Alcohol is consumed by people from all walks of life. While some people are able to drink responsibly and in moderation, others struggle to control their drinking and put themselves at risk of developing addiction and other physical health concerns. In other words, alcohol is not all bad - but it does have the potential to damage your psychological and/or physical health.
What if you suffer from panic attacks? In this case, alcohol can be especially harmful, potentially triggering and exacerbating panic attacks. While for some people the occasional drink is not harmful, others find that a single sip of alcohol is enough to significantly worsen their anxiety.
Panic Attacks Can Be Controlled
While alcohol can make your panic attacks worse, alcohol itself doesn't cause panic attacks on its own. In other words, even if you stop drinking alcohol, you are likely still going to have panic attacks - you simply won't have alcohol triggering them. This means that cutting out alcohol can help - but often further action is required in order to take full control of your condition.
Causes of Panic Attacks From Alcohol
Alcohol doesn't directly cause panic attacks, in the sense that those with panic disorder suffer from panic attacks with or without alcohol. But alcohol can trigger and worsen panic attacks. There are several reasons for this, which will be discussed below; but the key thing to remember is that those with panic attacks suffer from an issue known as hypersensitivity.
Hypersensitivity is when a person is so sensitive to changes in their body that they can't help but notice and be affected by them. Every day most of us experience minor aches, pains, heart rhythm changes, and so on. Most people barely notice them, or pass them off as if they're not important. Those with panic attacks are far more likely to notice them, and this may result in a flood of anxiety that can lead to a panic attack.
Some of the ways that alcohol can contribute to panic attacks include:
- Dehydration A very common problem with all forms of anxiety, including panic attacks, is the dehydration brought on by excessive alcohol use. Alcohol is a diuretic, causing excessive urination and the expulsion of water from the body. For every drink you have, you urinate as much as 50 to 100% more water - water that is taken from other parts of your body. Dehydration causes a host of symptoms that can make your anxiety worse, and cause physical sensations that trigger panic attacks.
- Flu Like Symptoms During hangovers, alcohol can cause flu like symptoms, including aches and pains all over the body. Interestingly, hangovers don't trigger panic attacks as often as you'd think because your mind can "explain" the symptoms away, but it can still have an effect, especially if the symptoms feel like they're getting worse.
- Withdrawal For those that imbibe alcohol with some regularity, withdrawal from alcohol can also have consequences. Alcohol withdrawal puts the mind and body into both physiological and psychological stress, which may, in turn, contribute to both anxiety and panic attacks.
- Dizziness and Rapid Heartbeat While drinking (and sometimes after drinking), alcohol can cause sensations of dizziness, rapid heartbeat, heart palpitations, and other symptoms that are known to trigger panic attacks, especially in those with health anxiety.
- Poor Body Functioning Alcohol also simply causes parts of the body, especially hormones, to function poorly. When the body experiences physical stress it also tends to experience mental stress, and that mental stress can translate into an increase in anxiety attacks. Alcohol also affects serotonin pathways/levels. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter (or brain chemical) that affects mood. Poor serotonin balance is commonly associated with anxiety.1
- Stressful Mistakes Finally, when you drink, you often do things which you might regret afterwards. For example, spilling drinks on yourself, acting inappropriately around someone else, or “drunk dialing.” To someone without panic attacks, these mistakes may be stressful but not otherwise impact their lives. For those with panic attacks, that stress only adds to the stress you already suffer from as a result of your attacks, and may make it more likely to suffer from a panic attack later.
Although alcohol doesn't cause a panic attack directly, it does affect parts of the mind and body that ultimately may contribute to the development of a panic attack, and it does so with more frequency than other types of healthier beverages.
Why Self-Medicating With Alcohol is Problematic
When you suffer from panic attacks and anxiety, it implies that your natural ability to cope with stress is suffering. You need to rebuild that coping ability in order to cure your panic attacks.
But when you use a drug often enough, your brain starts to turn towards the drug to cope and you can actually lose even more of your ability to stop panic attacks without the assistance of a substance. Eventually, when you don't drink alcohol, you may also suffer from panic attacks even more often than you did before drinking, especially if you drink every day or to numb your anxiety. This is an additional problem caused by alcohol consumption. In other words, drinking alcohol may give you a temporary sense of relief, but in the long term it’s likely to worsen your anxiety and weaken your coping capacities.
Do You Need to Stop Drinking?
Alcohol may be a popular casual drink, but it is still a drug. If someone suffers from alcohol use disorder (also known as alcoholism or alcohol dependence), quitting alcohol must be a priority. Alcohol can cause several long term health issues, in addition to some of the personal challenges that come from the disorder. Please review the linked description of alcohol use disorder, and if you need help, review this link for treatments and resources.
If you are not struggling with alcohol addiction, cutting out drinking is more of a personal choice. Your panic attacks won't go away completely if you cut out alcohol, although reducing your consumption may well reduce the frequency and intensity of your panic attacks, and those that quit drinking altogether may find that they feel better overall.
Alcohol is a drug like any other, and anything that affects your body like alcohol does has the potential to contribute a great deal to your panic attacks and anxiety more generally. For this reason, those that have panic attacks should strongly consider avoiding alcohol wherever possible.
Whether or not you drink, your panic attacks need to be addressed separately. Cutting out alcohol will help you cope better, and should reduce the likelihood of experiencing a panic attack, but it won't stop them altogether. In order to truly take control of your panic attacks, you should make efforts to treat the underlying anxiety that’s causing them in the first place.