There is no worse way to wake up than with your heart racing, sweating, being unable to breath and feeling like you’re going to die. A sleep panic attack is a physiological response – the fight or flight – your body is having. As I have said in other posts, this is quite “natural”. But death is also quite “natural”!
After suffering my third, and worst, sleep panic attack I started to dread going to bed. Having any panic attack is just horrible. Whilst I had (and still have!) a sympathetic husband, it was difficult for him to empathise when he had no idea what I was experiencing.
To this day I’m not sure exactly why I suffered sleep panic attacks, whilst other panic attack sufferers do not (I have read that the majority do experience them at some point). I have always been a worrier and tended to dwell on problems. One significant fact, before I suffered panic attacks, I was never a great sleeper to start with.
What I started to do was to improve my “sleep hygiene” – in other words getting into better habits to improve my quality of sleep. Thinking about it logically, you want your body to shut down in readiness for bed, not wind up.
1) Make the bedroom a room primarily for sleep. Get rid of the television, computer, ironing board and other non sleep paraphernalia (where possible). A bedroom should be warm and well ventilated. Is the décor relaxing?
2) Have a pre bed routine that helps slow you down. No reading work related stuff, or watching/reading stimulating material.
3) Exercise in the early evening but not straight before bed. Exercise may logically make you tired, but it is also stimulating – remember it needs an increase in adrenaline to make the body move faster.
4) Lay off the booze and any stimulating drugs or food and drink. Alcohol may help you get to nod-off, but it messes up the quality of your sleep. Caffeine, obviously, doesn’t help. I swear by a milky drink, with a weak chocolate powder addition.
In my early search for answers to my panic attacks I tried looking more deeply into sleep. I became a bit of a bore on Rapid Eye Movement, one of the cycles we go to during sleep. To be honest, it didn’t help as I became more conscious of “having a problem”.
In a way, part of the solution came in realizing that a panic attack at night was just as random as a panic attack on the train or in Sainsburys. In all these situations I could feel quite relaxed beforehand. In most cases, my panic attacks had no direct trigger.
Photo by Sarah G… on Flickr