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Date of last update: 8/24/2017.

Forum Name: Psychiatric Topics

Question: Panic attacks while sleeping...?

 somebody's_baby - Sat Feb 07, 2004 1:38 pm

I am an 18-year-old college student. I get a decent amount of sleep every night (between 6 and 8 hours) and I don't feel particularly tired during the day. I have little to no trouble concentrating in class. But recently, I have been having frequent nightmares, and at least three nights out of the last month or so, I have woken up in the middle of a dream or nightmare unable to breathe.

The first time this happened was about a month ago. I had just fallen asleep, and I was dreaming a fairly normal dream. I was plugging something into an outlet in my bedroom at home (this incident occurred over winter break, when I was staying with my parents). In the dream, I suddenly felt paralyzed. My heart started beating faster, and I felt like there was an intense pressure on my lungs so that I couldn't draw air into them. I remember thinking, in the dream, that I had been "electrocuted" and I was very certain that I was dying. I woke up then, and it was about ten to fifteen seconds before I could draw a full breath again.

This did not happen again until about a week ago, about two weeks into spring semester. This incident involved a nightmare about being raped, which is a nightmare I have never had before but have had at least twice since. I take a class about preventing rape and discuss the topic for an hour and a half every Monday and Wednesday afternoon, and also do a lot of reading on the topic, so that may be the cause of those nightmares. In these last few nightmares I had the feeling that I was falling forward, as if out of a chair, and I remember thinking that I was going to land on my head, so I kept waiting for my head to hit the ground, but that is where I always wake up, unable to breathe for at least ten seconds. This is scary in and of itself, but I do not feel otherwise afraid - I do not wake up still afraid of the dream, but simply of the fact that I cannot breathe.

I looked into the possibility of sleep apnea, but I understand that this normally occurs hundreds of times during the night and wakes the person up each time, resulting in a very poor quality of sleep, which I do not think is a problem for me. Also, each time I wake up and I am not breathing, my heart is beating very fast and I am scared; not usually of the content of the dream or nightmare I just woke from, but specifically of the fact that I can't breathe. I think maybe I am having some kind of panic attack that is concerned with not being able to breathe or being suffocated, and I was wondering if anyone had any experience with or insight into these symptoms or how I might treat them. Thanks.
 noragz - Sun Feb 08, 2004 3:25 pm

on occasion...This happens to me once in a great while...Only in the first hour or two of sleep .... for me during the initial faze of sleep...Im 34 and it first happened to me when I was 26.....Im still here so it hasen't finished me yet...ha ha....But seriously...i do believe and i have been told it is related to stress and anxiety.....A panic attack can and does happen during sleep.....When this does occur to me it only happens once that night during the initial hour or two of sleep....Once I have reached REM ( Deep Sleep ) this does not happen.....It happens mabey once every 6 months or so for me....But now I know how to control it...and when I do wake up feeling like this I manage it with much less distress....Hope I helped! Scott
 nissan - Wed Aug 17, 2005 7:40 pm

This usually happens at least two or three times a month. I do have sleep apnea but am not currently treating it.
The scarey thing is this. I awake from a sleep but cannot move any part of my body. My brain is telling me I'm awake biut I feel that I am suffocating. I keep telling myself to try and move my leg, arm, foot, hand anything that will jar me. Then I feel that I am going to stop breathing and die. I try to relax every part of my body all the while still not awake.
Finally something happens and my breathing returns to normal and I can then move my leg or arm and wake myself up.
I'm very very scared that one of these times I'm not going to be able to hold my breath long enough to relax my body and will not be alble to ever wake up.
 iambls - Fri Sep 09, 2005 5:51 pm

I've been having 'panic attacks' in my sleep for a few years now. I get it at least once a week. I hate it. I wouldl be consciously awake, paralyzed and not able to breathe. I would try very hard to wake up, when I do, I end up gasping for air and my eyes would shut immediately and I'd go through another episode. Often, I would experience this 3-5 times a night. My doctor advised me to relax myself when I get into the state. I tried it, but EVERYTIME I try to relax myself and remind myself that I am breathing, I would go in an out of body experiences. This is where it gets so scary. I'll hear voices/whispers calling my name. Once, I saw a girl lying down next to me. As much as possible, I would force myself to wake up because it's scary. Any thoughts to why this happens? I don't think it is related to stress because as I mentioned earlier, I get this at least once a week. I get stressed out sometimes, but not often.
 makpgh - Tue Oct 25, 2005 12:16 am

history is that i have panic attacks they don't happen often and they are some what mild when they do accure. the very 1st one i had was huge and i will never forget waking up in the middle of the night it was really scary. one thing i remember was after it i had killer lower back pain so bad it shot down into my legs. a friend said it was normal and it did slowly pass

i am again having major back pain so bad i can barly walk... but i don't recall having an attack and it's not somthing you could easily forget. i first thought i slept funny somhow messin up my back. but then if so this would be a 1st. being such a verisitile sleeper. so is it possible i could of had a panic attack while sleeping? is that possible at all? i was so tried last night there could of been an earthquake and i wouldn't of moved- which made me think that..... maybe? but i never read of any such thing of having one and not being sure if you did... if you could sleep thur it completly...

most post on here people knew what was happening or could at least recall it later but this time i don't know... but my back and my legs hurt soo bad... has anyone had this happen too?
 aw44 - Mon Nov 07, 2005 3:34 pm

I have experieced panic attacks for three years now and have done quite a bit of research on the subject. I thought I would share a little of what I've learned.

First, for those of you who are experiencing periods of paralysis, that is actually normal. Although its not really normal to be aware of it. When the body reaches rem sleep your main muscle groups are actually paralysed, Doctor's believe this has something to do with how the body repairs itself and rests. Some bodily functions such as the diaphram for breathing and smooth muscle tissue for digestion are spared this paralysis.

I think the problem is that many are experiencing panic at the time of this process and not being able to move only heightens this panic. But don't be afraid of the paralysis itself because its natural. Try to figure out what is bothering you on a subconcious level. Which I know is not easy and sometimes not even possible. For acute problems I would suggest medication and or therapy.

My problems, I believe, were brought on by my lifestyle. I lived in a rough neiborhood and Spent a lot of time worrying that any enemies I had made were 'comming to get me'. But since then I have moved away and am living a much simplier life that is less stessfull.

One thing that always brings on panic attacks for me is alchohol. If I go out drinking one night, the next night I am guarenteed to have anxiety when I try to fall asleep, It never fails and the more I drank the night before, the worse the anxiety was the next night. I also think caffeine is bad if you drink it within four or five hours before going to bed. Hope this helps a little.
 sdfirenze - Sat Nov 12, 2005 6:53 am

somebodys baby,

I am sorry to hear that you are having these experiences. They sound rather terrifying. Technically, I do not believe that a panic attack can happen while you sleep, although you certianly can have panic-attack like symptoms after waking up from a nightmare.

My suggestion would be to write in a journal before going to bed if you do not already. Also, taking classes on subjects such as sexual assault can create some strong emotional reactions. If there are people in your life that you can talk to what your experiences have been in that class I would suggest doing so. It sounds like you are going to bed with an awful lot on your mind!

As always, I suggest getting regular physical exams and consulting with your primary care physician if you have not had an appointment recently. In terms of treating panic attacks, you would likely want to see a therapist to help work through the anxiety. Therapy has been shown to be very effective in treating anxiety disorders.

Good luck.
 tigerfan - Fri Dec 02, 2005 8:53 pm

This happens to me every week. I awake out of sleep gasping for air, heart racing, sometimes with chest pain. The first incident occured when I was 24. I'm now 34 and still dealing with this weekly. I have not sought treatment but instead trying to deal with this non medically. Any suggestions?
 nixie - Sat Dec 03, 2005 10:06 pm

I am 22 and this has happened to me for years, at least now I know that I'm not the only one. It is very scary. I too am awake but paralyzed and it feels as though I am suffocating and going to die. I also get this intense pressure in my head and the harder I try to wake up the worst the pressure gets. I find that I have to try to relax in order to come out of it which is very hard to do while this is happening. Eventually I come out of it gasping for breath, my heart racing, and it seems that my whole body is shaking ever so slightly (like a slight tremor but this goes away within a minute or two). I have noticed also that it tends to happen within the first hour of sleep and that it is much more likely to occur if I am very very tired.
 kiddr10 - Thu Apr 30, 2009 12:04 am

nissan wrote: I awake from a sleep but cannot move any part of my body. My brain is telling me I'm awake biut I feel that I am suffocating. I keep telling myself to try and move my leg, arm, foot, hand anything that will jar me. Then I feel that I am going to stop breathing and die. I try to relax every part of my body all the while still not awake.
Finally something happens and my breathing returns to normal and I can then move my leg or arm and wake myself up.

Sorry for bumping such an old thread. But I need to put in my two cents.

This is a great description. This has happened to me twice in the past 2 months. Both occurred when I was taking a long nap on the couch. I've never had any history of panic attacks before and I'm not under any more stress than I have for the past 3 years (3rd year college student). So my question is; is this really related to a panic attack, or is this a separate occurrence?
 lionheart - Sun Sep 20, 2009 6:00 pm

I have always been a dreamer; usually everynight I dream something. I never really thought about having a panic attack while I was sleeping. I just figured I was the type of person who, because of stress, had a lot of nightmares. I am now convinced I have panic attacks while I am asleep.

They have been going on for a few years but are beginiing to occur more frequently. I sincerely hate having them. Not only am I paralyzed in my sleep (or dream) but when I wake up I still feel paralyzed. I am so afraid when I wake up that I can't move at all. When I awake I am usually unaware of where I am; still feeling as though I am in the location I was before I awoke.

My reactions depend on my dream but I normally feel like someone, or some thing, is in or near me which causes me to be deathly afraid to move. When I do try o move I can't. Usually, while still asleep, I can't breathe, my heart races, and I desperately want to wake up. I can;t even begin to explain how I feel when these attacks occur.

The dreams are so realistic. Many times I am trying to scream but no sound will come out of my mouth (both in my dream and when I awake). The events that take place while asleep never make any sense to me but are so damn vivid that I feel like I am watching a television show. At times it is likes a series because I will pick up where I left off the night before.

What is strange is that I sometimes have the same dream numerous times over a period of a few months. What scares me is that I may not wake up afer one of these attacks. What also scares me is that the frequency of these attacks may cause damage to my system (heart particularly).

There have been quite a few time when my husband has a very hard time waking me up whil I am having an attack. I have no insurance so I cannot have any tests done. I can't remember ever having a panic attack while awake. I am always tired because I have so many restless nights. I have a headache every day...EVERY day.

I want to learn more about sleep panic attacks because I need them to stop. I know how all of you are feeling.
 Believe - Sun Dec 27, 2009 1:37 am

Sorry for bumping an old thread, I wanted to say some stuff

I suffered as well, and what helped me was to meditate before I slept. I understand how people do not want to be dependent on medication and I did not want to be dependent on it either. I tried xanax as well but like the doctor said, you should try the other medication.

Another thing that helped me was not drinking any caffine. It did wonders. I also got a lot of information from this blog That blog helped me get rid of my panic attacks when I sleep. Of course a doctor will always be the better substitute. I wish anyone luck who wants to get rid of their panic attacks!
 Faye Lang, RN, MSW - Thu Jul 08, 2010 11:55 am

Hello, somebody's_baby and all who have responded to the topic,

Since there has been much review and discussion by our readers, I'll try to address the overall information. I apologize that this response is not more timely.

One of the stages of sleep is REM, or rapid eye movement. During this stage, the mind is active while major voluntary muscle groups are paralyzed. Awakening - or feeling like one is trying to awake - during this phase can be very unsettling because of the feeling of paralysis, and the person may feel panicky. Outside influences can negatively affect dreaming, such as content in a class, something seen on television or in a movie theater, something read in a book, etc., and the dreams become nightmares. Chronic disturbances disrupt the sleep pattern and contribute to anxiety, which further disrupts the sleep cycle, and we have a cycle of disturbances. Some sleep aids can contribute to the problem, especially some over the counter or herbal preparations, as contents can be unregulated and inconsistent. Generally, the panic reactions to such disrupted sleep would not fall into the category of panic disorder, although there are exceptions. Self awareness and evaluation is positive, but self-diagnosing is usually not helpful or truly accurate. Many people are able to structure their dreams to overcome repetitive theme nightmares, by "self-programming." Every evening before sleep, the person will concentrate on what they would like to dream, and intermittently think about the troubling topic and make the resolution to discard that dream topic if it occurs during sleep. It takes practice, but it can be quite successful. If problems persist and continue to disrupt the feeling of ease and/or rest, a doctor may recommend that the person have a sleep study done, which can be diagnostic of any underlying problems and reassuring if the results are negative. A mild anti-anxiety medication may help overcome the pattern of disrupted sleep. In true sleep terrors, the symptoms are severe and are treated with therapy and medication. I hope this overview is helpful. Good luck to all!

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