Can You Have a Panic Attack In a Dream?

power-of-dreamsThe other day I posited that interesting question on Facebook, and it received some pretty interesting responses. It was an honest question because I’d had an odd and new experience I was curious about and was asking it, I think, more of myself, as I’m known to do.

I imagine I probably should have given at least some sort of preamble, and even though I tried to explain later on, many folks assumed I was referring to nightmares or even night terrors, which is perfectly acceptable given the limited information I offered. I’ve had both of those things. The dream I was talking specifically about wasn’t those. In it, I was attending a conference of some sort in a bustling city somewhere overseas, Indonesia perhaps, or Thailand, though why I was at this conference or what it was about was never made perfectly clear. I was staying in a nice hotel, all paid for (but with limited funds of my own so I was still cooking in the room) and one day I decided to go explore a bit. Not too far away from the relative security of the hotel, I am surrounded by crowds of strange looking people speaking a strange language and wearing strange clothing. It was loud and busy. I felt stared at for being different, had a sense of unease about appearing as if maybe I had something worth taking (I didn’t), and at one point in the odd, jumbled narratives that dreams have, a police officer in a pith helmet of all things, shouting words at me I did not understand, was shoving his hands in my pockets while pushing me back towards the hotel.

In The Anxiety Scale, I talked about the different levels of episodes we can have, from low and simmering to full-on catatonia, and I experienced something very close to the former. It was there, it was familiar. It was the kind of panic attack that, though it did not disable me completely, sat under my skin and normally would continue for many hours afterward. I often prefer the kind that slams you in the side of the head, to be honest, where you plant yourself in the corner, hug your knees, and begin rocking, because those can have the kibosh put on them so much easier. The simmering kind is surreptitious and underhanded. You can function, more or less, in a limited way at least, but it sits there at a slow boil, fermenting, and I still call it a panic attack.

This is what I experienced specifically in that particular dream, and to a lesser degree after I woke up. Once awake, though, it was like a wisp of steam and eventually dissipated, and that’s what inspired the question. The attack itself seemed to happen only in the dream but did not carry much weight at all once I was back in the real world.

So the confusion about nightmares and this, which I really would not classify as one, and even a standard bad dream, is understandable.

Once, in a group session, I made the distinction between a nightmare and a bad dream. The psychologist really appreciated that, because they are fairly different. I thought I might look a bit closer at how, and maybe add this new one to the mix while I’m at it.

Bad Dream

These I have all the time, and have for many years, always on a recurring theme. I’m back at work, in uniform, doing something and often failing at it. The other night the task was to drive to a hospital while my grumpy partner worked in the back to keep someone alive long enough to get there. I remember a silver Porsche that would not pull to the right. The one time it did, it immediately pulled right back in front of me so closely that I couldn’t see its taillights. When I pulled out into an oncoming lane to pass, he sped up and wouldn’t let me by. I’m hitting the horn, but instead of the air-horn (loved that air-horn), it was a little meep-meep as if from a Chevette. I woke up feeling frustrated and a little putout, though not what I’d call angry.


Luckily, these have been fairly rare over the years, though I have had them and most recently they’ve come more often, I’m not sure why. They are evil and horrible, and I wake up wide-eyed, normally scared out of my Hanes tighty whities (figuratively speaking), and often have to sit on the edge of the bed for a moment trying to catch my breath. The standard stuff of nightmares, I suppose. They have no ongoing narrative, but there is a theme: abject fear, terror, and very frequently some form of immediate apocalyptic threat to either my physical or emotional well-being. Sometimes, and this is part and parcel of the horror, the threat is from someone very close to me, like my mom.

The last type of dream, like the one I described at the beginning and found me asking that question, I don’t yet have a name for, it’s that new. It was a bad dream to be sure but does not fit into the cubbyhole I’d placed those types before. And though there was an increased level of anxiety, caused by a fear and threat, it was not the same, or to the same degree, as the nightmares I’ve had.

So yeah, I have no idea what to do with that one yet.

When it comes to dreams, I do not put any stock in the thought that they are magical messages meant to be interpreted for the betterment of your life, although I will admit to a certain level of head-nodding at the notion they’re the subconscious dealing with issues, good or bad, while it holds the one ring of power. That suggests neurosciency stuff at work, which I really like. Also, because of the things that have happened or are still continuing on outside my noggin it just makes sense.

What about you?

One thought on “Can You Have a Panic Attack In a Dream?

  1. I know what you’re talking about. Not just in levels to panic attacks, but having one IN a dream. I find they aren’t as bad anymore, and I don’t have ones that cause me to wake up as much, but some still exist . . . but in dreams. Not sure where it comes from. I’m just aware in the dream of feeling that panic, but then when I’ve awakened, the panic itself has ebbed. Sometimes it leaves me disoriented, but it is still there.

    Liked by 1 person

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