By Emma Hudson
If you suffer from daytime panic attacks, chances are you will also have experienced nocturnal episodes. Waking suddenly with a racing heart, shortness of breath, spasms and feeling sheer terror - sound familiar? While the attack may only last ten minutes or so, you are unable to sleep again until the early hours of the morning - maybe an hour or so before you have to get up and face another day.
Nocturnal or sleep panic attacks should not be confused with having a nightmare. They are a continuation of what haunts you during the day - anxiety. The same triggers that cause the onset of a daytime panic attack work on your unconscious at night too. Experts are at a loss to say exactly what causes panic attacks but they have very strong theories which include lifestyle choices, chemical imbalances in the brain and learned behaviour.
So, what can you do about them? The first step is to get a complete physical examination. The first thing doctors will want to rule out is that you are not suffering from sleep apnea which is when not enough air can get into your lungs while you are sleeping. This causes pauses in breathing which interrupts a sound sleep. This disorder can cause symptoms similar to nocturnal panic attacks but it is a different condition altogether.
Once this, or any other physical cause has been ruled out, health care providers will look at your lifestyle choices. Habits which encourage sleep will be introduced - no coffee or alcohol in the later part of the day, no TV in the bedroom, no vigorous exercise before bed (except for sex, which produces endorphins in the brain. Endorphins are happy chemicals, so this is good). Herbal teas can be effective relaxants so a cup before bedtime can be beneficial.
From this point, the treatment follows the same plan as that for daytime panic attacks. If the attacks are frequent, a sedative may be prescribed as a stop gap measure. While taking sedatives is not ideal as they can be addictive and the sleep they induce is not quality sleep, at the beginning some sleep is better than none. The effects of a constant lack of sleep on our physical and mental health can be devastating.
A more favourable approach is that of cognitive behavioural therapy. This is where firstly thinking processes are modified which in turn leads to a change in behaviour. This approach is very successful but is not immediate - it can take weeks or months before there are results.
The most successful treatment is that which follows a plan drawn up by your health care provider. The best results have been obtained by a combination of all of the points we have discussed so far. What is important to know is that no-one need suffer from panic attacks - daytime or nighttime. They are curable.