Panic Attacks During Sleep – How To React

June 17, 2017

“Panic Attacks Feed Off Of Your Fears, Let’s Understand This First And Foremost.”

Panic attacks can be debilitating, very frightening, and adversely affect the routine at home or work. Most people experience panic attacks only during the day, but nocturnal panic attacks also affect a large section of the population. Panic attacks during sleep is worse as not only causes extreme distress and fear, but also wakes you from sleep and results in ‘sleep deprivation’ related issues the next day.

Causes of Panic Attacks During Sleep

Some of the common causes of panic attacks during sleep are as follows:
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease/GERD: Even though GERD is a fairly benign digestive condition, it can affect the quality of sleep, especially if a heavy meal is consumed before sleeping. GERD related panic attacks during sleep may cause symptoms like stomach pressure, chest pains, sweating, lightheadedness, and hyperventilation.

Sleep apnea: Obstructive sleep apnea is one of the most common causes of panic attacks during sleep. It is a common condition caused by obstruction in the upper respiratory system. The episode may last for nearly 30 seconds and is marked by hypoventilation or no breathing. This can trigger increased cardiac stress and symptoms similar to a heart attack. The sleep disorder mostly affects overweight or obese individuals.

Night Terrors/nightmares: A nightmare can cause you to wake up from sleep and result in symptoms like hyperventilation or fast breathing, increased heart beats, etc. These symptoms can then trigger panic attacks during sleep.
How to react to panic attacks during sleep?

It is not possible to go back to sleep right after a panic attack during sleep. Presented below are different responses to a panic attack when sleeping:

Panic attacks during sleep often last for a few minutes. Try and go back to sleep after that. If you are unable to sleep, then do not just sit on the bed and think as doing so will only cause the mind to wander and result in additional frustration and panic. Instead you may get up from the bed and start walking.

Go drink a glass of water, splash water on the face, check up on your pet, or do some boring chore like washing dishes, etc.

Helping your amygdala (the part of your brain responsible for the stress response) understand what should be feared and what shouldn’t will also go a long way towards overcoming panic attacks during sleep. Dialoguing with a funny cartoon character you’ve made up that resembles your subconscious mind can create the information your mind needs to separate a perceived threat from a real one.

“We must understand that holding up a white flag, and surrendering to those sensations of panic the best we can is the fastest way to make panic subside. This means complete acceptance, if it’s gonna kill you, it’s gonna kill you. But let’s remember that you’ve also survived every panic attack you’ve faced up to now.”

Avoid reading a book or turning on the TV. Distraction can help overcome anxiety attacks, but the above may not prove to be adequate distractions for panic attacks during sleep. Instead books and TV may just cause you to think and wonder more, thereby aggravating the anxiety.

Execute breathing techniques to go back to sleep once the panic has subsided. You may try belly breathing and check if it helps alleviate symptoms. You can also seek CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) to treat and prevent panic attacks during sleep.

Antidepressants and other medications are usually the first line of treatments from a doctors point of view (I personally don’t find it necessary). You will also need to limit alcohol intake, quit smoking, and make lifestyle and diet changes. Finally let’s remember that excess body weight is the most common cause of sleep apnea. Regular exercise and eating a healthy balanced diet will help reduce body weight and instances of panic attacks during sleep.

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