Unfortunately, people who are prone to anxiety disorders can sometimes be awakened by night panic attacks. How many times have you been just about to fall asleep when you jerk awake? It’s as if you just had a dream about falling, and wake up, but it’s much worse – more like an electric shock! Many people are so frightened by this jerk that they are unable to go back to sleep.
But it’s not dreams that cause night panic attacks. Sleep polysomnographia records prove that most night panic attacks take place during the early sleep phase and not during the REM phase that is normally associated with dreams. Nightmares are also different but they happen during the second half of the night, so you’re often able to remember the content of these dreams.
Maybe you thought you were the only person who had night panic attacks, but actually there is a name for this jolt. It’s called a hypnic jerk, or hypnagogic massive jerk (we’ll call it hypnic jerk from now on).
It’s most common for a hypnic jerk to occur right before, or shortly after a person falls asleep. It is completely normal and usually occurs when you’re overtired. The reason it sometimes mimics falling is that your body is settling down; muscles are relaxing; and your temperature is changing. Sometimes the muscles relax very quickly, making the brain think you’re falling. This is when it sends up signals for you to wake up. The only way to get you to pay attention is to jerk your arms and/or legs. And it works, but it’s not exactly pleasant.
Night panic attacks caused by hypnic jerks easily turn into panic attacks because of their intensity; being jolted awake would scare anyone. Then when you wake up, you might gasp for air, and that causes another panic attack with a fear that you’ll have a breathing problem while sleeping. It’s a fearful reaction to what appears to be a complete unknown cause.
The best defense here is to try to calm down by reassuring yourself that you’re safe and that the jerk isn’t something to worry about. It doesn’t disrupt your bodily functions, and it doesn’t put you in any danger. Now that you understand the cause, you can easily get through your night panic attack and try to get some sleep.
It’s important that you don’t go to bed fearing you might have night panic attacks. Go to bed confident that if your arms or legs do start to move, you can deal with it. Just as you should never say to someone “don’t fall,” you should never put yourself under pressure to NOT have a panic attack. Just go to sleep confident that you are always in control.
For more information on night panic attacks and panic attacks in general, visit Panic Away.