How Nocturnal Panic Attacks Interfere With Sleep

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Panic attacks are often experienced as overwhelming feelings of fear and dread. These attacks are often characterized by uncomfortable physical sensations, disturbing thoughts, and difficult emotions. For example, when panic strikes, a person may start off suddenly feeling very nervous and anxious. Somatic sensations, such as sweating, heart palpitations, and chest pain may begin to take hold. Strong emotions combined with troublesome physical sensations may contribute to fears felt by the panic sufferer, such as a fear that the attack will lead to a loss of control over oneself.

Even though panic attack symptoms typically reach a peak within 10 minutes before gradually subsiding, the effects of the attack can impact the person much longer. Many panic attack sufferers frequently describe their symptoms as an upsetting and even downright terrifying experience.

Panic Attack Symptoms

Panic attacks typically start off with feelings of fear, anxiety, and apprehension, accompanied by a combination of 4 or more of the following symptoms: 

Panic attacks are most commonly associated with panic disorder but have also been known to occur along with other mental health disorders, such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders, agoraphobia, and other specific phobias.

Additionally, there are two different types of panic attacks: expected and unexpected. Expected panic attacks are those that are triggered by some type of cue or stimulus in the environment. For example, a person with a fear of heights (acrophobia) may have a panic attack when in an airplane or when on a top floor of a tall building. A person with PTSD may have a panic attack when in an environment that reminds her of the past traumatic event.

Unexpected panic attacks, on the other hand, or those that arise suddenly without any known cause or trigger. Since these attacks happen out-of-the-blue, they can be perceived of as extremely frightening. Unexpected panic attacks are those that frequently occur with panic disorder. These types of attacks can also arise while one is sleeping.

Nocturnal Panic Attacks

Panic attack symptoms typically take hold while one is awake, however, it is possible for panic attacks to strike while you are fast asleep. Known as nocturnal panic attacks, these attacks can potentially contribute to sleep disorders and leave you feeling tired throughout your day.

All panic attacks can be perceived of as a frightening experience but can be even more terrifying if they startle you out of your sleep. For example, you may wake up due to uncomfortable physical sensations, such as shaking, accelerated heart rate, and chest pain. You may feel confused as to whether you are dreaming or not, feeling a sense of distance from yourself and your sense of reality.

Getting Help for Panic Attacks

Whether you are experiencing panic attacks that interrupt your sleep or that occur during your waking hours, there is help available. Many choose to start the recovery process by scheduling an appointment with their doctor or primary care physician. She can assist you by providing an accurate diagnosis, ruling out other mental health and medical conditions, and discussing your treatment options.

Panic attacks are often treated with prescribed medication. Medications such as antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs may assist in lessening the frequency and intensity of nocturnal panic attacks. Many panic sufferers also chose to attend psychotherapy as a means to learn ways to effectively manage nocturnal panic attacks, reduce panic-induced anxiety, and develop better sleep hygiene. Additionally, self-help strategies may be employed as a way to get a better night’s rest and cope with nocturnal panic attacks.

Consult your doctor if you believe you are suffering from nocturnal panic attacks. These symptoms can negatively impact your life, potentially disrupting your sleep cycle and causing grogginess throughout your day. Through help and dedicated effort to manage your symptoms, you may be able to better cope with nocturnal panic attacks.

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  1. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 5th ed. Washington, DC; 2013.

  2. Nakamura M, Sugiura T, Nishida S, Komada Y, Inoue Y. Is Nocturnal Panic a Distinct Disease Category? Comparison of Clinical Characteristics among Patients with Primary Nocturnal Panic, Daytime Panic, and Coexistence of Nocturnal and Daytime PanicJ Clin Sleep Med. 2013;9(5):461-467. doi:10.5664/jcsm.2666