When panic attacks happen at night: ‘I thought I was having a heart attack’


Jemicah Marasigan started getting nighttime panic attacks earlier this summer.

She said the first time it happened, it was terrifying.

“It was almost debilitating in a sense where I just felt I couldn’t breathe,” she told Global News. “I started hyperventilating and my chest felt tight and felt really out of it. I thought I was having a heart attack.”

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READ MORE: How to manage panic attacks – and why you should never ignore them

Worried she was having a heart issue, she went to the closest ER to her home in Toronto.

“The entire time I just had an impending fear I was going to die.”

Maneet Bhatia, a clinical psychologist based in Toronto, said panic attacks in general can happen out of the blue, sometimes even at night.

“They last at least one minute and no more than 10 minutes,” she told Global News. “There is no one cause (of panic attacks), but it’s believed to be caused by genetics, stress or changes in the brain.”

Bhatia says although there are no real causes, it is important to talk to a doctor to rule out sleep or thyroid issues. Timing also matters. He adds people who experience panic attacks overnight can also suffer from them during the day.

What is a panic attack?

Panic attacks are different for everyone but generally can cause dizziness, heart palpitations, sweating, muscle tension or feelings of not being in control of the situation, he says. Some people feel like they are having a heart attack, while others think they come close to death.

“It is important to rule out any heart or medical issues to ensure that what the patient is experiencing cannot be explained by a medical issue and that this a psychological phenomenon.”

Previously speaking with Global News, Dr. Melanie Badali, a registered psychologist and director of AnxietyBC, says we should always track panic attacks when they happen.

READ MORE: Panic attacks at work can feel ‘nauseous and suffocating’ — here’s how to manage them

“Tracking can help people recall events more accurately, identify conditions and triggers of panic attacks, and evaluate progress,” she said.

“For some people, completing self-monitoring or tracking forms can help them take on a new perspective — that of an observer or a scientist who is having panic symptoms rather than a victim being bossed around or bullied by those feelings and thoughts.”

This will be the most helpful for health-care professionals and mental health experts, she said.

Marasigan hasn’t been able to figure out what causes her panic attacks. She said when they do happen (usually once every few weeks), it happens during the middle of the night.

“I haven’t gotten medical help yet, but I try to message someone to help calm me down,” she explained. “My cousin taught me a trick to just try counting things in my environment to ground myself. Just try to get a grasp on my surroundings and realize I’m OK.”

Managing panic attacks at night

The thought of going through a panic attack in the middle of the night can be extra nerve-wracking. Feeling out of place, groggy or even being in the dark can all make the experience worse.

Bhatia says if they do happen, it’s important to fully “ride the wave.”

“Acknowledge and recognize and even name that you are feeling anxious and having a panic attack,” he continued. “The more you try to avoid it the worse it becomes.”

READ MORE: 3 steps to teach your brain to manage stress and crush it at work

He adds focus on grounding yourself because panic attacks often lead to feelings of losing control.

“(Try) breathing exercises to connect to your body or rub your hands against each other to feel your body again.”

He also advises his clients to have healthy conversations with themselves.

“(Tell yourself) ‘I am having anxiety and this is not pleasant but this will pass,” he said. “‘This has happened before, and I have survived it.’”

But ultimately, discuss your symptoms with a health-care or mental health professional.

“If you suffer from them, it is likely that you are dealing with stress,” he said. “It is important to rule out medical causes and focus on incorporating stress-reducing activities in your life.”

This can include yoga, exercise, mindfulness, relaxation, massages or consult with a psychologist or mental health practitioner to get a psychological treatment for the condition.

He says cognitive behavioural therapy, in particular, can be is quite effective.


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