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  • Heather Hildum

Nocturnal Panic Attacks... What are they Really?


Just like panic attacks that sneak up on you during the day, they can sneak up on you in your sleep. These are referred to as Nocturnal Panic Attacks. (You can read more of the symptoms here) Much like waking from a terrifying dream with the feeling of adrenaline soaring through your bloodstream, panic attacks during sleep can have a similar effect. Typically unprovoked, nocturnal panic attacks can mess with your sleep, leaving you tired and physically exhausted the next day.


What happens during a panic attack within the body systems? Adrenaline. Fight or flight. Panic. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) controls internal organs without your body telling it to do so. Within the ANS lies the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS), a subsystem responsible for creating the physical response we experience during a panic attack (or nocturnal panic attack). This sends parts of our brain messages to activate fear and physical pain.


The scary part for me was having no idea what was triggering the panic attacks during my sleep. What I began to do was figure out ways to activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS).


Why? The PNS is responsible for calming us down and bringing us to a state of homeostasis. It relaxes the digestive tract (wonderful for IBSers like me), slows the heart rate down, and conserves energy. The Vagus Nerve is what sends these signals of peace and sincerity to the body once the PNS is activated.


More on the PNS and how to activate it here.


What we need to discuss is what really drives these panic attacks to occur at night. Doctors are not super clear why they occur, though there are things that have clear connections to their occurrences. Once the fight or flight response is activated, it is even harder to get back to a peaceful state. Have a panic attack once, you’ll likely have one again, which increases your chance of having them during sleep.


Here are some of the root causes of nocturnal panic attacks that have been identified:


1. Genetics, of course. Just remember that our genetics truly only control about one percent of our health in a way that cannot be helped. The rest is up to us and how we nurture our bodies.


2. Brain changes such as neurotransmitter deficiencies or imbalances. Or side effects of medication changes.


3. Having panic attacks during the day increases your likelihood of having one at night.


4. Underlying conditions such as undiagnosed sleep disorders, thyroid problems, and other cognitive disorders.


5. Stress because of that darned Sympathetic Nervous System activation. If we are stressed, we are in a state of activation, which bumps up the chance of having a panic attack.


6. Stressful life events and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).


Whether the cause is obvious (perhaps listed above), or you’re unsure, typically panic attacks are not dangerous. If you suspect other underlying health conditions being the root of your nocturnal panic attacks, you will want to contact your doctor for proper treatments.

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