The Relationship Between Alcohol and Anxiety Attacks

Anxiety is a normal and naturally occurring feeling that arises when people are faced with challenging circumstances. However, when this feeling continues to persist once the stressor has been removed it falls under the realm of an anxiety disorder, a type of mental illness. Conditions like anxiety and depression are known for having a complex (and often precarious) relationship with alcohol. Anxiety attacks, one of the side effects of these disorders, are similarly affected by the substance, making their occurrences more frequent and more intense. 

What Is An Anxiety Attack?

An anxiety attack is a condition described as an intense and sometimes debilitating stress response that can cause a myriad of physical and psychological symptoms. The reported side effects can vary significantly from person to person, but many have been said to make individuals feel like they can’t breathe or move, and be accompanied by a racing pulse, excessive sweating, dizziness, shaking, and numbness. 

Anxiety attacks aren’t formally recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) which means there isn’t a clearcut definition of what an anxiety attack is or feels like. 

Can Alcohol Cause Anxiety Attacks? 

The exact cause of anxiety attacks is unknown therefore it cannot be said for certain whether alcohol can induce such reactions. However, there is a direct overlap between the neurotransmitters affected by alcohol and the ones that are involved in anxiety itself, which is why alcohol is reported to be a very likely aggravator of this condition. 

Dopamine, serotonin, and GABA all play a  major role in mood regulation which puts them at the center of how stress works. Individuals with depression and anxiety are often found to have lower levels of these chemicals. However, alcohol is known to depress or otherwise disrupt these same neurotransmitters and can cause an already negative situation to go from bad to worse. These individuals are not only more susceptible to stress, but they feel it more acutely and more strongly, which increases the likelihood of developing a chronic anxiety disorder. This double trouble is why many believe that alcohol can cause anxiety attacks.     

How Alcohol Physiologically Contributes To Anxiety

Anxiety may be a feeling, but it manifests itself physically in the body in multiple ways. Heartbeat and blood pressure increase to get more blood to the muscles should they need to spring into action. The respiratory system kicks into high gear to bring in more oxygen to distribute in the blood. Your brain becomes extra alert and focused and cognition improves. Even your gastrointestinal system gets involved, resulting in a sudden urge to use the bathroom. 

All of these reactions are tied to the fight or flight response and can be beneficial in the moment. Once the threat has passed, your body is meant to return to normal with no harm done. For individuals with anxiety or chronic stress, this is not the case. Their body remains in this hyper-alert and tense state for an extended period of time. Eventually, the body can have a hard time remembering what “normal” is so the threshold between when someone is potentially triggered into an anxious state becomes smaller and smaller. Individuals become more susceptible to having an intense physical reaction to anxiety and stress.

Alcohol interferes with these physiological functions two-fold. The first of which is that alcohol replicates several of the same reactions that the body has to stress, such as raised blood pressure. Secondly, alcohol can prohibit the release of the hormone that signals the body to return to normal. Together, you’ve got a recipe for someone to be hyper-sensitive and alert–and stay that way for longer than they would have otherwise. 

Alcohol & Anxiety Don’t Mix

While it can not be said for certain whether alcohol can cause an anxiety attack, drinking certainly contributes to several of the factors that could lead one to be overly anxious and hypersensitive to stressors. The relationship between alcohol abuse and mental illness is well-known but can be tricky to treat. Dual diagnosis treatment programs are specialized to address the unique nuances of mental health and substance abuse. Contact us today to learn more. 

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