Understanding The Link Between Alcohol And Panic Attacks

Many people believe that alcohol is an effective self-medication technique for coping with anxiety and panic attacks, due to the initial sedative effect and feelings of calm that this substance provides.

However, evidence shows that there is a direct link between alcohol and panic attacks. When we reach for alcohol in an effort to calm the symptoms of anxiety and panic, we can become trapped in a vicious cycle that may eventually lead to a physical or psychological addiction.

As well as being an unhealthy coping mechanism, cases of alcohol-induced panic attacks prove that alcohol can actually be the cause of anxiety and panic rather than the cure.

If you struggle with panic attacks and feelings of anxiety, it is important to understand how alcohol can affect your mental health and potentially make these symptoms worse.

Can alcohol cause panic attacks?

Some people struggle with a disorder known as alcohol-induced panic attacks, in which they suffer from regular panic attacks after drinking alcohol.

Drinking alcohol causes a number of immediate effects in your body – your heart rate may increase, your blood sugar drops and you may eventually become dehydrated. If you are sensitive to the effects of alcohol, these uncomfortable sensations can trigger a panic attack.

Alcohol also disrupts the delicate balance of chemicals in the brain and body.

When you drink alcohol your brain releases a burst of serotonin that can make you feel euphoric and confident, only to crash when you stop drinking and your serotonin levels are lowered dramatically.

Over time these frequent ups and downs can cause an imbalance of chemicals that your body may interpret as stress and danger, potentially leading to panic attacks. [1]

These effects are particularly visible the day after drinking when the hangover begins to set in. As the sedative effect of alcohol wears off, you may experience a spike of anxiety or panic as your body begins to withdraw from the substance.

If you are more prone to these disorders, you may have a more extreme reaction to alcohol withdrawal than someone who does not suffer from panic attacks.

If you find it difficult to reduce or completely stop your alcohol consumption even after experiencing alcohol-induced panic attacks, you may be dealing with physical or psychological addiction and should consider seeking treatment.

Can I drink alcohol to cope with anxiety and panic attacks?

Alcohol acts as a sedative, often lowering the feelings of anxiety or panic that you may be experiencing. If you automatically reach for alcohol as soon as you notice the impending symptoms of a panic attack, you may believe that this substance calms you down and prevents you from spiralling.

While alcohol can make you feel calmer in the moment, this is only ever a short-term solution and will not fix the underlying problem that is causing the panic attacks – in fact, it is likely to make it worse.

If you have a history of panic attacks, studies show that you are statistically more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder. [2]

It is fairly common for people with panic disorder and anxiety to use alcohol as a temporary form of relief, but over time you may find yourself relying on this substance in order to relax and may begin to feel as though you need alcohol in order to function.

This is a slippery slope that can easily spiral into a devastating addiction, make your panic attacks and anxiety worse in the long term.

Drinking alcohol on a regular basis can result in your body building up a tolerance to this substance over time. This means that you will need to drink larger amounts of alcohol on a more frequent basis in order to experience the same effects, increasing the risk of developing a physical or psychological addiction.

It is not recommended to use alcohol as a coping mechanism to avoid panic attacks and feelings of anxiety, as this can make the initial problem worse in the long term.

The cycle of alcohol and panic attacks

If you reach for alcohol in an effort to avoid experiencing a panic attack or feelings of anxiety, you can quickly become trapped in a debilitating cycle that becomes very difficult to break.

An example of the cycle of alcohol and panic attacks include:

  • You feel as though you are about to have a panic attack
  • You reach for alcohol and initially feel calmer after drinking this substance
  • The effects of the alcohol begin to wear off
  • You experience mild withdrawal and a spike of anxiety or panic
  • You reach for alcohol again in an effort to avoid these sensations

Over time you will require more alcohol in order to achieve the initial feeling of calm, and your body will begin to process this substance more rapidly requiring more frequent consumption of alcohol in order to stave off the withdrawal and subsequent anxiety.

An example of the cycle of alcohol-induced panic attacks include:

  • You choose to drink alcohol to celebrate a friend’s birthday
  • The resulting chemical imbalance and uncomfortable effects make you feel anxious
  • You begin to experience a panic attack
  • You drink more alcohol in order to calm down
  • The uncomfortable effects worsen and continue to trigger a panic attack
  • You reach for alcohol again in an effort to avoid these sensations

When you experience alcohol-induced panic attacks, this cycle can become even more frightening and potentially result in a long-term panic disorder.

This is because alcohol has the ability to physically change the part of the brain that deals with fear, making it more difficult for you to move past traumatic experiences such as a panic attack and increasing the chances of developing PTSD or panic disorder. [3]

How can I break the cycle of alcohol and panic attacks?

If you are concerned that you are experiencing panic attacks as a result of your alcohol consumption, it is recommended that you cut down or completely stop drinking.

However, if there is a chance that you are physically or psychologically addicted to alcohol then you should not attempt to stop drinking without professional support.

Suddenly decreasing or stopping your alcohol intake can cause your body to go into withdrawal, potentially leading to a number of dangerous symptoms including hallucinations, dehydration and seizures. In extreme cases, these symptoms can be fatal.

There are a number of treatment programmes and rehabilitation centres around the UK that offer detoxification programmes involving 24/7 monitoring and supervision along with the use of approved medications to make the withdrawal process more comfortable.

We have the experience and resources needed to match you with a detoxification programme that suits your budget and lifestyle – give our friendly team a call today and take your first step towards breaking the vicious cycle of alcohol and panic attacks.


[1] https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/facts/health-effects-of-alcohol/mental-health/alcohol-and-anxiety

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2528232/

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5546210/