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Nocturnal Anxiety – Why it Happens and How to Stop It

We all know what it’s like to be anxious. A churning stomach, nausea, racing thoughts, a cold rush of fear. Some of us get clammy hands or cold feet; others begin pacing. Anxiety is a normal part of the human condition; it occurs as stress builds up over time. While occasional anxiety is to be expected, reoccurring panic and fear are not.

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For some, nocturnal anxiety attacks are the worst part of an underlying anxiety disorder. There’s nothing worse than waking up in the middle of the night with racing thoughts and a tight chest. We aren’t sure where to turn or what to do; as everyone else is fast asleep. It interferes with our sleep cycle, creates mental health problems during the day, and depletes our energy levels.


Both daytime and nighttime anxiety are problematic, but night terrors or nocturnal panic attacks can be even more upsetting. So, what causes these late-night fits of terror and how do we stop them? Here is what we know.


What is Nocturnal Anxiety?

Nocturnal anxiety is any type of panic or fear that occurs outside of normal wake-time hours. Those with nocturnal anxiety may have generalized anxiety during the day, and experience worse symptoms at night. Others may have little to no anxiety during the day, but experience severe panic after they go to sleep.


Individuals may wake up with a racing heart and symptoms of panic, almost as though they are jolted out of their sleep. Or, an individual may slowly wake up and then begin to experience panic as he/she thinks about the day ahead. Experts believe anxiety is worse at night because there are fewer distractions to turn to. Thus, anxious individuals turn to their thoughts as they do not wish to disturb others (and believe they should remain in bed).


Some individuals wake up at 4 or 5 with horrific anxiety attacks. This may be due to increased cortisol in the early morning, which causes greater stress in sensitive individuals. The anxiety may ease off as the person begins his/her daily routine. However, it can dampen a person’s mood and lead to sleep problems, or a fear of going to sleep. This creates more anxiety, which leads to further nocturnal attacks. It is a vicious cycle that must be stopped, or it can get much worse.


Best Practices to Limit Nocturnal Anxiety

Treatment varies depending on the underlying problems causing the anxiety and the specific needs of the patient. However, there are some best practices you can put in place today to limit late-night panic. This includes –


· Stop fighting the panic

· Use deep breathing techniques

· Get up, rather than sit still and think

· Read a book in bed

· Go back to bed when the anxiety is over

· Give yourself enough time to get read in the morning so you don’t feel dread upon waking

· Establish a regular, consistent sleep routine

· Put away technology at least 2 hours before bedtime

· Limit upsetting news or social media as much as possible during the day

· Limit any distressing situations or people who are creating the anxiety

· Learn positive thinking patterns to replace negative thinking habits

· Limit caffeine, sugar, and alcohol


Nocturnal anxiety can be a scary thing, but it doesn’t have to be permanent. Anxiety is a signal that something is wrong. Once that wrong is addressed, the anxiety will naturally dissipate. Finding a therapist who can address the root cause of the problem will help to eliminate nocturnal (and daytime anxiety) so you can get a good night’s sleep.


Do you struggle with nocturnal anxiety? If so, please contact Straight Talk Counseling at 714-828-2000 or visit our website at straighttalkcounseling.org. One of our professional counselors would be happy to speak with you.

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