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How Do I Deal with a Panic Attack at Night?

 

nighttime panic attacks

Generally, night time is thought of a period in which we can relax, unwind, and rest.  For some of us, our anxiety or stress sometimes can get the better of us at night, leading to panic attacks.  Frightening or unpleasant during the best of times, these can seem more difficult to handle in the dark and quiet night. Continue reading along to find out more about nighttime panic attacks.

What is a Panic Attack?

Panic attacks are generally short term, unexpected, sudden bursts of intense anxiety.  These can last upwards of 10 to 15 minutes, gradually decreasing in intensity over time.

Nighttime Panic Attacks

Often, those of us who experience panic attacks during the day can experience them at night.  Maybe your first panic attack was at night, that’s the tricky thing with anxiety.  Anxiety itself is completely normal human emotion, it’s part of our fight or flight response, but sometimes it goes to extreme lengths.  Sometimes, you can wake from sleep in the state of a panic attack.  These are known as Nocturnal Panic Attacks (NPA), or nighttime panic attacks.  Often times when we have a panic attack at night, the intense rush of anxiety keeps us awake and find it difficult to fall back asleep.  If this becomes prolonged, some people develop a fear of sleep due to the panic attacks, thus making them sleep deprived.  Being sleep deprived also makes us more vulnerable to our anxiety.  Do you see the vicious cycle that can be created?  Learning to handle your panic attacks is key to building your resilience, tips on this will be explored later.

What Does It Feel Like?

It’s hard to put words to what we feel or experience, some people describe panic attacks like having a heart attack (or even often believe they are having one).  Below I have outlined various types of symptoms you may experience:

Mental

·       Sense of impending doom

·       Feeling detached from yourself or surroundings, like things aren’t real (known as depersonalization).

·       A “foggy” brain/mind

·       Trouble concentrating

Physical

·       Increased heart rate and breathing

·       Shortness of breath, throat tightening

·       Chest cramps/pain

·       Sweating

·       Chills

·       Numbness or tingling sensations

·       Getting really hot or really cold

Emotional

·       Overwhelming sense of dread or anxiety

·       Fear of dying

·       Fear of loss of control

panic attack

There is no magic cure all for panic attacks, and certainly having one at night is not pleasant. If you’re having nighttime panic attacks try some of the following:

 

Don’t Fight it and Ride it Out

 

Possible Causes of Nighttime Panic Attacks

While panic attacks at night are certainly scary, they can be quite common.  Research hasn’t given us a cut and dry reason as to why people get these, but we do understand that the brain doesn’t just shut off when we are asleep.  It may be that our unconscious brain is working through pent up fears and anxieties, thus causing a NPA.  Below is a list of other possible factors into why we have them:

Biological

·       Genetics

·       Personality type

·       Brain Chemistry/Hormones

·       Medical Conditions like Obstructive Sleep Apnea

·       Side effects of medication

·       Substances like alcohol, cannabis, or caffeine

Psychological

·       Stress

·       Other mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Environmental

·       Moving home

·       Becoming a parent

·       Experiencing loss of a loved one, relationships, or job

What Can Help in the Moment

There is no magic cure all for panic attacks, and certainly having one at night is not pleasant.  If you’re having a nighttime panic attack try some of the following:

nighttime panic attack

Light a pleasant-smelling candle, take slow deep breaths, pop on some soothing music, or whatever you find soothing.

 

Don’t Fight it and Ride it Out

Usually fighting the panic attack makes it stronger, so sit back and let it wash over you.  Remember it is only temporary and will fade eventually.

Ground Yourself

Try to distract your mind and bring yourself back into the room by using your senses.  Try to notice and list to yourself the different things you can see, smell, hear, and touch.

Try to Relax

Light a pleasant-smelling candle, take slow deep breaths, pop on some soothing music, or whatever you find soothing.

Get Up, Shake it Out

Your body is probably in fight or flight mode, and thus full of energy.  Sometimes getting up and doing some light exercise or stretching can help, or if possible, even going for a short walk.  Just getting up and out of the situation can provide a nice distraction away from what just happened.

Try to Get Back to Sleep

Easier said than done of course.  The most important thing is eventually trying to get some rest when this is all over.  Sleep is a key element to positive mental health, and when you’re ready to do so, go back to bed.

Try to Prevent Nighttime Panic Attacks

Avoiding the vicious cycle that can happen when we lose our sleep is key, so here’s a few tips to help:

·       Have a consistent sleep routine

·       Give yourself enough time to prepare for sleep

·       Curb the caffeine or alcohol before bed

·       Avoid backlit screens like phones or tablets.

Further Help for Nighttime Panic Attacks

Formal treatment for panic attacks will usually involve therapy, medication, or a mixture of both.  You can go to your GP to rule out any other medical issues that may be causing your nighttime panic attacks.  Going to a therapist can bring a range of treatments, which usually entails Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).  CBT can be used to help you explore and understand your anxiety and panic in a controlled, safe environment.  You and your therapist will then come up with ways to help you cope and eventually work to resolve this issue.

If you have issues with anxiety or panic attacks and need help, check out our counselling services here.

Written by James Brosnan

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