Nocturnal panic attacks

Nocturnal panic attacks – an empty threat from a tired mind

“I tend to stay with the panic. I embrace the panic”

Larry David


Nocturnal panic attacksIt’s 4am and you awaken with a jolt, suddenly a wave of panic sweeps across you as your dreams and conscious thoughts suddenly collide in some semi lucid state.

Your mind is racing at ten to the dozen, you feel hot, sweaty and certain something is wrong.

Your anxiety is through the roof and you know a panic attack is only moments away, yet you have no idea why.

You run to the bathroom feeling sick, splashing water on your face just to try and calm down.

The following 20 minutes are spent with you just trying to regain control of your breathing and you’re now wide awake and know that you’ll be unlikely to sleep again for the next hour or two. 

The next morning you awaken feeling groggy, tired and mentally drained before the day even begins. You know the day ahead will be a bad one with elevated anxiety as you try and function with the lack of sleep.

Nocturnal panic attacks are not only extremely stressful, but also impact on how you feel the next day.

They can take a real toll on your mental and physical health and you can’t even use avoidance techniques to try and avert them.

I used to suffer from them a lot and it made making the most of the following day near impossible to do. 

I’d end up missing work, cancelling meet ups with friends and family and instead I’d sit around eating crap food, watching even worse TV and sometimes not even leaving my bed.

Thankfully those days are now very much behind me, and if I do wake up feeling anxious I know exactly what to do to quickly relax and fall asleep again.

It took a little time to master and today I’m going to share my technique for dealing with nocturnal panic attacks with you.

What causes a nocturnal panic attack?

Unlike a panic attack triggered in a specific situation, nocturnal panic attacks seem to come from no where and because you have no idea why you suddenly awaken feeling this way it can feel all the more scarier.

They can be triggered by a number of things including sleep apnea, acid reflux, hyperventilation and nightmares.

In my experience though, the majority simply come as a result of your thoughts and dreams as your brain unloads the worries and stresses of the day before.

When in deep sleep, although dreams are usually not present, your mind is still processing and, when awoken suddenly, can trigger the panic response.

In truth, worrying about what causes it to happen doesn’t really help, your focus needs to be on what to do when it does happen.

How I learned to deal with nocturnal panic attacks

It was a Saturday night about 7 years ago, I was living in a rented room in South Wales where I had recently moved for a new job.

I was the only person in the house that night and after going to bed a little before midnight I woke up a around 3pm and immediately sensed a wave of panic.

I tried to calm myself but my mind was racing and every negative thought was leading to the next, so I got up and started pacing around trying to regain some control over myself.

I then went outside and sat on the front step, hoping the cold night air would snap me out of it, it didn’t. I was also worried I was about to collapse and pass out, so hoped by being outside at least someone might spot me and help.

Whatever I tried, nothing seemed to work.

I knew I needed to talk to someone, someone who could calm me down and reassure me, so I rang my father.

He answered, very confused at why I was ringing at such a time. Once he realised what was happening he was great, he talked me through why I had no reason to panic and started distracting me by chatting about many other things. 

Within 15-20 minutes I was feeling calm again, I thanked him for being there for me and went back up to bed.

I was now wide awake and new it would be a while before I would be able to sleep again. Thankfully I had nothing planned for the next day and so instead I decided to write down exactly what I had just been through.

I wrote everything out and the more I wrote the more I started to smile. I was smiling at my own stupidity for getting so worked up over nothing.

I can’t remember everything I wrote down, but the final few sentences went something like this:

I just went from asleep, to panic to calm again in the space of half an hour. Nothing happened, nothing hurt me, I panicked for no reason at all. I woke up feeling panicked, I believed something was wrong with me and my thoughts then made it worse. 

By writing it all down I had realised something. I only panicked because I was scared to panic, if I wasn’t scared, if I didn’t care then there was nothing to panic about.

I decided to keep the piece of paper by my bed and there it sat for a few weeks.

My next nocturnal panic attack hit me again in exactly the same way, waking up with a racing mind, sweating and feeling ill.

Yet again I couldn’t calm my mind, so I sat up, turned the light on and there under a couple of books was the paper I’d written on before.

I read it through three or four times and I started to smile again. I didn’t have anything to fear, this was just a panic attack, another attempt by my mind to trick me into thinking something was wrong, that I was going crazy and might collapse and pass out.

It was just like before, and just like before it would pass and I’d be fine again.

Nothing was going to happen.

As soon as I believed and I mean completely believed that this was just another one of anxiety’s tricks, it lost all power and within seconds the panic began to subside.

This time I had gone from sleep to panic to calm again in the space of 5 minutes.

Now I knew my challenge was to make the next time even short.

For the next 6 months or so I continued to have random nocturnal panic attacks and each time I re read what I had written, added new notes and each time quickly regained my calm.

Over the last six years I don’t think I’ve had more than ten nocturnal panic attacks in the whole time and non in the last 18 months.

When I did get one I’d wake up and within 30 seconds I knew what to do.

I laughed at it.

I told it to do its worst, bring it on!

For I knew it was nothing, it was an empty threat which it could not carry out, because I no longer cared about it.

I learned to spot it within seconds, disarm it and almost every time I was able to fall back to sleep again within a few minutes.

I had used my logical and rational thinking to untwist my thoughts of anxiety and panic.

It felt great.

How you can deal with nocturnal panic attacks 

First understand this:

The feelings of panic upon awakening at night are amplified by the confused state of a tired and semi conscious mind.

Your brain has not been given chance to get into gear and is still slowly trying to distinguish what is real and what was just thoughts and feelings from your sleep and dreams.

This can make engaging your logical and rational thought process more difficult than normal and this leaves you more susceptible to believing something really is wrong.

This is why having something close at hand which you have written before can help remind you what is happening, that you’ve been through this before and it is as always – nothing.

It is your ability to believe, without question, that nothing is wrong and that it is just anxiety and panic, that will help you remain calm and eventually stop the panic happening to begin with.

It will take time, patience and practice to be able to do this, but using the method I used and explained above really helps.

You must, once the panic attack is over, write down exactly what you went through. Most importantly how you are now calm again and that nothing happened to you.

You didn’t pass out, you didn’t go crazy, your heart is still beating and it was a panic all for nothing.

It may have felt completely real at the time, but it was your anxiety and panic deceiving you.

Best of all laugh at yourself if you can.

Laugh at the fact you got so worked up over nothing, that you now feel fine and can’t believe what a state you got yourself into. 

Then write it all down and keep it close at hand where you sleep, so that each time it happens you can read through what you wrote before, see what you wrote after the last attack when all was fine and that nothing happened.

Add more notes each time if needed and then repeat, repeat repeat.

I am now able to wake up in a state of panic and within less than ten seconds realise exactly what it is, smile to myself, tell it to do it’s worst and then laugh at its pathetic attempts to try and make me believe it.

Usually within 5 minutes I am sound asleep again, I wake up feeling refreshed and am determined to make the most of my day.

This has not only made my nights so much better, but my days more enjoyable, it helped give me the strength to focus on the other areas of my anxiety I needed to work on.

Use this method to retrain your thinking, to untwist the thoughts which your panic brings and to quickly regain your calm and composure.

You must believe that there is absolutely nothing wrong, you are fine and nothing will happen to you.

Once you do, a nocturnal panic attack will mean you wake up feeling a little anxious or panicked for a brief moment and then fall quickly back asleep with a smile, knowing you have won, it has lost and you’re just one step further along your path to recovery.


Hugo Rock


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