Can Alcohol Cause Panic Attacks?

Can Alcohol Cause Panic Attacks?

A night of drinking alcohol can be an idea of a fun time for many. But, the after-effects of a heavy drinking session can be less than enjoyable.

Drinking alcohol and hangovers can bring about a range of unpleasant symptoms, including headaches, nausea, fatigue, and sometimes anxiety. But does drinking simply cause people to feel a little more anxious than usual, or can alcohol cause panic attacks?

Find out more in this article.

What are Panic Attacks?

Panic attacks are episodes of intense panic, fear and discomfort that can happen suddenly and without any warning. They’re described as a sudden rush of overwhelming anxiety that can make you feel like you’re losing control.

One in three adults will experience a panic attack in their lifetime, but only around 3% of men and women are diagnosed with a panic disorder.


What Are the Typical Symptoms of a Panic Attack?

Symptoms can vary, but common ones include:

  • Fast heartbeat
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feelings of choking
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Nausea
  • Feeling dizzy, lightheaded, or faint
  • Derealisation (feelings of unreality) or depersonalisation (being detached from yourself)
  • Fear of losing control
  • Fearing for your life
  • Numbness or tingling sensations
  • Chills or hot flashes.


Can Panic Attacks Vary in Intensity and Duration?

Yes, panic attacks can vary in both intensity and duration. Some may be brief and relatively mild, while others can be severe and last longer. They can also occur in waves, with symptoms peaking and then subsiding, only to return again.


How Are Panic Attacks Different From General Feelings of Anxiety?

The main difference between anxiety and a panic attack is the intensity and duration.

Anxiety is more of a chronic condition, and a person with an anxiety disorder will experience a more persistent, lingering feeling of worry and tension. Normal, everyday situations (e.g. work, people and certain situations and environments) can trigger anxiety for many, and it often affects day-to-day life.

A panic attack, on the other hand, is usually abrupt and intense. It will often peak within minutes and includes a range of very intense and unpleasant physical symptoms. Panic attacks often feel incredibly overwhelming and can come on suddenly, without an ‘obvious’ trigger, making the person feel a loss of control or even fear of dying.

So, to recap the above – anxiety is generally a sustained, lower-level emotional state, whereas a panic attack is a short, intense burst of intense fear and physical symptoms.


Can Alcohol Cause Panic Attacks?

Not everyone will have a panic attack from drinking alcohol, but research has shown that drinking alcohol can sometimes lead to panic attacks. This is because when someone drinks alcohol, it can change the way their brain works, and for some people, this can trigger these symptoms.

Alcohol can also affect how anxious a person feels. At first, drinking might make someone feel more relaxed. Confident, even. This is because alcohol can slow down the brain and reduce stress for a short time. However, as the body starts to break down the alcohol, this initial calm feeling can turn into increased anxiety. In fact, 12% of people experience feeling anxious when hungover.

This happens because alcohol changes the levels of certain chemicals (GABA) in the brain that control our mood. Over time, drinking a lot of alcohol can make these chemical changes more permanent, which can actually lead to higher levels of anxiety, even when not drinking.

Regarding alcohol withdrawal, this can also trigger panic attacks in specific situations. When someone who regularly drinks a lot of alcohol suddenly stops, their body can react very strongly because it has become used to having alcohol around.

This reaction can include alcohol withdrawal symptoms such as shaking, sweating, and an intense feeling of uneasiness, which can sometimes cause panic attacks. This kind of reaction is more common in people who have an alcohol addiction or have engaged in chronic alcohol abuse for a long time and then suddenly reduce their alcohol intake or attempt to stop altogether.


Who Is Most At Risk of Alcohol-Induced Panic Attacks?

People who already live with anxiety or panic disorders are at a much higher risk of experiencing an alcohol-induced panic attack.

Co-occurring mental health disorders can also significantly contribute to the risk of alcohol-induced panic attacks. Disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder, and other anxiety disorders can interact with alcohol in a way that increases the likelihood of panic symptoms.

From a genetic perspective, some people may have a predisposition to both alcohol use disorders and panic-related disorders. Environmentally, factors such as stress, trauma, and the presence of alcohol dependence or abuse in the family or social setting can influence both drinking patterns and the development of panic disorders.


Advice for Managing Alcohol and Anxiety

Managing panic attacks triggered by alcohol consumption can involve a mixture of prevention strategies and methods to cope when a panic attack happens. See below for our advice.

  • Understand the trigger: Try to recognise that alcohol can alter brain chemistry and may worsen anxiety and panic attacks. Awareness of this connection can help you make better choices for yourself as an individual when it comes to drinking alcohol.
  • Avoid alcohol when you’re feeling stressed: A big misconception about alcohol is that it relaxes you. If you’re going through a particularly stressful period, consider avoiding alcohol altogether, as it can lower your threshold for panic attacks.
  • Hydration: Drinking water between alcoholic drinks can help reduce the amount of alcohol you consume and also mitigate some of its effects.
  • Always eat before drinking: Consuming food can slow the absorption of alcohol in the bloodstream, potentially reducing its anxiety-triggering effects.
  • Learn Relaxation Techniques: Techniques such as deep breathing and mindfulness meditation can be effective for some people in managing anxiety and panic symptoms when they arise.
  • Seek professional help: If alcohol frequently triggers panic attacks for you, consider talking to a medical professional. They can offer guidance tailored to your specific needs and help you address underlying causes and treatment for anxiety symptoms.
  • Go sober: If moderation is challenging and panic attacks persist, abstinence from alcohol might be the safest choice for you. This is a personal decision that can be made based on the severity of your symptoms, but do what feels right for you.