Nocturnal Panic Attacks

Naomi Carr
Author: Naomi Carr Medical Reviewer: Morgan Blair Last updated:

Nocturnal panic attacks are a common symptom of panic disorder that occur at night, potentially causing ongoing sleep disturbances. Symptoms are similar to daytime panic attacks but may vary slightly and are typically treated with therapy and medication.

What are nocturnal panic attacks?

Nocturnal panic attacks are panic attacks that happen while asleep, causing the individual to wake up at night with a feeling of intense fear, and may be a severe symptom of panic disorder [1].

Panic disorder is a common psychiatric condition, characterized by regular panic attacks and an ongoing fear of the reoccurrence of a panic attack [2]. Research suggests that up to two thirds of people with a diagnosis of panic disorder experience day and nighttime panic attacks, although there are many cases of people experiencing only nocturnal panic attacks with none during the day [1][3].

There is also research to suggest that nocturnal panic may be a distinct disorder with differing causes and risk factors [4][5]. Studies show that the severity and prevalence of certain symptoms and the prevalence amongst age groups and genders differ between those with only nocturnal panic attacks compared to those with nocturnal and daytime panic attacks or only daytime panic attacks [3][6].

For example, panic disorder is more common in females than males, typically emerging in early adulthood [2], but nocturnal panic attacks without daytime panic attacks, is more common in males and above the age of 40 [5]. Similarly, people with only nocturnal panic attacks may require different treatment to those with only daytime or daytime and nocturnal panic attacks [7].

As such, further research into these conditions is required to ascertain a clear picture of the causes, severity, and treatment of nocturnal panic attacks. These differences also highlight the importance of seeking professional advice and treatment to ensure symptoms are managed appropriately and effectively [5][7].

Symptoms of nocturnal panic attacks

Symptoms of nocturnal panic attacks are similar to those of a daytime panic attack, although studies have found that there is a greater occurrence of breathing difficulties and choking sensations during nocturnal attacks [4][6][8].

Other symptoms of nocturnal panic attacks may include [6][9]:

  • Frequently waking at night, feeling a sense of intense fear or panic upon waking
  • Physical symptoms such as sweating, shaking, chills, nausea, chest pain, dizziness, and rapid heartrate
  • Feeling a loss of control
  • Preoccupation with the idea of another panic attack occurring, causing fear and anxiety which may increase towards bedtime
  • Feeling very tired during the day
  • Difficulties with concentration and worsening academic or professional performance
  • Mood changes, such as irritability and low mood

What causes panic attacks at night?

Daytime panic attacks may be caused by an environmental or external trigger or stressor [10]. However, these triggers do not occur during sleep, so the cause of nocturnal panic attacks is not clear. While some contributing risk factors may be the same for both day and nighttime panic attacks, some may differ [5][11].

Risk factors contributing to the occurrence of nocturnal panic attacks may include:

  • Coexisting mental health conditions: there is a high prevalence of depression and anxiety disorders amongst those with panic disorder, which may contribute to sleep disturbances and the occurrence of panic attacks [3][6].
  • Gender: while panic disorder with night and daytime panic attacks is more common in females, it is more common for males to experience panic attacks only at night [5].
  • Prevalence of daytime panic attacks: people who experience daytime panic attacks are very likely to also experience panic attacks at night [1][5].
  • Sleep terrors as a child: research shows that there is a prevalence of childhood sleep terrors in those who experience nocturnal panic attacks as adults, suggesting similarities between the conditions, although night terrors occur in a different stage of sleep [5].
  • Breathing issues: respiratory symptoms, such as shortness of breathand choking sensations, are more common in nocturnal panic attacks than those occurring in the daytime, suggesting that they may be linked to sleep-disordered breathing, such as sleep apnea [7][8].

What are the possible complications of nocturnal panic attacks?

Nocturnal panic attacks can cause ongoing sleep disruptions and may lead to:

  • Severe impairments in concentration and functioning [7].
  • Worsening mental health and an increased risk of suicidal thoughts [3][5].
  • A reliance on prescription or illicit drugs to help with sleep.
  • A fear of sleep, which can result in further sleep disruptions and insomnia, emerging or increasing prevalence of daytime panic attacks, and poorer quality of life [4][11].

How to manage nocturnal panic attacks

Many people who experience panic attacks feel reluctant to ask for help from loved ones or professionals because panic attacks are commonly misunderstood [7]. However, without appropriate treatment panic attacks are likely to continue and symptoms may worsen, so it is important to seek help [2].


Psychotherapy, particularly cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), can be an effective treatment for panic disorder and can help to reduce the occurrence of panic attacks. CBT aims to alter negative thoughts and behaviors and provide positive coping strategies, which can help to alleviate anxieties that may cause panic attacks and help to manage symptoms during an attack [9][11].


A doctor or mental health professional may prescribe medication to help manage the occurrence of nocturnal panic attacks. Antidepressants, such as fluvoxamine, sertraline, and amitriptyline, may be prescribed to help manage symptoms of panic disorder and help to reduce negative emotions that may occur during and following panic attacks [5][9].

Benzodiazepines, including anxiolytics such as lorazepam and diazepam, or hypnotics such as triazolam and zopiclone, may be prescribed to reduce acute symptoms of anxiety and aid in sedation [5]. However, these medications can be habit-forming, so are typically not prescribed long-term or may not be prescribed at all.

It is important to take medications exactly as prescribed by your doctor, as taking too much or too little, skipping doses, or suddenly stopping your medication can cause adverse effects and worsen your mental and physical health.


If you experience nocturnal panic attacks, you may be able to reduce your symptoms by [9][10]:

  • Avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and sugar, especially before bedtime, as these can all contribute to sleep disturbances and the occurrence of panic attacks.
  • Engaging in calming activities such as relaxation exercises, breathing exercises, and meditation, as these can help to reduce feelings of anxiety and improve sleep quality, and can also be used to alleviate symptoms during a panic attack.
  • Speaking to others about your symptoms, whether family and friends or professionals, as this can help to reduce negative feelings that may be associated with the condition, such as fear and shame, and can provide a helpful support system.
  1. Craske, M.G., & Tsao, J.C. (2005). Assessment and Treatment of Nocturnal Panic Attacks. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 9(3), 173–184. Retrieved from
  2. Anxiety & Depression Association of America. (Updated 2022). Panic Disorder. ADAA. Retrieved from
  3. Singareddy, R., & Uhde, T.W. (2009). Nocturnal Sleep Panic and Depression: Relationship to Subjective Sleep in Panic Disorder. Journal of Affective Disorders, 112(1-3), 262–266. Retrieved from
  4. Levitan, M.N., & Nardi, A.E. (2009). Nocturnal Panic Attacks: Clinical Features and Respiratory Connections. Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics, 9(2), 245–254. Retrieved from
  5. Nakamura, M., Sugiura, T., Nishida, S., Komada, Y., & Inoue, Y. (2013). Is Nocturnal Panic a Distinct Disease Category? Comparison of Clinical Characteristics Among Patients with Primary Nocturnal Panic, Daytime Panic, and Coexistence of Nocturnal and Daytime Panic. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine: JCSM: Official Publication of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 9(5), 461–467. Retrieved from
  6. Sarísoy, G., Böke, O., Arík, A.C., & Sahin, A.R. (2008). Panic Disorder with Nocturnal Panic Attacks: Symptoms and Comorbidities. European Psychiatry: The Journal of the Association of European Psychiatrists, 23(3), 195–200. Retrieved from
  7. Lopes, F.L., Nardi, A.E., Nascimento, I., Valenca, A.M., & Zin, W.A. (2002). Nocturnal Panic Attacks. Arquivos de Neuro-psiquiatria, 60(3-B), 717–720. Retrieved from×2002000500006
  8. Espa, F., Dauvilliers, Y., Ondze, B., Billiard, M., & Besset, A. (2002). Arousal Reactions in Sleepwalking and Night Terrors in Adults: The Role of Respiratory Events. Sleep, 25(8), 871–875. Retrieved from
  9. National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d). Panic Disorder: When Fear Overwhelms. NIMH. Retrieved from
  10. National Health Service. (Reviewed 2020). Panic Disorder. NHS. Retrieved from
  11. Staner, L. (2003). Sleep and Anxiety Disorders. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 5(3), 249–258. Retrieved from
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Naomi Carr
Author Naomi Carr Writer

Naomi Carr is a writer with a background in English Literature from Oxford Brookes University.

Published: Feb 16th 2023, Last edited: Sep 22nd 2023

Morgan Blair
Medical Reviewer Morgan Blair MA, LPCC

Morgan Blair is a licensed therapist, writer and medical reviewer, holding a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling from Northwestern University.

Content reviewed by a medical professional. Last reviewed: Feb 17th 2023