If you’ve experienced a sudden rush of overwhelming fear and anxiety then it’s possible that you’ve experienced a panic attack.
Your heart starts beating faster, you have trouble breathing and you feel dizzy – all of these are obvious signs that something is wrong.
Panic attacks are pretty common, with 22.7% of the population in the U.S experiencing one at least once in their life.
Panic disorders, which cause seemingly random panic attacks, are also fairly common.
In the U.S alone it is estimated that 3.7% to 4.1% of the population suffer from a panic disorder. In Europe, this number is approximately 2.0%
Although difficult, panic disorders are considered “highly treatable”.
Be it through therapy or medication, panic disorders can be managed and even treated to great effect.
But what happens when a panic attack strikes when you are most defenseless?
Nocturnal panic attacks are panic attacks that occur while you are asleep.
Due to their nature, these panic attacks can catch you by surprise.
After all, how can you prevent a panic attack from happening if you aren’t even conscious when it starts happening?
What causes nocturnal panic attacks?
The topic of nocturnal panic attacks is not well-researched, making many people believe that their problem is uncommon or even that it’s not real at all.
That couldn’t be further from the truth. Nocturnal panic attacks are not only real, but they are also very common.
Studies show us that 44-71% of patients with a panic disorder have experienced a nocturnal panic attack at least once.
Although common, the lack of research has made identifying the causes of nocturnal panic attacks very difficult.
After all, you aren’t thinking when you are asleep, so what could possibly trigger a panic attack?
There aren’t any clear-cut answers, but there are speculations regarding some of the possible causes.
1) Night terrors/bad dreams/nightmares
Night terrors, bad dreams and nightmares are all different from one another, both in terms of intensity and impact.
- Bad dreams are unpleasant, sometimes disturbing, dreams. Their impact is relatively minor
- Nightmares are a more intense version of bad dreams. They are more common among children
- Night Terrors are dreams that induce fear, terror, and anxiety, often resulting in panic and physical reaction such as screaming and thrashing
Waking up from a nightmare can cause hyperventilation (short, quick breathing), increased heart rate and sweating.
These symptoms, in turn, imitate a panic attack and even trigger one if the nightmare is intense enough.
Night terrors are much more likely to cause a panic attack.
Night terrors are more closely related to feelings of anxiety, and it is not uncommon for someone to wake up from a night terror screaming and absolutely terrified.
Both nightmares and night terrors are uncommon among adults, but they do happen.
Typical causes include stress, sleep deprivation, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, and side effects of certain medications.
2) Sleeping disorders
Studies show us that getting enough sleep is one of the best ways to avoid developing an anxiety disorder.
Getting the right amount of quality rest is absolutely vital for our functioning, not just mentally but also physically.
In the case of panic disorders, among sleeping disorders, the biggest culprit is sleep apnea
Individuals suffering from Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) experience involuntary lapses in breathing.
This serves as a trigger for the body, and they wake up instantly, often choking or gasping.
These symptoms and reactions can trigger a panic attack by imitating its symptoms.
How to prevent nocturnal panic attacks
As long as you suffer from anxiety in any form, especially panic disorders or PTSD, the likelihood of experiencing a nocturnal panic attack is much higher.
Although seeking professional help is highly adviced, there are things that you can do at home to improve your condition.
Certain lifestyle changes and habits can improve your quality of sleep and lessen your feelings of anxiety.
1) Live a healthy lifestyle
Your health, both physical and mental, should be treated with the utmost care.
It’s these very lifestyle choices that prevent you from developing health-related problems in the first place.
Things like stress, sleep deprivation, and substance abuse can all negatively impact your sleep and should be avoided as much as possible.
Alternatively, exercise, meditation, a regular sleeping schedule, and a proper diet will help you stay healthy and improve your quality of life all around.
2) Have the right sleeping habits
You can reduce the risk of nocturnal panic attacks considerably by having the right bedtime routine.
These sleep-related habits can be applied immediately and will be effective right off the bat.
If you tend to sleep on your back then you are at a higher risk of having a nocturnal panic attack.
Sleep apnea can occur when the muscles in your upper airway relax causing the air to become restricted either through your nose or throat.
Sleeping on your back makes the tongue and soft palate drop back towards the throat, narrowing the airways and making it difficult to breathe.
Instead, you should try sleeping on your side. Research suggests that this is the most ideal position for those with sleep apnea.
Clearing your nasal passages is also highly recommended.
You can do this by using a saline nasal spray, breathing strips, a nasal dilator or something to that effect.
3) Treat your anxiety disorder
Nocturnal panic attacks are, in many cases, caused by an anxiety disorder.
It can be a phobia, and panic disorder or any other kind of anxiety disorder.
As such, if you overcome your anxiety disorder you will also be much less likely to have a nocturnal panic attack.
It makes sense, right? In most cases this is easier said than done.
Still, seeking professional help and seeking self-help options will go a long way in helping you get better.
How to recover from a nocturnal panic attack
With all of that being said, sometimes avoiding a nocturnal panic attack altogether is impossible.
We do not have a full understanding of this problem, and if you already suffer from a panic disorder then the risk of a panic attack will always be there.
But what can you do about it? Nocturnal panic attacks don’t typically last for long, but relaxing and going back to sleep can be a challenge.
In fact, many people find themselves unable to sleep after a panic attack altogether, resulting in a long and difficult night without any rest.
1) Wake yourself up
Ater having a nocturnal panic attack your chances of falling back asleep are slim.
Panic attacks are terrifying. Not only that, but they also increase blood pressure and affect breathing. These symptoms need to be dealt with before you can go back to sleep.
Wash your face, get something to drink, walk around the house or outside or anything to that effect.
The goal of these activities isn’t to distract you but to help you calm down and let go of the aftereffects of your panic attack.
2) Breathing techniques
Our breathing is closely related to the way that we feel.
Fast and short breathing, the kind that we experience after having a panic attack, can make us feel anxious.
The first thing you should do after waking up is to try and start breathing normally.
I personally recommend the 4-7-8 breathing exercise, in my experience, it is ideal for relaxation.
- Close your mouth and inhale through your nose to the count of 4
- Hold your breath to the count of 7
- Exhale slowly and completely through your mouth to the count of 8
- Repeat steps 1-3 three more times, to a total of 4 breaths
This technique is meant to help you reduce stress, but it can also be used to relax your body and reduce tension.
I recommend taking another minute or so after using this technique to see whether or not you can fall back asleep.
3) Try to tire yourself out
Even after stabilizing your breathing and relaxing, you might still feel too anxious to fall back asleep.
I highly recommend avoiding any enjoyable or engaging activities such as reading books, playing video games or watching TV.
You need to go back to sleep, and watching that movie that you were dying to see might not be such a good idea.
Instead, I recommend picking a chore or something that you have to do but don’t want to and start doing it.
For example, doing your laundry or making a grocery list.
That way, by the time you feel like you had enough, there won’t be anything to distract you or to stop you from going to sleep.
Unless of course, you like doing chores, in which case do something else.
4) Don’t worry about it
After experiencing a nocturnal panic attack for the first time you might start worrying that it will happen again.
After all, it happened once already. What prevents it from happening again? Will it happen tonight? What if you can’t sleep? Is there something wrong with you?
Because of that, many people tend to try and “work around” their problem – They tire themselves out before going to sleep, go to sleep early and so on.
This kind of behavior only hurts you and you are better off without it.
Having healthy sleeping habits can do much to improve your overall anxiety but letting your condition control you is never a good thing.
Instead, you should remind yourself that your negative thoughts are just a by-product of your anxiety.
There isn’t anything that is preventing you from going back to sleep aside from your own anxiety.
There is nothing wrong with you and there is no reason for you to have another panic attack
Meditation and breathing exercises, such as the one I mentioned earlier, will help you relax before sleep and fight these negative thoughts.
Panic attacks can be treated
Panic attacks, regardless of when they occur, are considered to be highly treatable.
This means that assuming that you receive proper treatment and maintain the right habits, it is possible for you to get rid of them for good.
If you are serious about getting better, I highly recommend the Panic Away Program
In this program, you will find guides and methods that will help you help yourself – It won’t be easy, but the results will be well worth it.
If you are tired of your anxiety getting in the way then you should definitely check it out.
For any further questions feel free to get in touch – My Email address is always available.