Alcohol & Panic Attacks – How Alcohol Abuse Can Worsen Anxiety
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There are clear links between alcohol and anxiety, and between alcohol and panic attacks. Alcohol can trigger panic attacks because on a physiological level, drinking can cause low blood sugar, dehydration, increased heart rate, and increased levels of stress.
Unfortunately, and clouding the situation to some extent, it has also been established that many people with social and generalized anxiety turn to alcohol as a form of self-medication. As a consequence, this can worsen their symptoms. So while alcohol and anxiety attacks are correlated, it may be that those with anxiety disorders are more likely to drink.
Table of Contents
Does Drinking Alcohol Make Anxiety Worse?
When people use drinking to deal with anxiety and panic, they can experience severe consequences even from drinking eventually. Like other frequently abused substances, the combination of alcohol abuse, hangover, and withdrawal can lead to an increased risk of panic attacks. As a consequence, this kind of abuse can result in both alcohol addiction and more severe anxiety and panic disorders.
Anxiety and alcohol abuse – why does alcohol cause anxiety?
Can alcohol cause anxiety? Absolutely. While some people use alcohol as self-medication, two theories explain the link between alcohol and panic disorders:
- Tension reduction hypothesis: According to researchers, individuals who cannot cope with stress often become dependent on alcohol to reduce tension. But then, having temporarily experienced less anxiety after drinking alcohol, they begin to think that higher amounts of alcohol will help them deal with higher levels of stress.
- Biological theory: Some scientists claim that genetics can explain why people abuse alcohol.
Also, physiological changes that occur after drinking can explain why alcohol causes anxiety:
- Dehydration: When people consume alcohol, they can become dehydrated, because alcohol is a diuretic. This dehydration can cause headaches and dizziness, which can increase the uncomfortable feeling of anxiety.
- Heart rate and changes in the nervous system: Alcohol also increases the heart rate, which makes people more anxious. Some individuals can even mistake the increased heart rate they experience after drinking for a heart attack, which can then trigger a panic attack.
- Low serotonin and blood sugar levels: These changes can lead to depression and tiredness, so if one is already suffering from an underlying level of social anxiety, alcohol and its effects on the body will make it worse.
- Poor judgment: In addition to negatively affecting many bodily functions, drinking can lead to poor judgment. The behaviors that result from this can result in anxiety and panic attacks, either during or after the practices. One of the most dangerous examples of poor judgment, in fact, may be the belief that alcohol helps anxiety – once a person believes that, they’re caught in a cycle.
Can a hangover cause a panic attack?
Yes, hangovers can trigger panic attacks due to alcohol anxiety and the physiological and cognitive unpleasantness of being hungover. Also, one of the most common experiences during a hangover is feelings of paranoia, that something bad must have happened because of how bad one feels. Stress headaches can also be a common hangover experience, and these can lead a person who is already slightly anxious to worry that something terrible might be wrong with them, like a brain tumor.
Can alcohol withdrawal cause panic attacks?
In addition to the uncomfortable bodily changes associated with a hangover, alcohol withdrawal itself can cause anxiety, hallucinations, and panic attacks. Heavy drinkers can suffer from severe withdrawal symptoms after drinking, some of which can be life-threatening. These effects can also be dangerous for the people around the drinking individual. The resulting panic attacks and hallucinations can be terrible, and withdrawal seizures can be lethal.
Anxiety & Panic Attacks Explained
Anxiety is defined as fear and insecurity about the future. Generalized anxiety disorder, on the other hand, is defined as a constant state of uneasiness that interferes with people’s everyday activities. Symptoms of this disorder include:
- Stomach problems
- Negative thoughts
High levels of anxiety can lead to short but terrifying episodes of panic attacks. People start noticing all the small pains in their body and amplifying them in their minds, and they can also experience:
- Shortness of breath
- Detachment from reality
- Fear of death
Panic disorders can even lead to panic attacks while asleep. Research data shows that 70% of people with a panic disorder experience nocturnal panic.
Can alcohol help with anxiety? The answer to this has to be an emphatic No. Many people who suffer from anxiety or panic disorders may try to use alcohol to deal with their social anxiety, phobias, and panic attacks, but this ends up only making the problem worse.
How To Treat Alcohol Abuse, Anxiety Disorder, And Panic Attacks?
The biggest problem standing in the way of effective treatments for alcoholism and anxiety is that drinkers are unable to differentiate the anxiety caused by their drinking from the anxiety they had in the first place. Unfortunately, alcohol increases any baseline levels of anxiety people might have had – quite literally, pre-existing social anxiety and alcohol don’t mix.
People should also understand that alcohol can trigger anxiety, but it’s just as likely that anxiety triggers drinking. Studies show that people with anxiety disorders are three times more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, heavy drinking is defined as 14 drinks for men per week, and seven drinks for women and people over 65 per week. (One drink = 1 bottle of beer, one glass of wine, or 1.5 ounces of liquor.)
People who drink this much and suffer from anxiety often ask questions during their treatment, such as “Does alcohol make anxiety worse?” or “Does alcohol increase anxiety?” They’re hoping the answer is No. It isn’t. Alcohol definitely makes anxiety worse.
Therefore, effective recovery from alcoholism usually saves treatment of anxiety symptoms until after a complete detox. Patients who suffer from anxiety need to learn to cope with stress without alcohol being present. Behavioral therapy often works well to accomplish this, and group sessions are also recommended.
- Stevens S, Cooper R, Bantin T, Hermann C, Gerlach AL. Feeling safe but appearing anxious: Differential effects of alcohol on anxiety and social performance in individuals with social anxiety disorder. Behav Res Ther. 2017 Jul;94:9-18. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28441522
- Phillips P. Pharmacotherapy: anxiety and comorbid alcohol use. Nurs Times. 2016. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/271334024_Pharmacotherapy_for_anxiety_and_comorbid_alcohol_use_disorders
- Morley KC, Baillie A, Leung S, Sannibale C, Teesson M, Haber PS. Is Specialized Integrated Treatment for Comorbid Anxiety, Depression and Alcohol Dependence Better than Treatment as Usual in a Public Hospital Setting? Alcohol Alcohol. 2016. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26672793
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