How I Learnt to Deal With Nighttime Panic Attacks

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I wake up with an intense nausea that floods my system. Running to the bathroom I’m convinced I’m going to be sick, but I’m not. Then comes the pain. It stabs at my chest and upper back to the point I can hardly breathe. I went to bed feeling relaxed and contented, but now I’m pacing the house, my heart pounding terrified I’m having a heart attack. The reality of panic attacks is the physical pain that cuts through you in great swathes. Having a panic attack at nighttime is very different to having one during the day. At night everything feels more intense, the atmosphere changes to one that is ethereal and other worldly. People that you count on to talk you through the experience are asleep and unavailable. You feel alone and desperate and not sure if you can get through the night. I’ve learnt some techniques to help me cope over the years, that have quelled the panic attack before it becomes too difficult to manage.

Thinking Logically

I know this is a panic attack. I know it’s painful but it won’t kill me. Twice I have been taken to hospital by ambulance because of the unrelenting pain I was in. Twice I’ve spent hours having multiple tests to find what was wrong, for everything to come back clear. What I know now is that although I have found myself in a great deal of pain, it won’t turn into anything sinister. I will talk myself through the situation by repeatedly telling myself this. I have to say it with conviction, to convince myself it will be okay.

Getting Out of Bed

Lying in the dark in bed during a panic attack is the worst possible thing I could do. The pain is all the more intense as I lie there, with nothing else to distract my mind. All the worst scenarios run through my head and all I achieve is making myself more and more anxious. I force myself to get up, go into another room and turn the light on. I force myself to have a drink of water and to do something, anything, rather than staying in bed worrying.

Therapy

I had CBT (Cognitive behavioural therapy) to manage my panic attacks, and to understand why I was having them so frequently. Therapy helped me to realise that I wasn’t dealing with stressors in my life, and that my worries and anxieties were manifesting as panic attacks. I learnt to face what was causing me stress in a situation and to deal with it there and then. Panic attacks for me often occurred after a stressful event. Once my body and mind were relaxed again, like going to bed on a Friday night after a difficult week, I would wake up in the middle of the night with a panic attack. It became vital to realise when I was going through a stressful time, so when that stress had disappeared I wouldn’t end up having yet another nighttime panic attack. I was taught breathing techniques to calm myself, which I still use today

Distraction

If thinking logically doesn’t work on its own and I’m up and out of bed, I’ll try and distract my mind. It might be watching a favourite tv show, something light and entertaining that I’ve seen before. I might sketch or get out a colouring book, that keeps my hands busy and forces me to focus. I love to play video games so I might turn on the console and try and figure out that Zelda puzzle that’s been bugging me. If I occupy my mind effectively and for long enough, I won’t even realise the pain and panic has gone.

Using these techniques has cut down the amount of nighttime panic attacks I have drastically; I haven’t had a serious one in a year and a half. What I’ve leant in therapy often preempts an attack completely. Changing the way I manage stressful situations and work through them has had a significant positive impact on my life.

4 Comments

  1. Maddi | My Bitter Insanity March 1, 2018 / 6:30 am

    Those panic attacks sound terrible! Waking up generally sucks, but waking up suddenly makes the panic exponentially worse, for sure. The few times I’ve been woken by fire alarms (or jerks), waking alone took awhile to get over, without even adding on extra anxiety.

    I’m glad that you and your CBT therapist/coach were able to figure out why they were happening, because I still have random bouts of panic or anxiety that I can’t trace…

  2. arthritisfighterleann March 1, 2018 / 8:49 am

    I used to have loads of anxiety and night terrors. Awful when it wakes you up from your sleep and I can relate to not dealing with stressors and I’m glad that CBT has worked for you.

  3. Jamie November 19, 2018 / 6:43 pm

    Hi Katie I had my first panic attack at 8years old over the years things got tough they are horrible little life suckers. I had cbt 10 or so years ago and although I still have extreme anxiety I haven’t had a full blown one since. Now like yourself I keep myself busy playing my switch at night when I can’t sleep or using adult colouring books. Sounds like your doing well. You should be proud of yourself. Mental illness of any kind is proper dog shit I’ve become an expert at being invisible always showing my poker face. Take care and keep up the good work. ☺️

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