Interesting and Surprising Facts About Panic Attacks

What You May Not Know About Panic Attacks

Panic attacks, the main symptom of panic disorder, are often misunderstood. There are many prevalent myths about panic disorder that have contributed to the confusion about panic attacks. For example, a lot of people believe that panic attacks are just an overreaction to a feared event or an inability to control one’s reactions to stress. Such misconceptions only add to the stigma of having panic disorder.

If you have been diagnosed with panic disorder, you may have a first hand understanding of what it’s like to have panic attacks. However, there may be some things about panic attacks that even you are unaware of. The following lists out some of the most frequently overlooked and surprising facts about panic attacks. 

Panic Attacks Can Occur While You're Asleep

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As strange as it may sound, it is possible to have a panic attack while you are sound asleep. Nocturnal panic attacks occur when you experience panic attack symptoms that startle you out of your sleep. The symptoms of these attacks can be similar to those of daytime attacks, such as shaking, excessive sweating, and chest pain. When a nocturnal attack occurs, the person may experience shortness of breath, gasping for air as she is awakening.

Nocturnal panic attacks are also characterized by intense fears and feelings of dread. It is not uncommon for the person to feel as though he is losing control of himself or having a medical emergency. Symptoms of depersonalization and derealization are also typical, as the panic sufferer may have feelings of numbness and fogginess. He may have a strange sense that he is disconnecting from his surroundings, feeling as though he is dreaming or watching himself from a distance.

Nighttime attacks can impact your life by potentially making you feel fatigued throughout your day, causing additional anxiety, and leading to sleep disturbances. If nocturnal panic attacks are disrupting your ability to get a good night’s rest, it may be time to seek professional help. A doctor can work with you to treat your panic attacks and any possible sleep disorders.

Panic Attacks Don't Just Occur with Panic Disorder

It is a fact that panic attacks are the hallmark symptom of panic disorder, but panic attack symptoms can also occur with other mental health disorders. According to information in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition, (​DSM-5) – the reference guide used by mental health specialists to make accurate diagnoses – panic attacks are a qualifier that can be present in other conditions.

Panic attacks are often linked to other mood and anxiety disorders, including agoraphobia, specific phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), depression, and bipolar disorder. Panic attacks can be similarly associated with other mental health conditions, including eating disorders, personality disorders, and substance-related conditions. In some cases, panic attacks can be a part of certain medical conditions, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), irritable bowl syndrome (IBS), and sleep disorders. 

Diet and Exercise Can Impact Panic Attacks

There are countless benefits of regular exercise and proper nutrition, but did you know that your lifestyle choices can have a profound impact on your experience with panic attacks? Research has found that participating in a regular exercise program can decrease your feelings of stress, reduce anxiety-related tension and tightness throughout the body, and possibly lessen the frequency of panic attacks.

Your diet can also influence your experience with panic attacks. Studies have revealed that certain foods and substances can trigger anxiety and other panic attack symptoms. For example, consuming excessive amounts of caffeine, alcohol, or monosodium glutamate (MSG) can potentially increase anxiety and panic attacks. 

Panic Attacks Can Occur Both Expectedly or Suddenly

As described in the DSM-5, there are two types of panic attacks: expected or cued and unexpected. Expected panic attacks occur when the person is provoked by certain cues or triggers. For instance, a person who has a fear of heights (acrophobia) is likely to have a panic attack when on a high floor in a building or on an airplane.

Unexpected panic attacks, on the other hand, occur suddenly without any obvious cues, such as anxious and fearful thoughts, or external triggers, such as specific phobias or a traumatic event. Unexpected panic attacks are the type that is most commonly associated with a diagnosis of panic disorder.

Avoiding Panic Attacks Can Increase Your Fears

Many panic attack sufferers develop avoidance behaviors by steering clear of numerous situations that they believe are contributing to panic attacks. For example, a person with panic disorder may avoid being in busy shopping malls, out of fear that others will witness her having a panic attack. Similarly, a person with a fear of flying (aerophobia) may never travel by plane, knowing that he will have a panic attack on the plane.

Avoidance behaviors may seem logical at first, but they can prevent you from enjoying many different experiences in life. Panic and avoidance may keep you from attending social gatherings or traveling far distances. Plus, avoidance behaviors often strengthen your anxiety, further increasing your fears of certain places or situations.

Instead of avoiding panic-inducing situations, try to breathe through them. The next time you feel a panic attack coming on, bring your attention to your breath. During a panic attack, you may notice that your breath has become quick and shallow. Take control by breathing slowly and purposely. Inhale deeply through your nose, filling your lungs to their capacity. Exhale out of your mouth, expelling all of the air out of your body. Continue to repeat this deep breathing pattern until you feel more relaxed.

If deep breathing exercises and other self-help strategies are not working, you may want to consider finding professional help. Such assistance can help you in receiving the right diagnosis and developing ways to manage your anxiety and panic attacks. Additionally, a qualified mental health specialist will be able to provide with clear explanations and additional interesting facts about panic attacks.


American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Bergin, J. E., & Kendler, K. S. (2012). Common Psychiatric Disorders and Caffeine Use, Tolerance, and Withdrawal: An Examination of Shared Genetic and Environmental Effects, Twin Research & Human Genetics, 15(4), 473-482. 

Bourne, E. J. (2011). The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook. 5th ed. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

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