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By Diana Wade
Disability Advocate 

Panic attack versus heart attack – Am I disabled?

Ask the Advocate


December 8, 2018

Diana Wade

Many of us will experience anxiety or panic attacks during our lives, both of which have symptoms that can mimic heart diseases like atrial fibrillation - an irregular heart beat. Symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks can significantly impair quality of life. Severe anxiety can stem from, as well as cause, depression.

To further complicate things, the stress and anxiety that often cause panic attacks can also lead to heart attacks.

Panic attacks and heart attacks can feel frighteningly similar: shortness of breath, palpitations, chest pain, dizziness, vertigo, feelings of unreality, numbness of hands and feet, sweating, fainting and trembling. Some people describe this experience as feeling as if they're losing control or going to die.

A panic attack occurs spontaneously, or a stressful event can trigger it, but it poses no immediate danger. A heart attack is dangerous, and it requires prompt medical attention. In women though, heart disease symptoms are sometimes mistaken for a panic attack.

Panic disorder is diagnosed in people who experience panic attacks and are preoccupied with the fear of a recurring attack. Like all anxiety disorders, this one is treatable.

Heart attack symptoms include:

• Escalating chest pain that reaches maximum severity after a few minutes

• Constant pain, pressure, fullness or aching in the chest area

• Pain or discomfort that travels or radiates from the chest to other areas, such as one or both arms, abdomen, back, shoulders, neck, throat or jaw

• Pain that is brought on by exertion

• Shortness of breath

Panic attack symptoms include:

• Increased heart rate

• Sharp or stabbing chest pain that lasts only 5 to 10 seconds

• Pain that is localized to one small area

• Pain that usually occurs at rest

• Pain that accompanies anxiety

• Pain that is relieved or worsened when you change positions

• Pain that can be reproduced or worsened by pressing over the area of pain

Those who have never had a heart attack, but have been diagnosed with panic disorder and are fearful of a heart attack, should get a thorough physical evaluation to determine their heart health. If they are not at risk of a heart attack, then your doctor will begin the psychological work: They must be willing to be uncertain whether they are having a panic attack or a heart attack.

Whenever you're in doubt about your symptoms, seek care without delay. Only medical tests can rule out the possibility of a heart attack. Once a heart attack is ruled out, seek effective treatment such as talk therapy and medication.

Social Security will look at the diagnosis and then determine if the panic or heart condition is severe enough to prevent ordinary work on a regular and sustained basis. A "regular and continuing basis" means eight hours a day, for five days a week or an equivalent work schedule. The claimant must have both the mental and physical abilities to perform sustained work activities. When the evidence supports a finding that the claimant has had a substantial loss of ability to meet the demands of basic work-related activities on a sustained basis, the unskilled sedentary occupational base is significantly eroded, and a finding of disability is justified under the Social Security Rules.

An Accredited Disability Representative with more than 20 years experience, Diana Wade believes her clientele can be comfortable knowing that she is recognized by SSA and a charter member of NADR. To contact Ms. Wade call (661) 821-0494, email [email protected] or visit


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