Nocturnal Panic Attacks: Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Sharon Linde
The fear that engulfs a victim of a nocturnal panic attack is worse than from a nightmare. It is more intense, longer-lasting, and often has unknown causes. This lesson covers symptoms, causes, and treatment options for nocturnal panic attacks.

What is a Nocturnal Panic Attack?

Josh awoke with a start. His heart was beating furiously, and he was also sweating and breathing with very short, shallow breaths. He hadn't had a nightmare, but he felt nearly overwhelming terror. Since he had been suffering daytime panic attacks in the last few months, he easily recognized the symptoms of a panic attack. However, this was his first experience with a nocturnal panic attack.

A nocturnal panic attack is a panic attack that happens during sleep. Have you ever heard of this happening? Let's take a look at typical symptoms.

Symptoms of Nocturnal Panic Attacks

It's estimated that between one-half and three-quarters of people that suffer from panic attacks while awake will also suffer from at least one nocturnal panic attack. Just like daytime panic attacks, the victim of a nocturnal panic attack might experience the following symptoms:

Nocturnal Panic Attack Symptoms
Rapid heart rate
Shortness of breath or hyperventilation
Flushing or chills
Chest pain
Sense of impending doom

Because of the chest pain, both nocturnal and daytime panic attacks are sometimes confused with heart attacks. However, the chest pains caused by panic attacks is much less intense and more localized. This pain is caused by small muscle tears in the chest wall from overly intense contractions. Because of this, it is possible to change positions and reduce or eliminate this pain. Chest pain from heart attacks is much more intense, spreads out from the original affected area, and isn't affected by position.

Causes of Nocturnal Panic Attacks

The causes of nocturnal panic attacks are similar to panic attacks when awake, but not exactly the same. Daytime attacks are often caused by excessive and conscious worry - which is difficult to do when you are asleep. In some cases, nightmares can trigger a nocturnal panic attack. There are also some medical conditions that have been shown to increase the chances of nocturnal panic attacks, like obstructive sleep apnea and gastroesophageal reflux disease, for example. In both types of panic attack, it's sometimes impossible to tell the underlying cause.

Treatment of Nocturnal Panic Attacks

Josh got out of bed and used the calming techniques he had been learning recently for daytime panic attacks. Normally he used these techniques to stop or delay the onset of panic attacks during the day. However, with a nocturnal panic attack he had no warning that the attack is about to happen. As with most sufferers, it takes Josh a few minutes to calm down to a normal waking state.

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