How to Stop Panic Attacks at Night?

Sleep is important for your overall health and wellbeing and a good night’s sleep is essential for a good quality of life.

When something disrupts your sleep, it can be difficult to concentrate or perform the following day.

When the disruption to your sleep is a regular occurrence, it could lead to longer-term issues such as depression (1) and could even increase your risk of a heart attack or stroke (2).

Panic attacks at night cause increased anxiety at a time when you should be resting and can be frightening for many people who experience them.

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is the sudden onset of intense anxiety and causes symptoms that may be alarming for some people.

Some symptoms of a panic attack are:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
  • An overwhelming sense of doom
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Uncontrollable shaking
  • Nausea
  • Feeling that you have no control
  • Tingling in your fingers, toes, or lips

Night-time or nocturnal panic attacks have the same symptoms as a daytime panic attack, except that they wake you up from your sleep or occur just as you are about to drift off to sleep.

While the panic attack itself will usually pass within a few minutes – it can sometimes take a long time to fully calm down enough to be able to return to sleep.

What causes panic attacks at night?

Our brains never switch off, even at night when we are fast asleep – and so any underlying stresses or anxieties from your waking life can suddenly pop into your head causing a panic attack.

Anxiety and lack of sleep seem to work in a vicious circle – you are more likely to have a nocturnal panic attack if you are anxious, and anxiety can keep you awake.

However, while studies have yet to pinpoint an exact reason behind panic attacks, they have found a number of factors that may contribute to you having panic attacks at night (3).

The factors that can increase your risk of night-time panic attacks are:

  • Underlying mental health issues such as depression, PTSD and OCD
  • Experiencing stress during the day
  • Withdrawal from alcohol or drugs
  • Chronic or terminal illness
  • Significant disruption to your regular life such as the death of a loved one or losing your job
  • Excessive use of cannabis
  • Excessive caffeine intake
  • Some medications list panic attacks as a side effect
  • Genetics – if you have a parent that suffers from panic attacks, you are more at risk of suffering from panic attacks.

How can I cope with panic attacks at night?

Waking up in the middle of a panic attack is a stressful and scary thing to experience, and not knowing how to deal with the panic attack can actually make you panic more, which then makes the panic attack worse or last longer.

However, there are some things you can do to minimise the severity and length of your panic attack:

  • Breathe through it

There is no point in trying to fight against the panic attack as that will only make things worse and prolong your attack. Instead, focus on your breathing. Inhale deeply through your nose and exhale slowly through your mouth. This will not only take your mind off of the attack itself as you will be focusing on your breathing, it will also give you some control over the situation.

  • Try to distract yourself

Once you’ve got the breathing sorted, try to focus on something other than the panic attack.

Some people like to think of an event they are looking forward to or their favourite song, but you could also go through the alphabet and think of a name for each letter from A – Z. Anything positive that takes your mind off your panic attack will work.

  • Get up out of bed

After your panic attack has passed, it is not a good idea to lie there thinking about how stressful it was. Instead, get up and do something calming to take your mind off it.

A calming activity like gentle stretching, colouring or even making a soothing hot drink are all things that can take your mind off your panic attack and help to calm you down.

  • Listen to soothing sounds

You can follow a guided meditation or simply listen to the sounds of the rainforest. Sounds that promote relaxation and a positive and calming atmosphere can help to make you feel more relaxed and could help you get back to sleep faster.

  • Go back to bed when you are feeling sleepy

Rushing back to bed before you are ready can leave you lying there twiddling your thumbs and could make you focus on your panic attack again.

Keep your mind occupied until you are feeling sleepy again and hopefully you will be able to drift off quickly.

Can I prevent night-time panic attacks from happening?

Dwelling on a previous night-time panic attack can cause you to become anxious about having another one, which can lead to more night-time panic attacks and insomnia.

There are a few things you can implement into your everyday life to reduce your chances of experiencing another night-time panic attack:

  • Create a bedtime routine

Establishing a bedtime routine will train your mind and body that it is time to wind down and can encourage better sleep. Something simple like having a bath or switching the television off to enjoy a book an hour before you go to bed are good ways to relax your mind.

  • Avoid caffeine after midday

Morning coffee is absolutely fine but having caffeine after midday is more likely to keep you up at night as it acts as a stimulant. Avoiding caffeine altogether is even better.

  • Switch off the screens

Mobile phones, laptops and televisions emit blue light which tricks your mind into believing that it is daytime.

Many devices now come with a blue light filter; however, it is best to switch off all technology around an hour before bedtime and keep your lights dim.

This will train your brain to know that bedtime is approaching and it’s time to prepare to sleep.

  • Be prepared for the day ahead

If your anxiety is triggered by what might happen the following day, it helps to be prepared.

Lay your clothes out before you go to bed, have your packed lunch in the fridge and ready to go and even make a to-do list that you can tick off throughout the day if it helps you feel better.