Do you get Sleep Panic Attacks?
Many clients who come to see me to improve their sleep, share they regularly suffer from what I call sleep panic attacks. A panic attack is when you experience a sudden intense feeling of anxiety accompanied by a feeling of impending doom and frightening physical symptoms, such as a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, or nausea. A sleep panic attack is when you experience an intense fear that you aren’t going to be able to enjoy a good night’s sleep when it’s time to and these thoughts spiral out of control as the day progresses. Sadly, they also become the self-fulfilling prophecy for many. There is no specific trigger for it except there is a history of poor sleep, so the prospect of a bad night’s sleep is somewhat real.
Poor sleep affects 1 in 3 people and if this isn't you, then it’s possible you know someone who suffers sleep panic attacks. It is challenging for these people to sustain new intimate relationships because they typically prefer to sleep alone in their own bed, and they rarely let people sleep over. If they are sleeping somewhere else, they may get up in the night and go home to sleep. If they have had a sleep panic attack during the day their willingness and ability to engage in intimate behaviours that evening is compromised.
All my clients who experience this phenomenon are not anxious people. In fact, they’d be surprised at that label for themselves. They’re high functioning, loving individuals with careers who come across as confident, capable people. When they experience these sleep panic attacks it’s hard for them to ignore and get out of their heads because they know how important sleep is to their overall functioning.
If this sounds like you or someone you know, check out these seven handy tips on how to deal with it.
Start a regular journaling practice that allows you to explore your thoughts, fears, hopes and dreams. Write them down. By writing them down you’re acknowledging them rather than pushing them away. You can't eliminate all of the thoughts running through your head but you can write down what’s salient for you and remind yourself of your strategies when that particular thought revisits you.
2. Write Your Thoughts Down
If you find that you are often lost in worry, anxiety, or other negative feelings outside of your journaling time, try writing them down as they appear in real time. You may want to carry a notebook and pen around with you so you can jot them down when they come up, releasing the thoughts to the written word. Some find it helpful to do this each evening before going to sleep.
3. Get present
Focus on staying present in your day. This means that you are focused in the here and now, rather than what might be or has been. Make a concerted effort to get caught up in the moment. Use your senses to notice what is happening around you; listen closely; observe your surroundings; feel and find your emotions in your body; and really experience the now.
4. Focus on your breath
For many people who struggle with sleep panic attacks, meditation and mindfulness are very unhelpful so instead, focus on your breath. Breathe in and out through your nose, using your diaphragm. This will help to calm the anxious thoughts. You may want to include 5 minutes of this breathing throughout your day to prevent the build-up of stress in your body.
It's hard to worry about the thoughts in your head when you feel like your heart is about to beat through your chest. Of course, you don't have to go that hard - but spending any time focused on exercising will keep you out of your head, and you will get all the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. You may find that depending on your day, exercise might be better in the morning on workdays and late afternoon on non-workdays.
6. Use the 5-4-3-2-1 Method
When you are in the middle of your sleep panic attack you may want to use this strategy to ground yourself. Look around and pick out 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 you can hear, 2 you can smell, and 1 you can taste. It's a simple but effective way to stay present.
7. Remind yourself
Remind yourself of all the good sleeps you have had lately and the strategies you used to achieve them. Reminding yourself that you can sleep well helps with the catastrophizing and the ‘all or ‘nothing’ thinking which can be self-defeating.
Remember poor sleep is relatively common and there are a number of ways to improve your sleep experience. The most natural way to do this is by using your breath to address the biology, chemistry and psychology of sleep which sleep hygiene doesn’t address. If your sleeping patterns are affecting your day to day and starting to impinge on your significant relationships, then it’s time to address them once and for all.
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