Panic attacks often feel like you are dying, and they can be especially frightening if they happen when sleeping; however, you can’t directly die from a panic attack in your sleep. In fact, you won’t die as a consequence of a panic attack at any time of the day.
However, you should know that most of the panic attack symptoms can also be symptoms of other conditions or problems; hence, what you experience may not always be a panic attack.
What are the symptoms of a nocturnal panic attack?
To first understand if it is a panic attack or another problem, it is important to know what the symptoms of a panic attack are. The following are signs of nocturnal or diurnal panic attacks:
- Sudden and intense fear or discomfort: Panic attacks typically begin abruptly, often reaching their peak within minutes. You may experience an overwhelming sense of fear, terror, or impending doom, even if there is no apparent threat or danger.
- Physical symptoms: Panic attacks often involve various physical sensations, which can include
- Rapid heartbeat or palpitations
- Shortness of breath or a feeling of being smothered
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Sweating or chills
- Trembling or shaking
- Feeling lightheaded, dizzy, or faint
- Nausea or stomach discomfort
- Numbness or tingling sensations
- Hot flashes or chills
- Psychological symptoms: Panic attacks can also manifest as psychological symptoms, such as:
- A sense of unreality or detachment from oneself (depersonalization)
- Feeling detached from the surroundings (derealization)
- Fear of losing control or going crazy
- Fear of dying
- Duration: Panic attacks typically reach their peak within a few minutes and subside gradually. However, the overall duration can vary, and some symptoms may linger for a longer period.
- Context and triggers: Panic attacks are often unexpected and can occur in various situations, including during sleep. They can also be triggered by specific situations or phobias, such as crowded spaces, heights, or flying.
How to know if it is a panic attack?
Recognizing a panic attack involves identifying these symptoms and understanding the context in which they occur, knowing that its presence does not automatically mean you are experiencing a panic attack, as other conditions could cause the same indicators. Here are some conditions that can share similar symptoms with panic attacks:
- Heart conditions: Certain heart conditions, such as arrhythmias, heart attacks, or angina, can cause symptoms that resemble panic attacks. It is essential to rule out any underlying cardiac issues if you experience chest pain or discomfort during an episode.
- Respiratory disorders: Respiratory conditions like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can lead to shortness of breath, wheezing, or a feeling of suffocation, which may resemble panic attack symptoms.
- Thyroid disorders: Both an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism) and an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) can cause anxiety-like symptoms, including rapid heartbeat, nervousness, and restlessness.
- Medication side effects: Some medications, such as certain asthma medications, stimulants, or corticosteroids, can produce symptoms that mimic panic attacks. It’s important to consider any recent changes in medication when evaluating your symptoms.
- Substance withdrawal or intoxication: Withdrawal from substances like alcohol, benzodiazepines, or opioids can lead to anxiety-like symptoms that may resemble panic attacks. Additionally, intoxication from certain substances can cause similar physical and psychological effects.
Some of these conditions above can be quite serious, and it is, therefore, essential to rely on professional expertise for an accurate assessment and appropriate treatment. They can discard any serious health problem and confirm that what you are experiencing are panic attacks.
Panic attack or heart attack?
It is common for people having a panic attack to think they are having a heart attack. Distinguishing between a panic attack and a heart attack can be challenging, as this is a case where both conditions can share some similar symptoms. In this article, we expand on the differences between a panic attack and a heart attack.
In any case, it is important not to self-diagnose or delay seeking medical help if you experience symptoms that could indicate a heart attack. If you are unsure about your symptoms, it is always safer to err on the side of caution and call emergency services or go to the nearest emergency room for evaluation.
What causes panic attacks while sleeping?
Panic attacks that occur during sleep, known as nocturnal panic attacks, can have several potential causes. While the exact mechanisms are not fully understood, here are some factors that may contribute to panic attacks during sleep:
- Subconscious anxiety: Anxiety or unresolved stressors that are present during waking hours can carry over into sleep. When the conscious mind is at rest, the subconscious mind may still process and respond to underlying anxiety, potentially triggering a panic attack.
- Sleep disorders: Conditions such as sleep apnea, insomnia, or restless leg syndrome can disrupt sleep patterns and increase the likelihood of experiencing panic attacks during sleep. These disruptions can cause heightened arousal or distress that may manifest as a panic attack.
- Nightmares: Intense or distressing nightmares can trigger a panic response upon awakening.
- Biological factors: Imbalances in brain chemistry, particularly neurotransmitters such as serotonin and norepinephrine, have been associated with anxiety disorders and panic attacks. Fluctuations in these chemicals during sleep might contribute to the occurrence of panic attacks.
- Medications and substance use: Certain medications, such as those used for treating asthma or certain psychiatric conditions, may have side effects that contribute to panic attacks during sleep. Additionally, substance use, including alcohol, stimulants, or sedatives, can disrupt sleep patterns and contribute to the occurrence of panic attacks.
What to do during a panic attack at night?
What to do during a panic attack at night is the same that at any other time. Try the following:
- Don’t fight it: Fighting a panic attack can make it worse, so the first step is not to fight it, and allow and accept that you are having a panic attack. Remember that you can’t die from a panic attack, not during the day, not at night, and remind yourself that it will fade eventually. Let it happen.
- If possible, stay where you are: Don’t try to escape or do anything in order to reduce the symptoms. That would only be another way of fighting the panic attack back.
- Breathe slowly: When having a panic attack, breathing becomes faster and shallower, which activates the sympathetic nervous system and gets your brain ready to fight or flight. Make the conscious decision to breathe slowly and deeply to send signals to your brain that indicate that you are safe and that there is no need to fight or flight.
- Remind yourself that this can’t harm you: Keep repeating to yourself that a panic attack is not life-threatening and that the symptoms you are experiencing are just very unpleasant.
Remember that everyone’s experience with panic attacks is different, and not all strategies may work for everyone. If reoccurring, we suggest working with a therapist to develop a personalized plan for managing and coping with panic attacks. We can help you with this problem, contact us if you require more information.