Panic attacks can occur at any time of the day or night and can even awaken you from sleep. However, nighttime (nocturnal) panic attacks are less common than daytime panic attacks.
Nocturnal panic attacks are characterized by an abrupt waking from sleep in a state of panic with no obvious trigger. During a panic attack, you may experience sweating, rapid heart rate, trembling, shortness of breath and hyperventilating, flushing or chills, and a sense of impending doom. These signs and symptoms often mimic those of a heart attack or other serious medical condition. Although nocturnal panic attacks usually last less than 10 minutes, it may take much longer to calm down after such an episode.
Researchers aren’t sure what causes panic attacks. Heredity, stress and certain biochemical factors may play a role. Your chance of having panic attacks increases if you have a close family member who has had them.
Most people who have panic attacks at night also have them during the day. Between 44 percent and 71 percent of people with panic disorder have had at least one episode of nocturnal panic.
It is important to have a complete physical examination to determine whether a medical condition other than panic attacks is the cause of your signs and symptoms. This may include a sleep assessment to rule out an underlying sleep disorder.
Although nocturnal panic attacks can be extremely disconcerting, the good news is that there is effective treatment — including cognitive behavior therapy and anti-anxiety medications — that can alleviate or eliminate these episodes for most people.