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Heart Attack or a Panic Attack? Knowing the Difference Could Save Your Life

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On November 5, 2017, The Cleveland Cavelier’s All-Star forward Kevin Love left the game, fearing that he was having a heart attack. The 31-year-old, 6’8” professional athlete is larger than life, and seemingly in optimal physical condition. Yet on November 5, Love described symptoms that would make many of us call 9-1-1. He has since been quoted as saying the following:

I was winded within the first few possessions. That was strange…After halftime, it all hit the fan. Coach Lue called a timeout in the third quarter. When I got to the bench, I felt my heart racing faster than usual. Then I was having trouble catching my breath. It’s hard to describe, but everything was spinning like my brain was trying to climb out of my head. The air felt thick and heavy. My mouth was like chalk…

“By that point, I was freaking out. When I got up to walk out of the huddle, I knew I couldn’t reenter the game — like, literally, couldn’t do it physically…I blurted something like, ‘I’ll be right back,’ and I ran back to the locker room. I was running from room to room like I was looking for something I couldn’t find. Really I was just hoping my heart would stop racing. It was like my body was trying to say to me, You’re about to die. I ended up on the floor in the training room, lying on my back, trying to get enough air to breathe.

“The next part was a blur. Someone from the Cavs accompanied me to the Cleveland Clinic. They ran a bunch of tests. Everything seemed to check out, which was a relief. But I remember leaving the hospital thinking, Wait…then what the hell just happened?”

What is a Panic Attack?

What Love experienced was a panic attack, sudden, intense fear or discomfort that escalates within minutes and includes at least four of the following symptoms:

  • Heart palpitations, accelerated heart rate, or heart-pounding
  • Sweating
  • Chills or heat sensations
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Shortness of breath or the feeling of being smothered
  • Feelings of choking
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Nausea or abdominal distress
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed, or faint
  • Paresthesia (numbness or tingling sensations)
  • Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
  • Fear of losing control or losing one’s mind
  • Fear of being about to die

While the exact causes of panic attacks are not known, they are often genetically linked or tied to the stress of a significantly transitional life experience, such as moving, the death of a loved one, or graduating. Panic attacks may come on unexpectedly, seemingly out of nowhere, or they could be triggered by intense fear, such as crossing a bridge or public speaking. When a trigger is recurring and unavoidable (such as being in public), the fear of experiencing a panic attack alone can trigger one.

The Fight or Flight Reflex

Humans, as a species, have evolved over millennia to survive. When threatened, our bodies experience a fight or flight reflex. In these moments, stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine spike in the system. People who regularly have panic attacks experience these hormonal spikes when, in reality, they are not in physical danger. What they feel in response, however, is all the same physical panic symptoms as if they were being chased or about to fight off an attacker: escalated heart rate, shortness of breath, and a feeling that they are about to die.

Heart Attack, Or Panic Attack?

Many symptoms of a panic attack can understandably be misconstrued for a panic attack, such as chest pain and shortness of breath, leading many sufferers to seek medical treatment and even hospitalization during an attack. The following symptomatic differentiators are meant only as referenceable guidelines. If you have any concerns that you may be suffering from a life-threatening cardiac episode, seek emergency medical care.


  • While both panic attacks and heart attacks can come on suddenly without warning, a heart attack is sometimes triggered by physical exertion


  • During a panic attack, chest pain is typically sharp and localized to the middle of the chest
  • During a heart attack, chest pain feels more like severe pressure that starts in the center of the chest but radiates to the arm, shoulders, or jaw


  • Most panic attacks end in 20 to 30 minutes
  • During a heart attack, symptoms last longer and exacerbate, sometimes escalating from mild to severe discomfort

When to Get Help

Today, Kevin Love is a powerful advocate in the NBA for mental health awareness. He continues to speak publicly about his battles with anxiety to bring awareness and hope to those suffering in silence. If you are continually experiencing panic attacks, talk to your doctor. He or she can help you devise a treatment plan so that you can regain control over your emotions and your life.

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