Atrial fibrillation (AFib) can cause symptoms that feel similar to a panic attack, such as a rapid heartbeat, sweating, and lightheadedness. However, panic attacks typically peak within a few minutes.

In contrast, AFib can cause symptoms that last for days or longer.

Additionally, while AFib can cause feelings of anxiety, it does not always. In fact, AFib does not always cause symptoms, but panic attacks always come with intense emotions.

This article explains the two conditions and outlines how people can distinguish AFib from a panic attack.

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AFib and panic attacks can cause some of the same symptoms, but they occur for different reasons.

AFib is a condition where the upper chambers of the heart beat irregularly. Usually, electrical signals in the heart cause the right and left atrium to contract at the same time, but during an AFib episode, atypical signals interrupt this process.

Panic attacks occur when anxiety builds up, causing physical symptoms that are part of the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. This is the body’s natural reaction to a perceived threat. It can happen whether the threat is truly dangerous or not.

AFib does not always cause symptoms, but when it does, symptoms can share similarities with those of panic attacks.

The table below compares the symptoms of both:

AFibPanic attack
• fluttering, quivering, or pounding heartbeat
• dizziness or lightheadedness
• shortness of breath
• sweating
• anxiety
• pressure in the chest
• feeling weak or faint
• fatigue
• confusion
• fast or pounding heartbeat
• dizziness or lightheadedness
• hyperventilation, or rapid breathing
• feeling hot or sweating
• intense anxiety, panic, or dread
• chest discomfort
• feeling faint
• shaking or trembling
• nausea
• a choking sensation
• numbness or tingling
• feeling helpless or out of control
• derealization, or feeling reality is distant or unreal
• depersonalization, or feeling disconnected from oneself

Some of these symptoms may look very similar, but there are some important differences. For example:

  • Heartbeat: Both panic attacks and AFib episodes can cause an increase in heart rate, but AFib causes an irregular heartbeat. This sounds different from a regular heartbeat, and it may feel different too.
  • Duration: Panic attacks peak within a few minutes. AFib episodes can last for days or weeks, depending on the type of AFib.
  • Emotion: A person may notice feelings of anxiety, stress, or dread building up before they have a panic attack. That said, panic attacks can also come on suddenly for people with a condition known as panic disorder.

A fast heart rate, or tachycardia, can be a symptom of both panic attacks and AFib. There is no specific range that only applies to panic attacks and not AFib.

In people with AFib and tachycardia, a person’s heart rate typically ranges between 110 and 140 beats per minute (bpm).

However, the main difference here is that the heartbeat will be fast and irregular. In a person having a panic attack who has no heart problems, their heartbeat will be fast but regular in rhythm.

Panic attacks also last for a short period. If a person has had a panic attack, their heart rate should slow gradually when the panic attack ends. This could take up to 30 minutes.

If the heart rate does not decrease or a person has other concerning symptoms, such as chest pain, they should seek medical attention immediately.

No, there is no way to reliably detect AFib at home. Only a doctor can do this.

Some people try to check for AFib by measuring their heart rate, but there are many reasons why heart rate could feel fast or irregular.

Some smartphone apps claim to indicate whether a person is experiencing AFib. While these apps can sometimes identify AFib, researchers are still testing their accuracy.

Some smartwatches can have a level of accuracy in screening for AFib. They may still yield false positives, but can be a useful tool for a person concerned about AFib and panic attacks.

If a person suspects they are experiencing AFib, they should contact a doctor as soon as possible. A doctor may use heart rate monitoring to accurately detect AFib.

AFib and panic attacks have very different causes.

What causes panic attacks?

Panic attacks can occur for a range of reasons. Sometimes, these reasons are temporary. For example, a person may feel anxiety about a specific event in their life, triggering an attack.

Other psychological causes of panic attacks include:

  • Phobias: If a person has a phobia and encounters the thing causing their intense fear and anxiety, they may experience a panic attack.
  • Trauma: People who have had traumatic experiences may have panic attacks if they encounter a trigger. Triggers remind a person of the traumatic event, such as a place, person, smell, or sensation.
  • Anxiety disorders: Any anxiety disorder could cause panic attacks as a symptom. These include panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). People with depression may also experience them.

The use of, or withdrawal from, certain drugs may also cause anxiety in some people.

What causes AFib?

A wide range of things can cause AFib. Sometimes, it occurs for no clear reason. Some factors that may contribute include:

  • older age
  • heart conditions, such as:
    • congenital heart conditions
    • coronary heart disease
    • atrial ischemia
    • heart valve disease
  • heart inflammation, such as myocarditis or pericarditis
  • high blood pressure
  • high alcohol consumption
  • overactive thyroid
  • diabetes
  • obstructive sleep apnea
  • pulmonary embolism
  • asthma
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

According to a 2019 review, some researchers theorize that having an anxiety disorder may affect the nervous system in a way that raises the risk of AFib. However, no study has proven a connection between the two.

That said, the review notes that some studies have found that anxiety can trigger AFib episodes in people who already have the condition. It can also raise the risk of AFib coming back after a person has surgical treatment for it.

Even if there is a link, having anxiety does not necessarily mean a person will develop AFib.

Only around 2% of the general population has AFib, reports the review. In contrast, around 31.1% of all adults in the United States will experience an anxiety disorder during their lifetime, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

The rate of AFib does rise as people age, but this could be due to many factors.

If a person is concerned they may be experiencing either panic attacks or AFib, they should speak with a doctor. A doctor can determine the cause and rule out serious conditions.

Panic attacks can be a sign of an underlying anxiety disorder. These conditions are treatable, so the sooner a person can get support, the less impact anxiety may have on their life.

If a person experiences any of the following symptoms, they should call 911 or the number of the nearest emergency department:

  • sudden pain, pressure, or squeezing in the chest
  • pain in the arms, neck, jaw, back, or abdomen
  • feeling or being sick
  • coughing or wheezing

Both panic attacks and AFib can cause similar symptoms, but there are some differences. AFib episodes can last longer than panic attacks. AFib episodes may cause a quivering or fluttering sensation in the chest.

In contrast, panic attacks usually last no more than 30 minutes and can cause symptoms AFib does not, such as a feeling of tightness or choking in the throat, nausea, and a feeling things are out of control.

Only a doctor can diagnose the cause of these symptoms. Anyone who is experiencing them can seek advice from a medical professional.