Here’s What It Really Feels Like To Have A Panic Attack In Your Sleep

Until earlier this year, my experience with brutal panic attacks always took place in daylight. The chest pain, the rush, the sickness robbing me of joy and plummeting my world into darkness. The heart beating fast, the feeling it was all about to end and the hot tears burning through my fragile skin as I stood in a queue, prepared to do a presentation at University or simply sat on the sofa scrolling through Instagram.

The story I’m about to write is personal so please, don’t consider this as some sort of essay on how to cope with sleeping panic attacks or compare your experience to mine, mental health is probably the most individual illness in the world.

My experiences probably started around January- a promotion in late 2015 saw me ecstatic but the confidence crisis soon hit and I worried I was doing everything wrong. However, despite that passing and quite literal proof that I make a rather good Senior Editor, the anxiety hasn’t shifted. Despite 40mg of citalopram and every relaxation technique in the book, the nightmares and the evening panic attacks still haunt me and I have no idea why.

The first time I recall it happening I was confused… I still am as I clock up another one on practically a nightly basis. I woke up in a pool of sweat, my heart feeling like it was going to burst out of my body, the sound of my blood pumping in my veins echoing around the room. I’d woken up from a nightmare, one which I couldn’t quite recall but which I knew probably related to something close to home to cause a panic attack so strong and so eager to force through my body that the deepest of sleep couldn’t fight it.

I wasn’t surprised, of course. Like I mentioned above, I had a million things on my mind including new ideas for articles, the emails I had to answer, whether my boyfriend minded that I’d put on weight again recently (of course he bloody doesn’t) and how many years it would be until S Club Juniors reformed. After that one time, I carried on as normal until it happened again several nights later. And again. I realised it was the nightmares that were clearly seeping so hard into my soul that my body was so desperate to escape that it rattled inside me until it came out in the form of a panic attack.

I headed to see my doctor who upped my citalopram by a further 10mg. Four weeks passed and I started to dread sleep time. It’s a well known fact that I’m an absolute granny when it comes to sleep, ideally being in bed by 8:30pm with Candy Crush and/or Netflix for company; this aided my struggle to understand just why I was having such horrific nightmares and having full blown panic attacks at all hours of the morning. I tried every relaxation technique in the book- long baths with a copy of Grazia, cutting down on sugar, herbal tablets, sleep sprays… And the rest. But nothing.

Then came the strongest one. The one that I genuinely, more than ever, thought I was going to die from. The one that ripped me of my breath and had the power to make me doubt my own sanity. After weeks of ups and downs, weird dreams and nightmares about killings, rape, heartbreak and terrorism, this one broke me. What happened next stole me for an entire weekend, left me trapped in my bed for the entire period in the lowest low and made me lose who I was.

I was alone that coming weekend, my boyfriend renovating the home we’re putting up for sale. Weekends alone usually mean chatting to my housemates, coffee in bed, mooching around East London alone and catching up on YouTube videos. I wasn’t nervous or sad. I was happy to spend the weekend with myself.

The week at work had been unremarkable- neither painfully busy nor exhilaratingly carefree, it had just simply passed in a series of meetings, emails, content writing and laughter. That Friday night had been much the same- home, hair up, bra off, something in the oven for tea and Whatever Was On telly. Sleep was looming. I called my boyfriend and laughed and smiled and said “I bloody love you” and that was that.

Then it took hold. I woke at 3:13am. My mind screaming “stop, stop, stop” over and over like a train chugging along the tracks with no idea where it was going. My arms stung. My legs felt like bricks. I couldn’t breath. My heart spun and leaped and ached and fizzed as my mind marched through every single thought on the entire planet whilst also begging itself to slow. My tears, my skin, my blood… Everything felt hotter, more vivid, more capable of making me lose control over everything ever and it was all my fault.

And then it slowed. And calmed. And I reached for my phone to check the time. I saw my boyfriend’s face in the dark, the image of him on my phone reminding me that he was there and I was here and we existed together and nothing in the world had changed in the past few hours as I slept. A terrorist attack hadn’t happened killing my loved ones. I hadn’t fallen down a never-ending well. My boyfriend hadn’t left me nor died. The scenarios which haunt me in the night hadn’t happened. And as my breath slowed, I realised I was starting to believe myself. Within seconds, my eyelids stung from sheer exhaustion and I was asleep again ready to wake up at 6am and scroll through the Daily Mail Side Bar Of Shame as I did most weekend mornings.

But that weekend, the sheer weight of the panic attack and the hurt and the exhaustion left me mentally scarred. It was a beautiful warm spring day but my mind wouldn’t allow me to put on a dress and head out for a cappuccino. I was too fat. I was too ugly. Bad things would happen if I left my house. The bags under my eyes would be seen and horrify old women, young children and scare the tube driver so much he would crash and it would be my fault. The thoughts didn’t stop, not even as I pulled myself out of bed at 5pm on a Saturday for a hot bath. The thoughts didn’t stop as I sobbed to my mum nor as I tried to lose myself in YouTube beauty tutorials. The thoughts didn’t stop as I flicked through old photographs of the boyfriend and I on holiday nor did they stop when I told myself this was bullshit.

The following Monday I went to work. And life moved on. I’m at a point now where the citalopram is no doubt working and I’m experiencing a panic attack in my sleep around once every seven nights, although the weird dreams and nightmares still wake me several times. My next step is to see a specialist, one which my doctor has refered me to in order to try and return to my regular pattern of sleep and own my Granny title once more.

I wanted to write this because, in all honesty, the sleep anxiety situation has felt very lonely. I’ve had trouble explaining the fact that I can be perfectly fine during the day and even as I drift off but I’m haunted by anxiety which shows itself at the cruellest time of day. I’ll be continuing to write about anxiety on The Navigation- my top tips on soothing it, my experiences, the lessons I’ve learned and the surprising benefits (trust me, there are some) – so please stay tuned.

If you’re reading this and struggling, please seek help. If you or someone else you know needs immediate help, please dial 999.



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