was fine for about a week or so, & then out of no where I began to feel the pain again. Its usually anywhere in my chest, sometimes on my left side around or under my breast. Sometimes in the middle or right side too. N its always worse at night, especially the pressure, its intense. So much so that I can't get to sleep, I feel like I will stop breathing if I don't make a conscious effort to remember to breathe. Every breath i.take all day is like that. this pain on a scale of 1 to 10 is anywhere from a 4 to a 7, its more annoying & scary than anything. I feel like they missed something & I'm going to die.suddenly. My heart rate is low I think, but my fiancée & mother say thats normal. I'm 21, I'm 5' 2'', 120 lbs, I'm in good shape but don't work out every day or eat the best things. My mother has anxiety n has taken 1 mg of lorazepam (ativan) every day since I can remember. I just don't want to let this go if its really bad. Besides the chest pain I have pain in my back, shoulders & arms. Today I thought I had jaw pain. I'm freaking myself out. But this is almost a month its been happening. I'm always tired, SO tired, but idk if thats bc the lack of sleep or something else. I feel out of breath more than I don't. I'm scared. The only thing holding me back from going back to the ER is the $6,480 bill I have sitting here because I have no insurance. Someone help please.

February 12, 2012 - 6:49pm
EmpowHER Guest

This is a great inspiring article. I am pretty much pleased with your good work. You put really very helpful information. Keep it up. Keep blogging. Looking to reading your next post.

February 8, 2012 - 12:23pm
Blogger (reply to Anonymous)

Thank you so much for reading! This article was one of the "easy" ones to write as it was a topic that most women can relate to. 


February 8, 2012 - 9:34pm
EmpowHER Guest

I am a mother of 2 girls, ages 3 and 5. My 3 year old gives me a lot of trouble, she is very defiant and anything I try never seems to work. This has been going on for a little over 2 years now and my physical and mental well-being are finally taking a beating. Last year I experienced my first anxiety attack, it came out of nowhere while I was riding with my mother taking my children to the county fair. I went to the ER and they did and EKG, chest x-ray and an albuterol breathing treatment. When my hear check came back okay, they sent me home with Tamiflu because they thought I was coming down with Swine Flu. Well, my husband and kids went to my mothers for a few days because we were afraid they would catch what I had. Turned out, I wasn't sick at all. I followed up with my regular doctor, who said it sounded as though I had an anxiety attack. 2 weeks later it happened again. My doctor had given me medicine, but I was too stubborn to take it. Now, I'm almost 29 years old and just yesterday I had another panic/anxiety attack. It's so scary, I truly feel like I may die. I can't catch my breath, I'm hot and cold, I feel sick, weak in the knees, and worst of all I begin to panic which amplifies all of those feelings. Has anyone out there found a medication that works well for this? I'm willing to try whatever I have to do now because I don't like feeling as though I may not make it through my attack to see my children again. Any help would be appreciated. Thanks so much and good luck to all of you as well!

March 5, 2011 - 2:10pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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