Although we sometimes throw the term around lightly, real anxiety is no joke. We all feel anxious from time to time about a big project at work or the birth of our first baby, but a true anxiety disorder is not temporary. It sticks around even in the absence of what most of us consider "normal" life stressors.
Anxiety is the most widespread mental illness in the US, affecting approximately 18 percent of Americans. The symptoms of anxiety disorders vary depending on the specific disorder and can include (to name a few) fatigue, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and — possibly scariest of all if you've ever experienced one — panic attacks.
A racing heart, shortness of breath, chest pain, intense fear: panic attacks can be super scary, and, yes, they can even happen while you sleep. Jodi Aman, a psychotherapist and author of the book You 1, Anxiety 0, said that "panic attacks can sometimes wake you up."
While most people think of panic attacks as something that happen only while you are awake, panic attacks at night can be a result of "heightened adrenaline during the day, a nightmare (caused by extra stress and anxiety during the day), or other hormone issues," according to Aman. When we sleep, our brain works through the feelings and events of the day, including our fears. "Usually, the fact that they wake you makes you feel even more out of control and causes more anxiety," Aman said.
If you think you are experiencing an anxiety or panic disorder, Aman recommends working with a counselor or coach to receive proper treatment, but there are a few things you can do on your own to ease anxiety symptoms and lessen the chance of being woken up in the night by a panic attack.
Her first tip is to try decreasing anxiety during the day. She said, "If you fall asleep worrying, this will only increase your chance of experiencing a nighttime attack." She also mentions that if you do wake up in a panic, "try to get up and distract yourself instead of trying to fall immediately back to sleep." A warm mug of tea, some deep breathing, or even a good book can help to relax your mind and body and prepare you for sleep.
While it can be frightening to wake up with feelings of fear and panic, Aman reassuringly notes that panic attacks at night are "not something to be scared about. Any anxiety treatment — and anxiety is highly treatable — will help with these, as well as all anxiety."