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Understanding the Link Between Alcohol and Panic Attacks

Posted on March 22, 2022

Understanding the Link Between Alcohol and Panic Attacks

A panic attack involves a physical and mental feeling of terror or fear that is often an extreme reaction to a perceived threat.

In some instances, there may be a specific event that triggers a panic attack, but in other cases, they can occur for seemingly no reason. [1]

Although they can be a terrifying experience, a panic attack is an amplified version of the body’s natural response to fear.

When we believe we are in danger, our senses heighten and we go into ‘fight or flight mode’ during which our breathing becomes faster and shallower, our hearts begin to pound and our muscles tighten up in an attempt to prepare for a physical altercation or the chance to run away to safety.

As there is often no imminent threat when a panic attack strikes, these sensations can feel uncomfortable and scary as the individual attempts to cope with the sudden surge of adrenaline.

What are the signs and symptoms of a panic attack?

A panic attack can feel extremely overwhelming and frightening, causing many people to believe that they are in immediate danger of death regardless of how many panic attacks they have experienced in the past.

They may feel as though they are unable to breathe sufficiently, that they are about to pass out or as though they are having a heart attack. [2]

You may experience a large range of symptoms before, during and after a panic attack. As it is possible to have a panic attack during your sleep, you may find that you wake up to one or more of these symptoms.

Common signs and symptoms of a panic attack

  • Dizziness and lightheadedness, feeling as though you are going to pass out
  • An extremely fast and intense racing heartbeat
  • Tightening of the chest, making it difficult to take a deep breath
  • Feeling floaty or disconnected from your body and mind
  • Tingling in the lips, hands and fingers
  • A lump in the throat and/or the sensation that you are choking
  • Feeling nauseous, as though you are able to vomit
  • Sharp pains in the chest and/or abdomen
  • Sweating excessively
  • Feeling out of control
  • The sensation of feeling extremely cold or extremely hot
  • Shaking and trembling involuntarily
  • Wobbly, jelly-like legs
  • A sense of impending doom
  • Feeling extremely overwhelmed and terrified

In the majority of cases, panic attacks will often subside within ten minutes.

However, it is possible for one panic attack to trigger a string of multiple panic attacks which can make the episode feel as though it is continuing for a longer amount of time.

Are panic attacks dangerous?

While the symptoms of a panic attack can be similar to those of a heart attack, experiencing a panic attack is not dangerous. It is important to remember that you are absolutely safe despite the uncomfortable and often overwhelming sensations that you are experiencing.

Some people may hyperventilate so much during a panic attack that they faint, but this is extremely rare.

There is no need to visit the hospital or emergency room during a panic attack as you are not in any immediate danger – instead, you should focus on calming and relaxing your mind and body as much as possible.

Although panic attacks are not physically dangerous, if an individual begins to suffer from them frequently then they could potentially develop a panic disorder.

This can leave sufferers feeling afraid to leave the house for fear of experiencing an episode in a public setting and being unable to get away, which can have a severely detrimental effect on their physical and emotional health.

Does alcohol trigger panic attacks?

It has been proven that alcohol has the ability to trigger anxiety and panic attacks, and this is due to a number of reasons.

Drinking large amounts of alcohol can lower blood sugar levels and cause an individual to become dehydrated, nauseous and dizzy – all uncomfortable sensations that can result in a panic attack.

Alcohol also triggers large amounts of serotonin to be released on a temporary basis, and the resulting crash can be interpreted by the brain as imminent stress and danger. [3]

As the body begins to withdraw from alcohol after an episode of heavy drinking, the unpleasant symptoms that are associated with withdrawal can also trigger a panic attack.

These include involuntary trembling, a racing heartbeat and excessive perspiration, all of which are similar to a panic attack and may be interpreted by the brain as one.

Can I self-medicate my panic attacks with alcohol?

If you have been suffering from regular panic attacks for any amount of time, it can be tempting to consider self-medicating with alcohol in an attempt to relax your mind and body on a temporary basis.

This coping mechanism may offer a brief respite in the short term, but it can very quickly make the problem worse.

As discussed above, alcohol has the ability to trigger panic attacks and anxiety. In addition, this substance can cause chemical changes that physically rewire the part of the brain that responds to and manages fear.

This may cause the individual to rapidly associate certain situations, events and sensations with overwhelming fear and can lead to trauma and even the development of PTSD. [3]

Instead of turning to alcohol to self-medicate your panic attacks, try looking into healthier ways to manage and cope with panic attacks including regular counselling, mindfulness techniques and breathing exercises.

Do some types of alcohol trigger panic attacks more than others?

Although some people believe that higher-strength alcohol such as hard liquor and spirits is more likely to cause a panic attack when compared to lower-strength drinks such as beer and alcopops, this assumption is incorrect.

The type of alcohol consumed is not what triggers an alcohol-induced panic attack – instead, it is the amount of alcohol and the frequency of consumption that can cause the body to react in such an extreme way.

If you are attempting to reduce the number of alcohol-induced panic attacks that you are experiencing, cutting down or completely quitting alcohol with the help of a medical professional is the safest and most effective method.

Due to the above reasons, simply changing the type of alcohol you drink will likely have little to no effect.

How can I calm down after an alcohol-induced panic attack?

Many people feel vulnerable and shaken after experiencing an alcohol-induced panic attack, and this sensation can follow them throughout the remainder of their day.

However, there are a number of techniques that can be utilised after experiencing a panic attack that can help you to feel calmer and more in control of your body and mind.

1. Concentrate on your breathing

One of the most common symptoms of a panic attack is the sensation that you are struggling to breathe. Your chest may feel tight, you may breathe shallowly and you might even feel dizzy and lightheaded.

This feeling may continue after the panic attack has subsided and can even trigger a second episode.

One helpful way to regain control is to stop and focus on your breathing.

Take a deep, slow breath through your nose for three seconds, hold for three seconds and then breathe out through your mouth for another three seconds.

Repeat this pattern a few times and you will likely notice that your chest loosens up and your muscles relax.

2. Speak to someone you trust

It can be incredibly helpful to speak to a close friend, family member or mentor after experiencing a panic attack.

You do not even need to mention the panic attack if it’s not something you feel comfortable discussing – instead, try phoning a friend to speak about unrelated events as a way to take your mind off the experience of a panic attack.

If you would like to discuss what happened, a trained and experienced counsellor will be able to talk you through your alcohol-induced panic attack and provide strategies and tips to use in the future.

Of course, it can also be comforting to discuss your experience with trusted friends and family members.

3. Use affirmations and positive self-talk

It’s important to be kind to yourself both during and after a panic attack. Remind yourself that you are not in any danger and that this experience will soon pass, and that a panic attack is a natural response to a perceived threat.

You may blame yourself for experiencing an alcohol-induced panic attack and be filled with regret about your past choices and behaviours.

Work on forgiving yourself with positive affirmations such as, ’I have the ability to move past my mistakes’ and ‘My past does not define my future.’

4. Focus on healthy distractions

An alcohol-induced panic attack can leave you feeling shaken up and frightened, and it can be tempting to ruminate over the experience in an attempt to understand exactly what happened.

However this can contribute to potential trauma and the development of PTSD, so it’s important to find healthy activities to distract yourself and allow your mind and body to move on from the experience.

Try going for a walk in the fresh air, reading a book or working on a creative hobby such as sewing.

It is recommended that you avoid scrolling through social media as this can heighten your anxiety even more, so focus on healthy and productive activities that you can feel good about.






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