The panic attack began in a dream that I was having while asleep.

It was my first panic attack, and it began while, in the dream, I was outside on a hill with my brother.

I don’t recall if we were hiking or what, but I was on some rocks, and my heart began pounding a bit.

Maybe it was because I was climbing or trying to help out my brother, but my heart was beginning to speed up.

Still having the dream, my heart’s pounding increased, distracting me from whatever I was doing in the dream while on the rocks.

The pounding eventually overrode the dream and awakened me, and I was lying there feeling my heart pound – this had never happened before. How strange.

Nothing had occurred in the dream to validate the pounding.

In fact, the scariest nighttime dreams I’ve ever had, had never caused my heart to pound – either as part of the dream or upon awakening.

This was an odd thumping that forced me to sit upright and note the time: about 4 am.

I wasn’t liking how this was feeling. I was 28, and the day prior, I had gone hiking – climbing hard up a lengthy rocky trail without any problem, something that I’d been doing for quite a while.

The hike lasted two hours — not unusual for me at all.

Despite effortlessly taking on a two hour hike, I was really worried that something was wrong with my heart.

I began thinking, feeling, that the thumping meant that a heart attack was imminent and that death was near.

I couldn’t shake the intimation that I was in danger of dying. So I called 9-1-1. I had never done this before.

I had no other symptoms, no sweating, chest pain, difficulty breathing, dizziness or nausea.

All I had was the thumping pounding heartbeat and the sensation that I was going to either have a heart attack or drop dead.

The ambulance came and on the ride to the hospital, I noted on the heart rate monitor that my pulse was in the 140s.

I just could not relax my body enough to get my heart rate down.

The several hours I spent at the emergency room are now a blur, as this happened years ago.

But I do remember catching a glimpse of the paperwork where it had the numerical code for my diagnosis: anxiety.

I also remember that while lying there in the examination room, I had a full view of my heart rate on the screen, and it was higher than it usually was during cardio exercise.

So that’s what my first panic attack, arising from a night dream, felt like.

What Causes Panic Attacks to Occur in the Middle of a Dream?

“A study of people with panic attacks during sleep using electroencephalograms during sleep found the panic was preceded by Non-REM sleep during which dreams are rare,” begins David D. Clarke, MD, President, Psychophysiologic Disorders Association (, Clinical Assistant Professor of Gastroenterology Emeritus, Oregon Health & Science University, and author of “They Can’t Find Anything Wrong.”

Dr. Clarke specializes in physical symptoms that result from stress.

“But it was a study of a small number of subjects (13 of them), so I would not rule out the possibility of panic during other stages of sleep during which dreams are more common,” continues Dr. Clarke.

“But I suspect the panic event is triggered independently of the content of the dream.

“It seems odd that anyone should panic during such a peaceful time of the daily cycle, but panic during sleep is nevertheless a well-known phenomenon (about 50 percent of people with panic have had at least one during sleep), awaiting better understanding.”

Since 1983 Dr. Clarke has successfully cared for over 7,000 patients with stress illness.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.  


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