Jennifer Lopez Shared That Lack of Sleep Contributed to Her Getting Panic Attacks—Here's What Sleep Experts Say About the Connection
Jennifer Lopez makes everything from rocking glowing skin to sitting down to family dinners to cranking out hardcore workouts look like a breeze. But not everything has always come easy for the 52-year-old singer/actor/mom/designer/entrepreneur—and newlywed! (In case you missed it, Lopez and Ben Affleck married in a quiet ceremony on July 16th.)
In her latest edition of her On the JLo email newsletter, Lopez admits that she remembers "feeling physically paralyzed" during severe panic attacks she experienced in her late 20s. She points to lack of sleep as a major factor that brought them on.
"There was a time in my life where I used to sleep 3 to 5 hours a night. I'd be on set all day and in the studio all night and doing junkets and filming videos on the weekends. I was in my late 20s and I thought I was invincible," she writes. "Until one day, I was sitting in a trailer, and all the work and the stress it brought with it, coupled with not enough sleep to recuperate mentally, caught up with me."
At that moment, she flipped from thinking through her day's to-do list in her brain to "all of a sudden I felt as if I couldn't move … I was completely frozen," Lopez adds, noting that her symptoms impacted her ability to see clearly.
The feelings of paralysis were the worst, though, Lopez says. They "started to scare me and the fear compounded itself." Lopez's security guard drove her to the doctor, and by that time, she had regained her ability to speak. "I asked the doctor if I was going crazy. He said, 'No, you're not crazy. You need sleep ... get 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night, don't drink caffeine and make sure you get your workouts in if you're going to do this much work,'" Lopez recalls.
Looking back, Lopez admits that she prioritized work—including a budding movie career, chart-topping album and burgeoning fashion brand—over healthy habits.
"Now I know it was a classic panic attack brought on by exhaustion, but I had never even heard the term at the time," Lopez says. "I realized how serious the consequences could be of ignoring what my body and mind needed to be healthy—and that's where my journey to wellness began."
For the last two-plus decades, Lopez has aimed "to live a very healthy and balanced life," with a mindset focused on "pro-living versus anti-aging." And yes, that includes sleep.
What Are Panic Attacks?
Panic attacks "are characterized by a sudden wave of fear or discomfort or a sense of losing control even when there is no clear danger or trigger," according to the National Institute of Mental Health. An individual who experiences repeated panic attacks fits the criteria of panic disorder, a form of anxiety that 4.7% of Americans reportedly experience at some point during their lifetimes, per the latest estimates from the NIMH.
"Panic disorder is an anxiety disorder that causes sudden fear, losing control, increased heart and respiratory rates, sweating and dizziness, among other physical symptoms," explains Carleara Weiss, Ph.D., a sleep science advisor at Aeroflow Sleep in New York City.
The NIMH confirms that the other symptoms of panic attacks can include:
- Chest pain
- Stomach pain/nausea
- Difficulty breathing
- Feeling of impending doom or a fear of death
The Connection Between Sleep and Panic Attacks
"Some studies have linked changes in the brain, hormonal level, heart rate variability and respiratory pattern to sleep disturbances in people experiencing anxiety. This 'hyperarousal' can interfere with sleep," Weiss says.
It's a vicious cycle: People experiencing anxiety or panic disorder often have difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep or wake up not feeling refreshed. Sometimes, sleep is accompanied by nightmares and night terrors that increase anxiety and fear of falling asleep. Plus poor sleep quality or sleep deprivation can overstimulate the stress response in the central nervous system, Weiss explains, which may worsen anxiety and panic symptoms.
"Research shows that if you sleep-deprive people, they will report increased anxiety levels the next day. We also know that deep sleep protects against the escalation of anxiety," Raymann says.
Some of Weiss' research focuses on sleep deprivation and anxiety symptoms in different age groups. To date, her findings suggest that sleep deprivation worsens anxiety symptoms, and that our resilience to fight back and regain control is reduced as we age. But if you seek treatment and start shifting your lifestyle as soon as possible post-panic attack, just like Lopez did, there is great potential for less stress and more sleep, she says.
"Specific interventions, such as regular exercise, can help build more resilience and increase sleep quality and duration, ultimately reducing anxiety symptoms," Weiss says.
While the cyclical relationship between panic attacks and sleep can sound like a stressful spiral, the connection can actually be a good thing, Raymann believes: "The positive side is that because of this, we now have two starting points to try to deal with the anxiety and its consequences. The first is regular treatment, with medication and therapy. The second is first to try to improve sleep."
Good sleep is key for health and longevity, not only from a physical perspective, but also for mental and emotional health, he adds. If you notice that anxiety, panic attacks or any other factor is impacting your ability to sleep, talk to your doctor about a personalized action plan.
The Bottom Line
No amount of money or success can prevent any of us from experiencing a mental health challenge. Lopez's journey shines a spotlight on the importance of keeping tabs on your brain and your body—and the importance of asking for help when things feel overwhelming.
If you are in crisis or you think you may have an emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately. And if you're having suicidal thoughts, call 988 any time, 24/7, to talk to a trained counselor.