What Is Nocturnal Panic Attack?

  • Ellie Kerrod BSc Neuroscience - The University of Manchester, England


A nocturnal panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear or discomfort that occurs during sleep, disrupting the person’s rest and causing distressing symptoms, similar to daytime panic attacks. Nocturnal panic attacks may invoke feelings of overwhelming anxiety, heart palpitations, and a sense of imminent danger.4 Understanding and recognising this specific type of panic attack can improve sleep quality and overall well-being. Having the proper knowledge empowers the individual to seek appropriate help and adopt effective coping strategies.

Definition of a panic attack

A panic attack is a sudden and intense surge of fear or anxiety that rises and reaches its peak within a short period, typically within minutes. During a panic attack, individuals often experience a strong sense of impending doom or a fear of losing control, even if there is no real threat present. The fear and distress can be overwhelming and can lead to various physical, psychological, and emotional symptoms.

Common symptoms of panic attacks

Panic attacks can manifest through a range of distressing symptoms, which may vary from person to person. Common physical symptoms include rapid heart rate, palpitations, shortness of breath, chest pain or discomfort, trembling, sweating, and dizziness.

Psychologically, people may feel a sense of unreality, detachment from themselves, or a fear of going crazy. Other emotional symptoms may include intense fear, a sense of impending doom, and a desperate need to escape the situation.

Causes and triggers of panic attacks

The exact causes of panic attacks are not always clear, but they are often linked to underlying anxiety disorders. Significant life stressors, traumatic experiences, or major life changes can contribute to the development of panic attacks. Genetic factors may also play a role, as individuals with a family history of anxiety or panic disorders may be more susceptible.

Certain substances, such as caffeine, drugs, or alcohol, can act as triggers for panic attacks. Specific situations or phobias can cause panic attacks in individuals who are vulnerable to such triggers.

Understanding the nature of panic attacks, their symptoms, and potential triggers is vital for both those who experience them and their support networks.

How nocturnal panic attacks differ from daytime panic attacks?

Many of the symptoms are the same.4 However, the main distinction between nocturnal and daytime panic attacks is their occurrence. Daytime panic attacks typically happen when individuals are awake and alert, often triggered by specific situations or stressors. However, nocturnal panic attacks happen during sleep, interrupting the sleep cycle and causing the person to wake up in a state of panic. The experience of waking up suddenly with intense fear and anxiety is disorienting and frightening, as people may struggle to understand the cause of their distress, given the absence of apparent triggers during sleep.

Frequency and occurrence of nocturnal panic attacks

Nocturnal panic attacks are less common than daytime panic attacks but can still deeply affect those who experience them. Some individuals may have occasional nocturnal panic attacks, while others suffer from more frequent occurrences. The exact reasons behind these attacks are not fully understood, but they are believed to be related to disruptions in sleep, or sleep-related disorders. Those with a history of daytime panic attacks or anxiety disorders may be more prone to experiencing nocturnal panic attacks.

Symptoms of nocturnal panic attacks

Nocturnal panic attacks can have a combination of physical, psychological, and emotional symptoms. These episodes often lead to sleep disturbances, further exacerbating the impact on an individual's well-being.2

Physical symptoms

Physical symptoms can be similar to those observed in daytime panic attacks and include:

  • Rapid heart rate or palpitations
  • Shortness of breath or hyperventilation
  • Sweating excessively
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Nausea or stomach upset
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • Chills or hot flashes

Psychological symptoms

Some common psychological symptoms include:

  • An overwhelming feeling of something bad happening
  • Fear of losing control or going crazy
  • Feeling disconnected or detached from oneself (depersonalisation)
  • Feeling like the surroundings are unreal or distant (derealisation)
  • Racing thoughts or difficulty concentrating

Emotional symptoms

Nocturnal panic attacks can trigger intense emotional responses, leaving those who experience them feeling overwhelmed and frightened. Common emotional symptoms include:

  • Intense fear or terror
  • Overwhelming anxiety or apprehension
  • Feeling helpless or out of control
  • A sense of extreme vulnerability

Sleep disturbances associated with nocturnal panic attacks

Nocturnal panic attacks disrupt the sleep cycle, leading to various sleep disturbances. These may include:

  • Frequent awakenings during the night
  • Difficulty falling back to sleep after the panic attack
  • Insomnia or trouble staying asleep
  • Sleep deprivation and feeling exhausted during the day

Underlying anxiety disorders

Conditions such as generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can all contribute to the development of both daytime and nocturnal panic attacks. Individuals with these disorders may have heightened sensitivity to stressors, making them more susceptible to experiencing panic attacks, including during sleep.

Stress and life events

High levels of stress and significant life events can trigger or exacerbate nocturnal panic attacks. Stressful situations at work, financial concerns, relationship problems, or major life changes can all contribute to increased anxiety levels and a higher likelihood of experiencing attacks during sleep. The body's response to stress involves the release of stress hormones, which can disrupt the sleep cycle and contribute to nocturnal panic attacks.

Genetic predisposition

Genetics may play a role in the development of nocturnal panic attacks. Someone with a family history of anxiety disorders or panic attacks may be genetically predisposed to experience these episodes during sleep. Although genetics are not solely responsible for the occurrence of nocturnal panic attacks, they can influence an individual's susceptibility.

Substance use and medications

The use of certain substances and medications can increase the risk of experiencing nocturnal panic attacks. Stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine, or illicit drugs can disrupt the sleep cycle and trigger anxiety-related symptoms. Some prescription medications, especially those that affect the central nervous system or neurotransmitter balance, may also contribute to nocturnal panic attacks as a side effect.

Multiple factors may contribute to the development of nocturnal panic attacks. Identifying the underlying causes is essential for effective treatment and management.

Sleep disorders and nocturnal panic attacks

The disruptive nature of nocturnal panic attacks causes frequent awakenings during the night, making it challenging to achieve restful and uninterrupted sleep. As a result, people may experience insomnia, characterised by difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, or they may suffer from sleep fragmentation, which leads to non-restorative sleep patterns. Over time, the combination of sleep disturbances and nighttime attacks creates a cycle of anxiety about sleep, worsening the problem and affecting overall sleep quality.

Daytime consequences of sleep disturbances

The repercussions of disturbed sleep due to nocturnal panic attacks extend beyond the nighttime hours, affecting daytime functioning and overall quality of life. Fatigue and exhaustion become common, impacting productivity, job performance, and the ability to engage in daily activities. Excessive tiredness may also increase the risk of accidents and injuries, particularly in someone who operates vehicles or heavy machinery.

The psychological and emotional impact

The toll of nocturnal panic attacks extends to psychological and emotional well-being. Frequent episodes of intense fear and anxiety during sleep can create a sense of unpredictability and vulnerability, leading to heightened stress levels and emotional distress. Individuals may develop anticipatory anxiety about going to sleep, fearing the recurrence of nocturnal panic attacks. This anxiety can further disrupt the ability to fall asleep or maintain sleep, exacerbating sleep disturbances and impacting overall mental health.

Additionally, a lack of restorative sleep can contribute to mood disturbances, including irritability, mood swings, and an increased risk of developing mood disorders such as depression. The overall emotional toll of nocturnal panic attacks and sleep disturbances can strain relationships and social interactions, as individuals may withdraw from social activities due to fatigue and emotional distress.

Diagnosis and seeking help

Recognising nocturnal panic attacks is the first step towards seeking help and managing the condition. Because these episodes can be mistaken for nightmares or other sleep disturbances, a proper diagnosis by a healthcare professional is crucial. If the frequency and intensity of nocturnal panic attacks disrupt sleep or negatively impact quality of life, consulting a healthcare professional becomes necessary. Healthcare providers can conduct thorough evaluations, including discussions about the symptoms, medical history, and sleep patterns, to distinguish nocturnal panic attacks from other sleep disorders.

Treatment and management

Treatment and management of nocturnal panic attacks involve a comprehensive approach aimed at reducing the frequency and intensity of these episodes while improving overall sleep quality and well-being.

Psychotherapy, particularly Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), has been effective in treating nocturnal panic attacks. This has helped people identify and challenge negative thought patterns and fears associated with sleep and panic. Additionally, healthcare providers may prescribe medications to alleviate symptoms and improve sleep, such as benzodiazepines or antidepressants. However, lifestyle changes and coping strategies also play a vital role in managing nocturnal panic attacks. Adopting healthy sleep hygiene practices, such as maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, creating a relaxing bedtime routine, and limiting stimulants before bedtime, can significantly improve sleep quality and reduce the likelihood of panic attacks during sleep.1

Learning and using relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or meditation can help to manage anxiety and stress levels. By combining psychotherapy, medications (if appropriate), lifestyle adjustments, and coping strategies, individuals can take a proactive approach to manage nocturnal panic attacks effectively and promote better sleep and overall mental well-being.

Preventive measures

Identifying triggers and using avoidance techniques can help the person steer clear of situations or stimuli that may provoke anxiety and panic during sleep. Stress management and relaxation techniques play a pivotal role in managing overall stress levels, making them more resilient to potential triggers.

Engaging in regular exercise and physical activity not only enhances physical health but also contributes to improved mental well-being, reducing anxiety and promoting better sleep quality. By adopting these preventive measures, it’s possible to create a supportive environment for managing nocturnal panic attacks and enhancing their overall ability to cope with stress. This can promote a better sleep routine and overall quality of life.


Nocturnal panic attacks are sudden episodes of intense fear or anxiety that occur during sleep, disrupting rest and causing distressing symptoms similar to daytime panic attacks.

If you or someone you know experiences recurrent nocturnal panic attacks, it is essential to seek professional help for an accurate diagnosis and a personalised treatment plan. Consulting a healthcare professional can provide valuable insights into managing these episodes effectively and improving overall sleep quality. Additionally, emphasising the importance of self-care and adopting healthy lifestyle practices, such as stress management techniques, regular exercise, and maintaining good sleep hygiene, can significantly contribute to managing anxiety and reducing the occurrence of nocturnal panic attacks. Surrounding yourself with a supportive network of family and friends can also provide invaluable emotional support during challenging times.


  1. Lim, Jae-A., et al. ‘Investigating Effective Treatment Factors in Brief Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Panic Disorder’. Medicine, vol. 97, no. 38, Sept. 2018, p. e12422. PubMed Central, Available from: https://doi.org/10.1097/MD.0000000000012422
  2. Nakamura, Masaki, et al. ‘Is Nocturnal Panic a Distinct Disease Category? Comparison of Clinical Characteristics among Patients with Primary Nocturnal Panic, Daytime Panic, and Coexistence of Nocturnal and Daytime Panic’. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine : JCSM : Official Publication of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, vol. 9, no. 5, May 2013, pp. 461–67. PubMed Central, Available from: https://doi.org/10.5664/jcsm.2666
  3. Smith, Nicole S., et al. ‘Comparing Symptom Networks of Daytime and Nocturnal Panic Attacks in a Community-Based Sample’. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, vol. 85, Jan. 2022, p. 102514. ScienceDirect, Available from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2021.102514
  4. ‘Comparing Symptom Networks of Daytime and Nocturnal Panic Attacks in a Community-Based Sample’. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, vol. 85, Jan. 2022, p. 102514. ScienceDirect, Available from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2021.102514.
This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Amanda Nicholson

Bachelor's Degree, Open degree, The Open University, UK

Amanda Nicholson is a UK-based writer. She has several years of experience writing content on behalf of US-based universities, related to their healthcare courses. This includes topics such as working in mental health, data science and its use in healthcare, and the links between physical and mental health.

She has recently completed her Level 3 Certificate in Understanding Mental Health, and this is a topic she has several by-lines for. Besides this, she writes about her own experiences of dealing with Chronic Pain.

Some of her work has been published by Happiful Magazine, Ability Superstore, Wellbeing (Australia), and Included Mag.

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