Panic Attacks while sleeping
Panic Attacks while sleeping are known as nocturnal panic attacks, and may be a symptom of Panic Disorder. You can read more about Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder here.
Why do nocturnal panic attacks occur?
It has a lot to do with your brain being alert to possible danger. If you have panic attacks, you will know that they seem to occur out of the blue, when there is nothing obvious in your environment, that could be considered dangerous.
That said, if you are having panic attacks, your baseline level of anxiety has to be high. Often people say to me that they do not feel anxious, that they do not understand why their first attack happened.
You cannot have a panic attack unless you are already experiencing high levels of anxiety. Think about it, if you were extremely calm and relaxed, and had low level anxiety, you cannot have a panic attack.
So, if your anxiety levels are high, your brain will be constantly scanning your environment for possible things that it needs to alert you to. This can wake you from sleep. How?
You brain may by now be expert at providing you with anxiety, in situations where you do not need it. Read more.
As we fall deeper into sleep, our breathing and heart rate slows down. Our brain is on high alert for changes in the body (as it will be accustomed to you checking in with your body throughout the day, to see how you are doing, or if you are feeling any symptoms) and your brain may misinterpret this normal slowing down of your body, as a potential threat and give you a stress response.
Our brain operates, in times like this, on a better safe than sorry principle, which makes sense when we think about it. If, for example, you are out walking in the woods and see a curvy brown object on the ground in the distance, your brain will quickly scan images to see if the curvy object matches anything that might cause you harm. A snake? You get a quick stress response just as you notice it is a twig, and you then relax.
Understanding this “better safe than sorry” principle, your brain gives you a stress response while sleeping when monitoring your body. This is what you feel when you wake up in a panic. Your heart pounding, you jump out of bed in a flash, sweating and shaking.
This experience, if it happens frequently enough may start to make you fear going to sleep or going to bed. This fear of sleeping is then causing you additional anxiety, and you are more likely to wake again during the night in a panic. Panic Attacks need fear to survive. You can read more about the role of fear here.
How to stop panic attacks while sleeping.
Your body and mind needs to calm down. Easier said than done, you say. I hear you! You need to teach your brain that the things that it is fearful of, are actually ok. There is more information on this site to help you stop panic attacks while sleeping.