Alcohol And Anxiety: Can Drinking Cause Panic Attacks?

Drinking alcohol can exacerbate your anxiety symptoms and make you more susceptible to panic attacks. Alcohol-related panic attacks occur most frequently in people who have co-occurring mental health disorders or a history of chronic alcohol abuse.

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Dr. Manish Mishra, MBBS

Medically Reviewed By: Manish Mishra, MBBS


Alcohol dependence and anxiety disorders have a strong correlation.

National surveys demonstrate that people with an anxiety disorder are two to three times more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder (AUD). There are also similar connections between co-occurring disorders and alcohol abuse.

The relationship between alcohol use disorders and panic attacks is less clear. Panic attacks tend to appear after you stop drinking.

It is possible that this is an effect of cessation. It is also possible that you were self-medicating with alcohol to help suppress the symptoms that would cause panic attacks.

Unfortunately, using alcohol to reduce your level of anxiety creates a vicious cycle that will only make things worse.

Ways Alcohol Affects The Brain That May Increase Anxiety

Studies indicate that feelings of anxiety increase the day following heavy drinking. Alcohol has a profound effect on the brain, which could explain these results.

Effects On GABA Neurotransmitters

GABA neurotransmitters are the primary inhibitors in your central nervous system. They are amplified when your brain is exposed to alcohol.

The result is dampened brain activity, which can give you short-term relief from the symptoms of your mental illness.

It’s a short-lived result because your brain is adaptive. With frequent exposure your brain will lower your natural GABA levels in an attempt to maintain balance.

When you aren’t drinking, the lack of natural inhibitors can contribute to panic attacks and seizures.

Effects On Dopamine

Dopamine is another neurotransmitter that is amplified by alcohol consumption.

When your brain is exposed to alcohol, receptors release more dopamine than usual. The increase makes you feel happy, comfortable, and relaxes your inhibitions.

That flush of dopamine is the “reward” your brain learns to associate with alcohol. With time, your brain may become dependent on that influx.

Without the elevated levels of dopamine, you’re more likely to experience severe anxiety and depression.

Possible Causes Of Panic Attacks

Panic attacks can occur for a variety of reasons.

Whether the attack is a result of a substance use disorder or a pre-existing mental health disorder, it is always a legitimate medical condition.

Alcohol Abuse

GABA neurotransmitters are necessary to balance your brain chemistry.

Alcohol causes reduced levels, so there’s no natural block to excessive brain activity when you stop drinking.

If your brain activity becomes overactive and you aren’t under the dampening effects of alcohol, you may have a panic attack or a seizure from the alcohol abuse.

Alcohol Withdrawal

Alcohol withdrawal is usually the result of severe alcoholism. Following your last drink, you can typically expect the first signs of withdrawal to appear within six to 24 hours.

Alcohol’s effects change your brain chemistry so profoundly that alcohol withdrawal can be a serious medical emergency.

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:

  • disorientation
  • elevated heart rate
  • nausea
  • panic attacks
  • insomnia
  • seizures

For your own safety, you should never go through withdrawal alone. If possible, seek the aid of a health professional.

Past Trauma

Post-traumatic stress disorder is an anxiety disorder resulting from past trauma. Panic attacks are one of the hallmark symptoms of serious PTSD.

Any reminder of the past trauma, including dreams or a random thought, can trigger a panic attack.
Learn more about PTSD and alcohol abuse.

Mental Health Disorders

Anxiety disorders are one category of mental health disorders.

Types of anxiety disorders include:

  • agoraphobia
  • generalized anxiety disorder
  • obsessive compulsive disorder
  • post-traumatic stress disorder
  • social phobia

Other disorders that can cause panic attacks include depression and schizophrenia.

Why Alcohol Use May Increase Risk Of Panic Attack

If you have symptoms of anxiety and use alcohol to cope in social situations, you are not alone.

Alcohol dependence is prevalent among people with a variety of anxiety disorders, especially women with social anxiety disorder.

On their own, anxiety disorders put you at risk of having a panic attack. When you add alcohol dependence into the equation, you dramatically increase that risk.

Signs And Symptoms Of A Panic Attack

During a panic attack, your brain and your body are completely overwhelmed. You are likely to feel a sense of impending doom alongside common physiological symptoms.

Shortness of breath, sweating, elevated heart rate, and dizziness are all signs that you are in a state of dysregulation.

Removing external stimuli can help, but you need to make sure there is someone there to monitor you in case you need emergency healthcare.

How To Reduce Alcohol-Induced Panic Attacks

If you have a co-occurring mental health condition, you are more likely to experience frequent and intense panic attacks.

With a little help and targeted effort, you can reduce those risks.

Get Plenty Of Rest

Sleeping at least eight hours every night gives your brain a much-needed break. A consistently good sleep schedule can help to regulate your brain chemistry.

Good sleep may not completely restore your mental health, but it does give your body the tools to self-regulate as much as possible.

If you are struggling with insomnia, discuss the problem with your psychologist or other mental health provider.

12-Step Support Groups

Twelve-step support groups aren’t for everyone, but they can be highly effective if you’re actively engaged.

If you are the kind of person who benefits from shared experiences and community, then a 12-Step support group may be an excellent fit.

There are many other options if a 12-Step program doesn’t appeal to you.

Reducing Alcohol Intake

The ultimate goal of alcoholism treatment is to stop drinking entirely. If you aren’t ready for that, you can help yourself by reducing total alcohol intake.

Limit the alcohol you keep in your home. Ask friends or family to help you regulate the amount of alcohol you consume when you’re out.

It can be incredibly difficult, but it is the one of the best things you can do for your mental and physical health.

Treatment Options For Alcohol Use Disorder

When you are ready for more comprehensive treatment, you should contact a qualified treatment center.

A high quality treatment center will offer medically-supervised detox as well as multiple long-term treatment options.

Dual diagnosis treatment for alcohol abuse and anxiety will work to address the symptoms and side effects of each disorder at the same time.

Common, effective treatment options include:

  • cognitive behavioral therapy
  • dialectical behavioral therapy
  • 12-step programs

These options may be offered on an inpatient or an outpatient basis depending on the treatment facility.

Find Alcohol Abuse And Anxiety Treatment At Bedrock Recovery Center

Bedrock Recovery Center offers all of these treatment options with the flexibility you need to get the best possible support.

Our reliable programs will target both sides of your dual diagnosis. By treating your substance abuse and co-occurring disorders, you will finally have a solution that can help reduce your panic attacks.

Call our Massachusetts location today to learn more about how we help people just like you.

  1. National Library of Medicine
  2. National Library of Medicine
  3. National Library of Medicine

Written by Bedrock Recovery Center Editorial Team

© 2024 Bedrock Recovery Center | All Rights Reserved

* This page does not provide medical advice.

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