If panic attacks during the day are extremely frightening and upsetting for the sufferer, then sleep panic attacks are doubly more so. The individual abruptly wakes up from a seemingly deep sleep suffering from the debilitating symptoms of a full-blown panic attack, which can leave him/her feeling very distressed, confused and agitated. In some cases, this can give way to extreme fear of sleep, which is called hypnophobia among mental health professionals.
It must be noted that 50-70 percent of individuals who have panic disorder will experience one or more episodes of these attacks in their sleep. Unfortunately, other sleep disturbances like insomnia can also happen with said episodes especially when these become more frequent.
To further complicate the matter, there are many forms of panic attacks during sleep.
• It can be that the person suddenly wakes up with the feeling that a panic attack is about to begin.
• It can be that the person seems suspended in mid-sleep where he/she is completely aware that a panic attack is happening, which results in a struggle to wake up.
• It can be that symptoms atypical of a waking panic attack - teeth grinding, headache and pressure in the ears - are present.
• It can be that the symptoms are very similar to waking panic attacks except that these are sleep panic attacks.
No matter the type of sleeping panic attack, the person wakes up feeling confused, agitated, disoriented and detached from reality. And if a sleeping panic attack happens in an unfamiliar room, the effects are doubly distressing for the individual.
Benefits of Treatment
Of course, the right treatment approach for attacks during sleep will greatly benefit the individual. The frequency and severity of the attacks will be considerably lessened, which will also benefit the treatment of waking panic attacks.
Treatment will vary according to the severity and frequency of the symptoms, with the existing medications for waking panic attacks an important consideration, too. For many sufferers, changing the medications can prove very helpful along with a different approach in psychotherapy. Of course, self-help techniques will always be useful in any kind of panic attack.
At present, the causes of sleep panic attacks are not yet full understood although theories do exist. One theory suggests that increased levels of carbon dioxide in the blood triggers the attacks especially in individuals with who are prone to hyperventilate. Another theory suggests that sudden changes in the sleep cycle trigger the attacks.
No matter the causes, however, the symptoms are similar in almost all cases. There are heart palpitations, chest pain, sweating, hot flashes or chills, trembling and twitching, hyperventilation, dizziness, fear of losing control, sensation of choking, abdominal distress, numbness or tingling sensations in the extremities, and a desperate urge to flee from danger.
Fortunately, these symptoms will subside in 10-20 minutes although these may have arisen so suddenly that the individual is caught off guard. However, it is highly recommended that professional opinion must be secured to determine if other sleep disorders like obstructive sleep apnea, gastroesophageal reflux disease and laryngospasms are not the culprits behind the sleep panic attacks.