Our brain is an organ that never goes to sleep and so during our period of suffering Anxiety and Panic symptoms it is normal to have episodes of Nocturnal Panic Attacks.
So what happens to you when this happens and how does it feel?
A nocturnal panic attack is a panic attack which happens in the middle of the night and wakes you from sleep usually after a very bad dream.
Not very much is written about nocturnal Panic attacks and it is a symptom that I receive lots of correspondence to the web site about.
Things always seem worse at night when the world is still and relaxed, especially when relaxing is the last thing that you can do comfortably when you are trying to cope with sensations of Panic.
While I was going through the severe point of my Panic Disorder problems I suffered with Nocturnal Panic attacks and if I am honest I found them probably one of the most frightening parts of Anxiety that I had to deal with.
This was not because they cause harm, it was because I didn't know what they were and because they felt so sudden. During the day I could at least feel a Panic attack building and then when it happened I could try to take my mind off of it by talking to someone or keeping myself busy. However at night the only time I knew about it seemed to be when I had a nightmare and woke suddenly feeling fearful and disoriented and then I remember feeling very alone as the rest of my family was asleep and there seemed to be nothing else but to lie there in fear and hope that it would pass over. I felt very vulnerable as not only was my daytime disrupted but my night time was too. Anxiety never gave me relief during the day or at night.
Nocturnal Panic Attacks are an uncomfortable symptom, they can cause additional worry to anyone who is suffering. Sleep tends to be the one thing that can give you a break from how you are feeling so when that becomes interrupted too, it can be a very difficult time.
However, studies suggest that between 50%-70% of people with Panic Disorder will experience at least one panic attack at night, In my case I sometimes had two or three during the same night and I did seem to have them over a period of weeks too. It's common to presume that you have developed some new form of mental illness, panic symptom or that this provides some kind of proof that you are "really bad and beyond help" , but you are not, it's just a your brain continuing on the same pattern while you sleep. Nothing more and its completely harmless, not one part of it can hurt you at all.
Nothing feels good when it happens in the middle of the night it can be a lonely time.
So let's look at how nocturnal panic attacks happen.
I don't think that much has been written about Nocturnal Panic Attacks to really explain why they are happening to people, but what we do know is that the brain is always active and does not turn off during sleep.
With this in mind I suppose it is logical to assume that because the brain does not turn off then the process of a night attack must be the same as a daytime attack which seems to be from a subconscious level rather than a conscious level (that you are aware of).
You are anxious at the moment in general and so as your brain does not switch off, therefore it is logical to assume that you would feel as anxious in sleep as you would during the day.
How should you respond to this moving forwards?
Ok so I will use my experience here and I would say that you have two ways in which you can respond to this if and when it happens to you:
- You can wake up and then get up. Sometimes after experiencing one of these attacks, it's difficult to fall straight back to sleep as your nervous system is already in overdrive!. Good advice if you cannot settle would be to try to work with the attack rather than against it (remember resistance does not work when panicking as that only makes it worse), find yourself something to do that allows the attack to pass on its own rather than choosing an activity to help you fall straight back to sleep as this tends to be most effective. Keep busy, don't focus on the attack or try to think it through, just simply be and then go back to bed once you feel calm and ready to facilitate sleep again.
- The other option is just to lie there, accept its an attack and allow it to pass. I find works for me now I know what happening and can rationalise things more, I don't think it would have worked for me in the beginning. I now try to read quietly and focus my mind on the book rather than the anxious feelings. Once my mind is engaged in the book it cannot solely focus on the my negative feelings and so the attack passes. Try to choose a light read or uplifting book that does not heighten emotion further as reading about Axe murderers at this point won't calm your panic.
Ok so the threat here is your focus moving forwards. If you have had one attack the temptation (as with all panic) is to begin to worry about having another attack and this is counterproductive. Fearing sleep and avoidance is counterproductive and will keep the panic cycle alive.
It's very easy to fear the cycle and try to instinctively protect yourself by trying to ensure sleep on nights to ease by applying behaviours such as drinking alcohol or taking sleeping pills. Applying these behaviours will only deal with the short term fear making the longer term fear go up.
Sleep is something that we allow to happen, it's not something we have to make happen or have any control of once we are asleep, create the right atmosphere for yourself to fall asleep by having a warm bath and drink and try to have your bedroom as quiet dark and comfortable as it can be.
Try to see this as a period of disrupted sleep and nothing more, like your panic symptoms it will also pass, if you allow it rather than fight and resist it.
Accept the fear and let go of the control. This stage will pass.
It is important to recognise that the "what if I can't sleep" thoughts are just nervousness and nothing more. You have to accept nocturnal Panic Attacks for what they are, a product of your current stress, not harmful and although uncomfortable they are nothing to excessively worry about. They will pass as soon as you let them be.