What is a night-time anxiety attack?
In a previous blog post we looked at why some people suffer with anxiety on waking. In this blog post, however, the focus is on those whose symptoms are worse at night. These are the people who get that anxious rush just as they are dropping off to sleep, or wake with a jolt in the middle of the night. Ever felt like that? I know I have!
Anxiety attacks are frightening at the best of times, but when they occur unexpectedly in the silence and darkness of night time, they can be particularly hard to endure. In theory, we are at our most relaxed when we are asleep, so it seems an unlikely time for anxiety to flare up. However, this is a common problem.
What causes anxiety attacks at night?
Night time anxiety or panic attacks, like their day time cohorts, result from the ‘fight or flight’ instinct being triggered by a perceived aggressor. In this case, the aggressor is likely to be mental angst resulting from pent up worries.
In the business of daily life they recede into the background only to rear their monstrous heads when all distractions disappear. In the stillness of the night there is no running away, and if we allow the worry monster to keep up its aggression, an anxiety attack may well ensue.
We also know that the brain does not fully switch off when we are asleep. How often does an event that occurred during the day lead to an odd dream during the night? Our brain naturally tries to process and sort out the day's events and if these have been stressful then our dreams may well provoke anxiety too.
What does a night-time anxiety attack feel like?
Anxiety attacks can be frightening and overwhelming. They often begin with quickening, shallow breaths which can feel restricted, and in a sense, suffocating. For some, this type of hyperventilation may even cause vomiting.
Muscle tension is another common symptom of panic attacks and may lead to spasms and cramps, tingling and pins and needles. Some people feel trapped, as if they want to run away and escape (typical of the fight or flight instinct).
Others may go into 'freeze' mode, feeling temporarily paralysed as though their limbs are not reacting to the signals from their brain. Some report experiencing rapid changes in body temperature from very cold to excessively hot, accompanied by simultaneous shivering and sweating.
A typical anxiety attack of this nature should not last for more than 15 minutes.
What can I do to stop anxiety attacks at night?
Trying to fight a night time panic attack will only make it worse. Combat this as you would an anxiety attack during the day; try to slow down, breathe deeply, relax your muscles and calm your mind with whatever thoughts or images help to make you feel safe.
The adrenaline may continue to course through your body, so it is unlikely that you will be able to just to drop off back to sleep. You may even just begin worrying about not sleeping so it can help toget up and do something else to shift your focus. Ideally, simple activities like the ironing, listening to a calming meditation, reading an inspirational or gentle book etc. or even practising yoga poses for sleep may help.
Avoid any over stimulating activity. Only once you are feel ready for sleep should you go back to bed. When you lie down, remain calm by breathing deeply in through your nose and out through your mouth; if you are breathing correctly, your abdomen (not just your chest) will be rising on an in breath and falling on an out breath.
It is possible to learn how to rationally identify and accept the anxiety attack, and allow the fear to pass. With practise of sensible tools and techniques, anxiety attacks will diminish in severity and frequency.
Can I prevent night-time panic attacks?
Once you've had one attack a vicious cycle may ensue, in which you fear having another. To avoid this becoming a persistent problem, it is helpful to create a positive routine around bedtime. What could you do before bedtime to help you relax?
Perhaps take a bath in candle light with soft meditation music playing in the background, or talk about your worries early in the day with a friend so they don't trouble you later.
If you think that you are not going to be able to fall asleep, then it is quite likely that you will have a battle on your hands. Try to follow some good sleep tips to switch off and give your brain a rest.
Are there remedies to help?
Many people look straight to conventional sleeping tablets or anti-anxiety medication to counter the effects of nocturnal anxiety attacks. However, it is best to follow the above lifestyle tips first to try to control the symptoms naturally. If you manage to control your symptoms this way, the results will be the most effective and long lasting with the fewest side effects.
How do you stop a night time anxiety attack? Share your top tips below.