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Trouble Sleeping? Night Anxiety and Nocturnal Panic Attacks

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We’re all aware of the many links that have been drawn between our mental health and our sleep schedules. Suffering from poor sleep can make matters worse and struggling from mental health can make falling asleep or sleeping too long a difficulty. Night anxiety is a common occurrence.

I remember a few years ago I used to get hugely anxious at night, and for no reason that I can remember. It was bad. I felt sick, shaky and scared. I used to take herbal sleep tablets, drink hot milk or chamomile tea, but nothing seemed to work. I ended up in a sort of cycle, where knowing that I would get anxious made me anxious in advance. I hated the evenings and going to bed. It’s one of the first times I can really clearly pinpoint having a panic attack. I’ve even woken up from having a panic attack whilst sleeping, and I’m not the only one.

But why?

At night, we are often alone with our thoughts. We aren’t doing anything that can distract from intrusive thoughts or memories. There are many things that cause anxiety, and sometimes it just is there for no reason at all. For a lot of us, it’s the stress of work or day to day life, but when I struggled with this night anxiety, I was a child.  A tween, if you will. So, there wasn’t that much in my everyday life to spiral me into panic attacks during the summer holidays other than maybe the house was a bit spooky.

Our brains don’t ‘turn off’ when we sleep. They keep going, allowing any stresses or worries to manifest unconsciously. This is why we can suffer from anxiety even when we’re already asleep.

“I find the nights long, for I sleep but little, and think much.” – Charles Dickens, Bleak House

Nocturnal Panic Attacks

Sometimes referred to as ‘night terrors’, nocturnal panic attacks are more common than you might think. As with panic attacks during the day, these can be triggered or not and generally feature the same symptoms, including:

  • Rapid Heart Rate
  • Shortness of Breath/Tightness in chest
  • Hyperventilation/Feeling of choking
  • Sweating
  • Shaking/Muscle Spasms/Trembling
  • Flushing or Chills
  • Dizziness
  • Feeling of lack of control
  • Nausea
  • Numbness/Tingling

If you’ve had panic attacks before, there may be other symptoms you’re familiar with. We end up in the cycle mentioned before. After having one panic attack, you live in fear of it happening again, this build up of stress and anxiety is often what eventually triggers it. All in all, a bad night’s sleep.

“He who fears he shall suffer already suffers what he fears.” – Michael de Montaigne

Insomnia

Not getting a good night’s sleep can have negative consequences both physically and mentally, as well as in the short and long runs including:

  • Mood Changes
  • Memory Problems
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Impairs Cognitive Functions
  • Lower Libido
  • Increases Symptoms of Depression
  • Higher Levels of Cortisol (stress hormone)
  • Impairs Judgement

Staying Calm

There are many ways to relax your body and mind before settling down to make sure get a good night sleep.

  • Meditation: There are lots of guided meditations you can listen to in order to help you calm down and send you drifting off to sleep. Or listen to soothing noises like rain or waves.
  • Caffeine: Don’t consume caffeine past noon, or a few hours prior to going to bed. Lowering your overall caffeine intake can help.
  • Read: This is often what I ended up doing, calming my anxiety by reading. This meant I often fell asleep with my book digging into me, but at least I wasn’t anxious.
  • Bath: Take a nice, long relaxing bath to relax tight muscles. Throw in some Epsom salts or essential oil to further relax.
  • Write It Down: If there are specific jobs or tasks that are whirring around your brain, write them down before you go to bed to stop them keeping you up. Try keeping paper or a journal by your bed to clear any intrusive thoughts, and to track any patterns that might emerge from struggling with night anxiety.
  • Herbal Tea: As with the aforementioned chamomile, relax yourself with a hot cup of herbal tea. There are loads of specific blends to assist not only with night-time, but with anxiety in general.

When you wake up from a nocturnal panic attack, settling down again can be difficult. If need be, get up and walk around for a bit. Get some fresh air from your window or garden, drink some tea and lower your heart rate and breathing before trying to nod off again.

Further Resources:

Coping With Panic Attacks, Mind 

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