panic attacks while sleeping

What Are Panic Attacks While Sleeping?

by Jeremy Doyle

Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night unable to breathe and with a feeling of terror like something terrible was going to happen? If you have, chances are that you’ve experienced a panic attack while sleeping.

This is a common occurrence in people who suffer from these attacks during the day. In fact, about 50% of the people who suffer from panic attacks during the day will also experience them at night.

The symptoms of these attacks are pretty much the same as the symptoms of regular panic episodes. In addition, they occasionally come with vivid nightmares and sometimes brief sleep paralysis.

Causes: NOT dreams

The causes of these nightly panic episodes are pretty much the same as the causes of standard panic attacks. To name a few, major life transitions, excessive stress and losing someone close are their principal causes.

Usually, panic attacks that happen when you’re asleep are not caused by dreams. Sleep studies have shown that they happen during the early phases of sleep, before entering the REM phase where dreams are experienced.

Sometimes, the attacks will happen during the night when too much stress and anxiety are repressed during the day. This causes anxiety to accumulate inside of you and this build-up explodes when you let your guard down when you’re sleeping.

Complications: a vicious circle

Experiencing panic attacks at night can cause some complications to your well-being. Many people who experience them start to be afraid of going to sleep because they think they will wake up in panic in the middle of the night. This can lead them to develop insomnia and sleep anxiety. This does nothing the help them control their anxiety.

Insufficient sleep is one of the principal causes of chronic anxiety. People who don’t get enough sleep tend to be nervous, edgy and anxious. They have more trouble managing their emotions. This, in turn, can increase the chance of having a panic attack while sleeping.

People who sleep less are more prone to having attacks of panic, and people who experience them while sleeping are prone to sleep less. As you can see, this creates a vicious circle which can be hard to break.

Furthermore, this lack of sleep can cause additional problems, such as more breathing difficulties during episodes of panic and depression in general. But thankfully, there are a couple of solutions you can try to help you sleep better at night.

Solutions: lifestyle changes

There are a couple of things you can try to reduce your chances of experiencing panic episodes while sleeping:

1. Music

Listening to relaxing music can help you fall asleep faster than simply lying on your bed in complete silence. Music will help you relax your mind and stop focusing on your conscious thoughts. Alternatively, you can try listening to a white noise machine instead of music.

2. Relaxation

Basic relaxation exercises can go a long way in helping you sleep better. I like to practice conscious breathing whenever I have trouble falling asleep as I find it helps me calm my mind.

3. Exercising

You don’t need to do a lot of exercising every day to sleep better. Some simple lifestyle changes like taking the stairs instead of the elevator will do you a lot of good. It’s amazing how a 20-minute walk outside can do wonders to clear your mind and help you sleep better at night.

4. Avoiding alcohol and coffee

In many cases, alcohol and coffee have been found to be the cause of panic disorders in people. Gradually decrease your intake of coffee and avoid taking it in the afternoon if you want any chance of sleeping at night. If you drink a lot, try to cut back on alcohol and take notes on the quality of your sleep to learn what effects it has on it.

5. Stress management

As I mentioned earlier, nightly episodes of panic happen when there is a lot of stress and anxiety repressed during the day. Learning how to manage that stress will help you get rid of your problem.

6. Therapy

If your panic or anxiety attacks become a problem in your life and you feel like you can’t solve it by yourself, don’t be afraid to consult a professional to help you with your issue.

Panic attack or sleep apnea?

Panic attacks happening while you’re sleeping can bear some resemblances with sleep apnea, a disorder where the person stops breathing during sleep for a small period of time. While the symptoms of sleep apnea may look like the symptoms of a panic attack, doctors agree that the two disorders are unrelated.

Photo © planetchopstick

If you want to learn more about this, I heartily invite you to read my free guide, Leave Panic Behind. It will tell you everything you need to know to get rid of panic attacks.

Next Step: Download My Free Guide


1 Jackie royal February 4, 2011 at 9:11 pm

Jeremy, I get emails from you every couple of days about anxiety. You write them like you are my friend and really care about the difficulty I am having. I know this is not true, but sometimes I feel like you are my only friend and that you really understand. You have been a great deal of support to me in the last little while. Thank you for what you do. In hope you will continue to email me. Thank you
Jackie royal

2 Jeremy Doyle February 4, 2011 at 9:27 pm

Hi Jackie,

Your comment means a lot to me. It gives me the motivation to keep going. Thank you for taking the time to stop by and tell me this. I’ll do my best to continue adding content to both this website and the mailing list. If there’s anything you think I could do better to help, please let me know!

Jeremy :)

3 John Baxter October 23, 2011 at 11:14 am

I am a 49 yr. old male who has night panic attacks on occasions. My recent bout was this last Thursday. I first started having these attacks back in the last half of 2008; at this time I was taking surgical tech. training at a local college. I don’t know if that is related or not, but I just wanted to mention it. On two occasions my panic attacks sent me to the hospital. One attack happened at about 11:00 A.M. on the way to church. It put me in the hospital for two days. The symptoms I have are much like what I have read on the internet. Over the course of three years or so I have had over a dozen such episodes. It is truly a horrible thing. It is weird because I don’t drink alcohol or smoke and I am in good health with no high blood pressure or any sugar problems. I appreciate the attention you are bringing to this.

4 Sivie January 14, 2012 at 9:34 pm

Would like to get some advice on methods of controlling my anxiety without medicine. I am 37, single mother of two, so that of motherhood has taking its load on me. I had two of the panic attacks twice, one in December, and one in January, I don’t smoke, but my blood pressure does go up sometime, especially when I have my menstrual. So any advice is ok.

5 aaron January 25, 2012 at 6:06 am

Hi, Found this site when awaken from an attack while sleeping. I ve been dealingf with general anxiety disorder for 9 mts and today i decide not to give in to myanxiety as it was taking control of me big time, I manage it well all day although it was distressing and I looked forward to getting some rest it ease things up. But while sleeping I had trouble I kept tossing and turning and notice my nostrils were completelly dry felt back to sleep anyway and then later I had trouble waking up like my brain had trouble shifting frm subconscious to coscious anyways didn’t know what was going on.woke up and confuse, trouble thinking, and anxious. Don’t know if this could be anxiety attack while sleeping not the first time it happens.

6 stephanie January 30, 2012 at 3:23 am

i haven’t been diagnosed with panic or anxiety attacks but the symptoms i’m having are similar to what i’ve read. The first one i had was just about two years ago i woke up wet with sweat felt like i couldn’t breathe heart was racing felt like i was going to pass out called the ambulance but after they ran some tests they couldn’t find anything wrong. So i’ve been having these attacks and don’t know what to do.

7 Crystal January 31, 2012 at 4:06 am

I’m 29 and I’m new to anxiety just this past december I found myself shaking and feeling very crazy inside dizzy lightheaded and can’t eat can’t sleep and also crying alot. It started in the grocery store on christmas eve. Felt like I was going to pass out and had to get out if there. No one seems to care about what I’m going thru except for my fiance. Now I’m finding myself feeling like this most of the day everyday. I have meds from my behavior dr and can’t put myself up to taking them because I’m scared of what the side effects are being home alone with my 4 treat old. I do work alit seven days a week family issues. I have been to many drs to make sure its not something serious as if this is not. Ekg blood test thyroid test stool test. I have done it all even was in the hospital on christmas day. I feel like I’m going to due and no one erik be able to help me. I feel alone in this and I think I’m going crazy. Please someone let me know if they feel the same.

8 Jim October 18, 2012 at 9:13 am

Yes, I feel the same. And no, I haven’t died. Some days I’m clutched by fear, sense of doom overwhelming. I only went to the hospital once, after that I understand it’s a panic attack and I don’t bother the medical system. Praying helps. Low blood sugar can trigger it. I also have good days. There is hope. Some days, I feel so good, the light of God is all around me, I’m relaxed, calm, joyous – able to stop thinking about myself and care about others. Other days, like today, I live in the darkness, choked by fear. I live for those days of hope.

I keep a photo journal of myself, one photo every day. It’s easy with a smart phone. One look at my eyes, and I can see the days where I am panicking. Like today, I look grey, trembling, eyes wild with fear. But other photos are smiling. Others are calm. That gives me hope. That reminds me that this is a condition that passes away, it doesn’t last forever.

God bless you all who have posted here. I can tell you for sure you will see many days of smiles again in your life.

9 teresa February 6, 2012 at 7:51 pm

I am 49 years old and in the last two months have been having panic attacks just about 24/7. They are now waking me up at 5 in the morning and I can’t get back to sleep. When I get them my blood pressure goes up, I get a terrible headache, start shaking and become confused. I have been to the emergency room twice in the last week. Heart is okay, throid is okay, but I am still waiting for my adrenal gland test to come back. Today my doctor put me on Adivan and eight hours later, I have had very few syptoms. I will wait for my adrenal tests to come back to rule that problem out. I also will be scheduling an appt with a therapist to see if they can help. Don’t stop trying to find what is wrong and/or what will help. Be your own advocate and don’t settle for anyone tellilng you it’s all in your mind or thinking you are crazy. Do what you need to get better. My doctor has been my lifeline. She listens and is doing everything possible to find out what is wrong.

10 Paul February 19, 2012 at 11:44 pm

I’m a 23 year old male and had a panic attack about 1 week ago while I was at home relaxed watching tv, I felt a jolt to the chest then my heart started beating really fast. This had never happend to me before but since then I get the same feeling when trying to sleep, just as I’m about to nod off I get that jolt in my chest and feel like I’m having a heart attack.

This is why I’m posting at 4.43am and haven’t had any sleep, I should be at work in 3 hours! if any one has any decents tips then please post

11 laura lopez November 18, 2012 at 8:55 pm

feel the same way i feel sleepy but my heart jolts and feel scared

12 Salem Malaya February 27, 2012 at 11:35 pm

Hi. I am 15 years old, and been stuck with anxiety for about, oh, 3 years. I just recently had a dream earlier that I was in this room full of pots. There was a man who gave me something, and told me which pot to put it in. I was doing that for awhile, then he began to yell at me because I wasn’t working or moving fast enough. I got overwhelmed in the dream, and my heart was going crazy. I woke up to my heart freaking out, and I was breathing hard. These things usually don’t happen to me all that often. Also, is it possible to pass out in your sleep?I had a dream that I did once.

13 Izzy March 20, 2012 at 4:28 am

Wow, I am up with another nightly panic attack so my docs call it. It feels horrible! I just turned 30 and my life has been turned upside down! About 9 months ago I experienced my first “Panic Attack” except it was during the day. I was rushed to the hospital where I stayed 2 days. The docs ran several tests and came up with nothing. As the days went on things got worse for me. Heart palpitations, numbness in my arms and legs, confusion, shortness of breath, headaches, fatigue, etc. I have been to a neurologist who has done several MRI’s and has not found anything of concern. I have also been to a cardiologist who had me wear a heart monitor for 45 days and results should nothing. I had a sleep study done to check if I had sleep apnea, and show that I don’t have breathing problems at night, but they did tape me waking up frightened in the middle of the night. I’ve been in an out of the ER with no results.
I’m so tired of this! Praying seems to calm me. I pray we all get better! By the way please be careful with antidepressants I had a severe reaction ( serotonin syndrome) to a migraine med (topomax) and zoloft. Ask your pharmacist about possible during interactions before you take a new med.

14 Melinda April 2, 2012 at 7:53 pm

I’ve had small panic attacks before but last night I woke up at 2am in absolute terror. I thought I was dying, felt hopeless and was crying uncontrollably. My heart was racing, nauseous, dizzy and felt out of control. I have a fear of death and this just sent me over the edge. I fear this will continue and eventually take over my life. I’ve become slightly OCD with checking for fires etc…. I don’t know what to do. I don’t want medication.
I think what brought it on was getting married the day before. I heard life changes can be the trigger. I just feel so hopeless about this. I have never in all my life been so terrified.

15 Kasie April 14, 2012 at 1:37 am

I’ve had anxiety and panic attacks since I was in high school. I’m now 30. They are terrifying to say the least and can be debilitating if you don’t know about the physiology behind them. It’s also difficult because people that have never had them have no idea how to relate when you are feeling like you literally are going to end up in the loony bin. My mother has them and her father had them. They can be caused by many things and it’s good to rule out any medical conditions. Mine flare up under periods of stress. Repressed stress and feelings can cause them. You may feel like you have a handle on things in your life but your body is telling you otherwise. Educate yourself about the physiological process involved. I read the book hope and help for your nerves. It goes through the symptoms step by step. The key is not to fear them because the more afraid of them you are the worse it gets. There is a serious lack of education about anxiety disorders. Dr’s treat symptoms and not necessarily the root causes. My heart goes out you. I know what you are going through and I know how hard it is but they can’t hurt you :) read the book. I was at the point where I was staying at the house because I was afraid to be in public for fear of passing out or people noticing there was something wrong with me. Exercise also metabolizes stress hormones and I notice a huge difference when I don’t exercise. I also have been working with a therapist for a year now and I’m fortunate to have a primary care physician that doesnt want to throw pills without exploring other options. I’ve considered starting an online support group because many people substantially better once they know the physiology of what they are experiencing and realize its more mental than physical. Feel free to email me Best wishes and it’s entirely possible to make a full recovery from panick attacks :)

16 Kaye April 4, 2012 at 6:07 pm

I am 63 and seem to have a lot of the symptoms of everyone else who have posted on here. Retired in 2010 end of year and sick most all of 2011. In and out of the hospital that year, had two breast surgeries and infections followed. Hard to breathe and in hospital for that for 5 days and 4 nights on oxygen and heart monitor, rushed to ER thinking I was having a heart attack about 3-4 weeks ago. They did a CT of abdomen and nothing showed up, which I was glad…… Ended up seeing a cardiologist and had a heart catherization which turned out ok, no heart problems, had sleep apnea test which showed positive, heart out of rhythm for 8 hrs so I had to wear heart monitor for 2 weeks. Just finished with that today and went to my family doctor for 3 month check up. He seems to think since everything else checked out ok that it might be PANIC ATTACKS… I am supposed to take Xanax when I feel this coming on. I cry a lot (due to some family issues and stress). I don’t know if it is panic attacks or what it is. I have had shingles…….so I do think my problem is due to STRESS…….but how to take care of this I don’t know except to take the Xanax and see what happens. I do wake up during the night with sweats and heart racing and fear of something bad going to happen. I pray and that seems to help me at times but I have fatigue so bad I have to go to bed many days…….for 2-3 hours…..but it makes me think there is something wrong that the doctors are not finding out but I have had many tests and nothing shows up. This makes me want to think it is PANIC ATTACKS. I don’t know what test would be done to diagnose a panic attack. ?? Any suggestions would be appreciated……….Thanks!!! I pray at night to help me go to sleep. This helps sometimes………because I do not want to take medication to help me sleep…..

17 Ken April 5, 2012 at 4:06 am

I had a panic attack once at the age of 12 which came along with a terrifying dream, a dream where youre being chased but he or she actually catches you instead of the common nightmare where you wake before you are caught. I am 28 and I’ve been having anxiety attacks during sleep 4-5 times a night per week. Anyone have dreams where you are hiding from someone or something but feel relaxed because you are hiding in a “safe spot”, and all of a sudden you feel this enormous fear over you? The fear comes in various shapes and form, mine is particularly a pair of arms from behind me, sometimes the arms belong to a male and some to a female. I then wake up completely paralyzed, wind knocked out of chest, despartely gulping for one gulp of air, voices heard or with the feeling of being watched from my room or feeling like someone is going to open my door slowly to get to me, i can see everything in my room but i cant move no matter how hard i try, its almost like some demonic possession. I finally learned and taught myself that if i wiggle my toes, fingers, or flip on my stomach the paralyasis stops and i snap out of it feeling awake and normal. In my culture this is called “Gawee” which defines the word “scissors”, its when a entity attempts to kill you or rape you in your dreams while you are asleep. Anyone ever experience these events? I’d like some feed back so that i may futher input my knowledge and my information i got from my doctor after it stopped, these events completely went away after i purchased a dog..

18 Daisy April 15, 2012 at 9:37 pm

I am 31 years old i just caught a anxiety and panic attack 3 weeks ago been in the hospital 2x did all type of test and everything been negative.I’ve been to the dr and all he been doin is giving me med but i hate to take med and sleepin pill cause i cannot sleep, so my remedie for sleepin is celestial sleep time tea w honey and for the past week it been helpin me alot to sleep.

19 Melinda April 19, 2012 at 4:02 pm

Is there a way of telling if it is in fact a panic attack vs. sleep apnea? If so what is the name of the doctor I should consult to be tested for sleep apnea?


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