Does Alcohol Use Disorder Increase Panic Attacks? Why a Comprehensive Diagnosis Is Needed for Successful Recovery

While alcohol may seem to relieve anxiety, in the long run alcohol consumption will only make anxiety problems worse. Alcohol can increase the frequency and intensity of panic symptoms, especially if chemical dependency develops. Ultimately, the mixture of panic and alcohol will create significant life problems that may require both substance abuse and mental health treatment. But before recovery can begin, a complete and accurate diagnosis must be obtained.

Some people who experience panic attacks will try to alleviate their troubling symptoms by turning to alcohol. This approach can easily lead to addiction, which is especially tragic because it is based on a false belief.

Rather than reducing anxiety, alcohol will actually increase it if it is abused. In some instances, alcohol consumption can even trigger a panic attack.

Panic Disorder and Alcohol Use Statistics

More than five million American adults experience panic disorder symptoms each year. Among this group, about three-fourths will be moderately or severely disabled by their anxiety attacks.

People with any type of anxiety disorder are at increased risk for alcohol use disorders. But panic disorder has a stronger relationship to alcohol addiction than any other anxiety disorder. That was revealed during the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions, one of the more comprehensive studies ever undertaken on substance abuse and associated mental health disorders.

Another study found that 25 percent of people who sought treatment for panic symptoms had a history of alcohol addiction. This rate of chemical dependency is about 50-60 percent higher than what has been measured in the general public. A different study found substance abuse rates in general were twice as high among young people (age 14-24) who suffered from panic attacks, in comparison to those with no such history.

Why People With Panic Disorder Drink

Panic attacks are debilitating and demoralizing. They are also highly stressful, since they leave the person having an attack feeling as if they might pass out or faint at any moment. Sometimes people having panic attacks will even fear that they’re dying.

Those who suffer from panic attacks come to dread their sometimes unpredictable onset. Because of their life responsibilities, completely avoiding situations that could trigger them is usually impossible.

The anticipatory anxiety that accompanies panic disorder is not as unpleasant or intense as the panic attack itself. However, it is this fear that too often can lead to alcohol abuse.

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. When consumed infrequently and in moderate or small amounts, it can have a tranquilizing effect.

The problem is that some people come to rely on alcohol’s soothing impact to get them through stressful situations. They fail to seek alternatives, such as mental health treatment. Instead, they try to drink their problems away, which is a recipe for disaster.

Unfortunately, this type of behavior can quickly spiral out of control, provoking a descent into alcohol dependency.

How Alcohol Use Disorders Develop in People With Panic Disorder

Panic disorder and alcohol don’t mix. Even if alcohol does seem to relieve anticipatory anxiety, it still won’t do anything to stop the actual panic attacks. When alcohol use becomes substantial enough to cause addiction, it will create a whole new set of problems that can be far more serious than panic disorder alone.

As a consequence of alcohol abuse, the brain gradually loses its capacity to produce certain neurotransmitters naturally. Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain that can either excite or inhibit central nervous system activity.

Usually, neurotransmitter levels are kept in equilibrium, to avoid unbalanced physical or emotional states. But alcohol interferes with this process, tilting the balance in favor of inhibitory neurotransmitters. This is how alcohol causes relaxation and sedation.

If alcohol consumption is controlled, the brain can easily restore its chemical equilibrium once the effects of the alcohol wear off. The problem comes when alcohol use is heavy or regular.

Tolerance for it builds, in the body and the brain. From a neurological perspective, this means the brain will adjust to its presence by either suppressing the activity of neurochemicals that inhibit the nervous system or by increasing the activity of the neurochemicals that stimulate it. The brain is always seeking a balance and will adjust itself accordingly to manage factors that put that balance at risk.

Tolerance for alcohol is a stepping stone for addiction. As tolerance increases, alcohol use will no longer have the same effects it had initially. This means the person must drink more and more of it to achieve the same effects, which is exactly how chemical dependency develops.

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Alcohol Cravings, Withdrawal, and Panic

A true alcohol use disorder will have a negative impact on panic disorder. This is because of the symptoms experienced when a person is having cravings or is in withdrawal.

In reality, cravings and withdrawal are parts of the same spectrum of symptoms. When a person with an alcohol use disorder abstains from consuming alcohol for more than a few hours, it can lead to the onset of cravings that eventually transition into withdrawal.

Some of the signs of early-stage withdrawal from alcohol include:

  • Headaches and muscle tension
  • Heavy sweating
  • Elevated heart rate
  • High blood pressure
  • Agitation and restlessness
  • Shakiness
  • Dizziness
  • Mood swings
  • Weakness and fatigue

Virtually all of these symptoms are also associated with panic attacks.

Panic and alcohol are a bad combination in the best of circumstances. But alcohol dependency is especially problematic for a person struggling with persistent symptoms of panic.

Having just one or two symptoms associated with anxiety can trigger a full-blown panic attack, that is the nature of panic disorder. Ominously, such symptoms tend to be experienced all the time by people who develop an addiction to alcohol. This leaves a person struggling with alcoholism and panic disorder simultaneously in a highly vulnerable position.

Trying to get off alcohol while dealing with panic disorder can be a formidable challenge. Consequently, those who face these circumstances have a desperate need for trained medical intervention, in the form of mental health and substance abuse treatment.

Dual Diagnosis and Treatment for Panic Disorder and Alcohol Dependency

Having either an alcohol use disorder or a panic disorder is bad enough. But having them both at the same time can be frightening and overwhelming.

When both are present, each must be addressed in treatment. Should either one be neglected or overlooked, restoring your health will be next to impossible.

If you suffer from panic attacks and have been drinking to help yourself cope, it may be difficult to tell if you’ve truly developed an addiction to alcohol. Mental health and addiction specialists can help you make that determination, and they can recommend the right kind of treatment for your specific condition or conditions.

When alcohol use disorders are present in those who suffer from anxiety disorders, the best solution is a dual diagnosis treatment program. This will include individual, group and family therapy that will help you gain a clearer understanding of what has been happening in your life. During your therapy sessions, you will learn how to manage your panic without relying on alcohol. Medication may also be prescribed to help you control your anxiety.

Getting an accurate diagnosis is your first step on the road to recovery. Once you know what you’re truly facing, the challenges will be surmountable. Healing can occur, and you can regain control of your life. Alcohol use disorders and panic disorders can be overcome, and with expert assistance you can join the ranks of those who’ve overcome them.

Alta Mira offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders and process addictions. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Bay Area programs and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward lasting recovery.