If you’ve ever woken up drenched in sweat, with an increased heart rate, shallow breathing, and tremors, you have probably experienced a nocturnal panic attack. Even though nocturnal panic attacks are rarer than daytime panic attacks, they can cause a significant amount of distress to the anxious person and lead to having a chaotic sleeping schedule, among other negative side effects. If you’ve ever asked yourself, “can I get anxiety attacks in my sleep”, and you’ve wanted to learn all about the potential symptoms and causes, then this article is for you.
Apart from providing a detailed description of what nocturnal panic attacks are, their potential causes, and what happens to our bodies while we’re experiencing a nocturnal panic attack, we also give you tips on how to deal with nocturnal panic attacks which pertain to both the moment you’re experiencing the panic attack, as well as long-term solutions.
With that out of the way, let’s start by defining what panic attacks are.
What Are Panic Attacks?
Panic attacks are unexpected episodes characterized by intense emotions and symptoms, such as shortness of breath, fear, and heart palpitations. Anyone can experience a panic attack regardless of their age. In fact, most of us have experienced an anxiety attack at least once in our lives, so we’re acquainted with what kind of symptoms can accompany it.
Panic attacks can last anywhere from five minutes to twenty minutes. Most panic attacks go away on their own after the panic has subsided and our adrenaline levels have lowered. Even though they aren’t inherently dangerous and can pass without any medication, having panic attacks on a regular basis can be extremely scary and leave us feeling like we’re not in control. For that reason, it’s imperative that we seek help if we notice that the frequency of the panic attacks is increasing, or if this negatively impacts our quality of life.
What Happens During a Panic Attack
To take control of our panic attacks, it’s important to learn all the processes that occur in our bodies while we’re experiencing a panic attack.
Once our brain recognizes an intense anxiety trigger, our levels of adrenaline start to rise. Even though adrenaline is a crucial hormone for our body to function normally, an excess of it can result in some of the symptoms anxiety attacks are notorious for, such as heavy breathing, quickened heartbeat, and shivering. Most people, once they notice these symptoms, start to panic which further intensifies the symptoms. In this situation, the last thing on our minds is proper breathing, so our breaths become more shallow, which means that less oxygen is pumped into our brains. This can give us a feeling of dizziness, which is another common symptom of panic attacks.
The triggers for panic attacks are diverse and vary from person to person. What might be an innocuous situation for some, like riding in an elevator or flying in a plane, can be a panic attack-inducing situation for others. What makes panic attacks so hard to control is that they often come out of nowhere, for no apparent reason to us, which is why it’s important to learn a few management tools, like breathing techniques, in case they spring out of nowhere.
Panic Attacks vs. Panic Disorder
To test the gravity of our condition, we should be able to differentiate between panic attacks and a panic disorder. Panic attacks can occur as little as once or twice in our lifetime – some people are more prone to them than others and that can depend on our hormone levels, temperaments, and potential fears.
Panic attacks become a panic disorder when they increase in frequency and start disrupting our quality of life. If you notice yourself adjusting your daily activities so that you avoid any potential panic attacks, or if it starts affecting areas of your life such as sleeping, it might be a sign to visit a doctor.
Can I Get an Anxiety Attack in my Sleep?
Now to get to the meat of our article – can we actually get panic attacks while we sleep?
Panic attacks can occur while we sleep and they’re often referred to as nocturnal panic attacks. They manifest themselves through the same symptoms: hyperventilation, shortness of breath, and an increased heart rate. Some of the rarer symptoms that can be experienced include numbness, hot flashes, and nausea.
They also have the same duration as normal panic attacks, with the average length of the panic attack being around 10 minutes.
The main difference is that they occur while we sleep and wake us up from our slumber. Unsurprisingly, we wake up in an alarmed state and in great discomfort, but luckily those feelings subside at some point, especially if we’re trained about how to cope with panic attacks.
What Causes Anxiety Attacks at Night?
In this section of our article, we will go through some of the most common potential triggers you should be aware of. If you fall under a category or multiple categories, don’t worry – it doesn’t guarantee that you will ever wake up in the middle of the night while from experiencing a panic attack.
Panic attacks caused by genetics are more common than we think. If one or more of our family members is prone to anxiety or has an anxiety disorder, it greatly increases our chances that we will experience nocturnal panic attacks at one point.
Traumatic Life Events
Suffering from PTSD or going through an extremely difficult time is another common culprit for panic attacks, especially nocturnal ones. Panic attacks are one of the symptoms we should watch out for if we’ve been recently diagnosed with PTSD.
It’s normal to go through a stressful period every once in a while, but once the stress starts getting out of control and becomes chronic, we risk experiencing a whole host of unpleasant symptoms, including panic attacks. While panic attacks aren’t inherently dangerous, it’s apparent that chronic stress can be detrimental to our health, so it’s important to find ways to cope with that. Some habits you can try that have been proven to reduce stress levels include journaling, meditating, working out, going on frequent walks, reading, and spending time outside in nature.
Some Underlying Conditions
Some underlying conditions such as OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) are also a common cause of nocturnal panic attacks. Talk to your doctor if you suspect that this might be the reason why you’re experiencing panic attacks.
Many medical conditions result in a change in the hormonal balance in our body. This could easily impact our brain chemistry and mental health, leading to panic attacks.
Who Is More Prone to Experiencing a Nocturnal Panic Attack?
There isn’t a group of people who is inherently more prone to getting nocturnal panic attacks. Anyone can experience a nocturnal panic attack, especially if they are prone to anxiety or have suffered a traumatic event in recent years. Unfortunately, there is no way to predict if this is going to happen, which catches some people off guard due to how unusual it is.
How Are Nocturnal Anxiety Attacks Diagnosed?
A common question regarding nocturnal anxiety attacks is how they’re diagnosed. If you’ve been experiencing some of the symptoms mentioned in our article, you may be looking for an official diagnosis in order to start treatment.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a physical test to determine whether what we experience are nocturnal panic attacks, such as bloodwork, but getting a diagnosis is a relatively easy and straightforward process nonetheless. If you suspect that you may have a panic disorder, we recommend seeing a doctor. They will ask you a series of questions regarding your and your family’s history of mental illness and ask you to describe your symptoms. This information will help them determine if you fit the criteria for being diagnosed with a panic disorder.
If they determine that the panic attacks you’re experiencing affect the quality of your life, they will recommend regular therapy, and in some cases, even medication. Working with a therapist will help get to the root cause of your problems and will most likely nip the panic attacks in the bud. If you’re not able to get rid of them entirely, you will learn some useful tools that will help you manage the panic attack when it happens.
How to Stop Getting Panic Attacks in Your Sleep
Apart from seeing a therapist, there are a couple of ways you can help yourself deal with and potentially eliminate nocturnal panic attacks from occurring. This section covers a couple of tips you should keep in mind while you’re going through a panic attack, as well as some habits and techniques you should implement in the long run if you want to see a decrease in the frequency in which you’re experiencing panic attacks.
Keep in mind that these tips are in no way a substitution for therapy, so make sure you also talk to a professional for optimal results.
What to Do During a Panic Attack
When we’re in the middle of a panic attack, it can be hard to remember what we’ve learned about managing the situation. With that said, it’s helpful to remind ourselves of the solutions and management tools from time to time, so let’s see what can be done during a panic attack.
Don’t Fight It
If you find yourself suddenly awake, experiencing the symptoms of a panic attack, don’t fight the feeling. Trying to ignore the symptoms or convincing yourself that it’s not a big deal can make you feel worse in the end. Instead, try to completely surrender to the symptoms you’re experiencing and remind yourself that this will inevitably pass and you’ll soon feel like yourself again. As the old saying goes, the only way out is through.
Pay Attention to Your Breathing
As much as you might not want to in the moment, taking deep, belly breaths is one of the best ways to stop a panic attack from escalating further. Taking slow breaths in and out through your mouth will help pump more oxygen into the brain and help you relax your muscles. Not to mention, since shortness of breath causes a lot of people to panic, it will prevent you from making irrational assumptions.
Focus on an Object
An easy way to distract yourself from the current symptoms you might be experiencing is to focus on a certain object in your proximity. Choose one object and observe its color, size, and shape. Divert your whole attention to it and you’ll soon start to realise how the other symptoms have subsided, or completely disappeared.
Stay Aware of All Your Senses
Another trick you could use is to do the senses test – name one thing you can smell, one object you can see, something you can touch, and a sound you hear. By staying aware and observing your senses, you’re less likely to get in your head and prolong the panic attack or even make it worse. This is a great trick to have up your sleeve if you’re in a situation you think might be a potential trigger, so you can stop the panic attack before it even occurs.
Get Out of Bed and Distract Yourself
Engaging in an activity that requires you to get out of bed is likely to help with the panic attack and shorten its duration. You’ll be out of the environment where the panic started, and you’ll be distracted, so the chances of your symptoms taking a turn for the worse will be significantly lower.
If you can, go on a short walk around your neighbourhood. It’s hard to motivate ourselves to do anything during a panic attack, but going on a brisk walk will make you feel instantly more relaxed and refreshed, so it’s definitely worth a go.
Another easy way to distract yourself is by putting on your favourite playlist and jamming out to some songs or watching your comfort TV show or a movie.
Go Back to Bed When You’re Ready
As soon as the panic starts to subside, we recommend trying your best to get back into bed. Panic attacks are undoubtedly disruptive to our sleeping patterns, so by going to bed right after having a panic attack, you’ll help minimize the tiredness you feel in the morning. Chances are, you will feel incredibly depleted once your adrenaline levels start to lower, so you’re unlikely to have any problems going straight back to bed.
Now that you’re equipped to deal with panic attacks the moment they spring up, here are some ideas for long-term solutions that might help prevent panic attacks in the long run.
Have an Established Sleeping Routine
Nocturnal panic attacks can be harmful to our sleeping schedule, so it’s crucial that we do our best to maintain a regular sleeping schedule to minimize the damage. Try your best to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. Having a predictable sleeping schedule is helpful for those who suffer from anxiety, so keep this in mind the next time you feel like staying up.
Limit Your Use of Electronics Before Bed
Electronic devices emit blue light which tricks our brain into thinking it’s daytime, causing increased alertness and a burst of energy. Needless to say, this can make it almost impossible to fall asleep at the time you wanted, so make sure your use of electronics is limited before going to bed. If you can’t stay away from them entirely, then lower the brightness of the device as much as possible and put it in night mode.
Limit Your Caffeine and Alcohol Intake Before Bed
Late-night caffeine and alcohol negatively impact our sleep quality and make us prone to waking up in the middle of the night. Caffeine can also increase our heart rate, so if you’re someone who is sensitive to caffeine and has anxiety, this symptom could easily lead into having a full-blown panic attack. Alcohol consumption has been proven to result in light sleep, so it increases your chances of getting anxiety attacks in your sleep, or right after waking up.
Can You Die from a Panic Attack in Your Sleep?
No, it’s not possible to die from having a panic attack in your sleep. However, due to the symptoms we experience while having a panic attack, such as shortness of breath or a rapid heart rate, we might feel like we’re dying. You shouldn’t worry – these symptoms are normal and most panic attacks last around 10 minutes.
Can a Panic Attack Damage Your Heart?
No, panic attacks won’t cause a heart attack or do any damage to your heart, but the constant stress of experiencing them might negatively impact your heart health.
Panic attacks are episodes characterized by symptoms such as heart palpitations, shortness of breath, and shivers, among others. The average duration of a panic attack is between five and twenty minutes. Panic attacks that occur while we sleep and continue when we wake up are referred to as nocturnal panic attacks. They have the same symptoms as daytime panic attacks, but the main difference is that they occur while we’re unconscious.
There are several causes of nocturnal panic attacks, such as genetics, certain underlying conditions like PTSD and OCD, changes in our hormonal status, and chronic stress. The best and safest way to get diagnosed is by visiting a doctor.
We offered several tips on dealing with panic attacks the moment they occur, such as paying close attention to your breathing, finding a distraction, being mindful of your senses, and getting out of bed to do something. When it comes to long-term solutions, we recommend having an established sleeping schedule, limiting your use of electronics before bed, as well as your alcohol and caffeine intake.
If you notice that your quality of life has decreased, or if you’re experiencing nocturnal panic attacks very frequently, we recommend seeing a professional who will help you get to the root of the issue and learn how to manage them. Don’t forget, panic attacks aren’t harmful in and of themselves and experiencing panic attacks is quite common nowadays, so don’t feel alienated or ashamed of them.