Anxiety, Panic Attacks and Alcoholism: The Vicious Cycle

by Dick on January 30, 2012 · 5 comments

in Addiction, Alcoholism, Recovery, Treatment

alcohol anxiety panic attack

I Used Alcohol To Combat Anxiety, But Alcohol Itself Causes Anxiety

In 2006, I suffered my first full blown panic attack. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was reading a bedtime story to my son and felt this weird flip-flopping in my chest. My heart was doing somersaults. Having never experienced any type of heart irregularity, naturally I thought I was having a heart attack and would be dropping dead within minutes!

Instead, I was experiencing a panic attack. The flight or flight response kicked in and my body dumped a pint of adrenaline into my bloodstream. Shortness of breath, chest pounding, head spinning, nausea, thoughts racing and buzzing, dizziness, gastro-distress, you name it, I had it.

I wound up being rushed to the ER in ambulance. After ruling out a cardiac event, the EMT said “Dude, it’s probably a panic attack. You’re going to be fine.” Panic attack, I said? Huh?

Well, turned out there was something wrong with my heart. A cardiologist diagnosed me with premature ventricular contractions (PVCs) which thankfully are benign, fairly common, and don’t cause heart attacks. Basically, the heart beat is a little out of rhythm at times, but correctable with medication and weight loss.

But the scary feeling of my heart doing weird things definitely caused the panic attack. It also didn’t help that at that time in my life, I was dealing with a layoff, moving the family out of our house and into a smaller house, a new baby, losing my wife’s income, hating my job, the inevitable strain on our marriage caused by all the above. And of course, I just internalized everything, telling people I was “fine” and I’m a “fighter.” It was just a matter of time before I cracked under the pressure.

The panic attack did a number on me. For the next several months I had more bouts of anxiety and panic. I was having difficulty concentrating at work and home. I could hardly drive down the highway without starting to feel anxiety. I was continuing to have panic episodes. I sunk into a depression. I didn’t know if I could pull out of it. The shrink put me on Zoloft and Xanax which hardly worked. I did some cognitive-behavioral therapy with limited results.

Then entered my good friend alcohol. Up until then, I hadn’t made the medicinal connection between alcohol and anxiety. But knocking back a few cocktails after a panic episode, I felt instantly better. A lot better. I developed this mind-set that as long as I had alcohol around, I could self-medicate the panic attacks. And that’s what I did for a while. Long enough to start the progression into alcoholism.

Little did I know that the alcohol negated my medication and was a depressant and anxiety-causing agent itself. Ironically, the alcohol ultimately caused more anxiety and more depression, which I had to feed with more alcohol. A veritable Catch-22.

Research studies have shown that alcohol consumption causes anxiety by affecting serotonin levels in the brain, dropping blood sugar, elevating the heart rate, and causing dehydration and hyperactivity. Researchers and clinicians have long observed that the rate of anxiety disorders among those suffering with alcohol dependence is two to four times greater than that found in the general population.

My panic attacks eventually resolved, especially after a full cardiac workup showed I was in no danger of dropping dead, and I learned some helpful relaxation and deep breathing exercises. The panic attacks went almost completely away when I stopped drinking a year ago. But they came back every time I relapsed. Coincidence? I think not.

Suffering from anxiety and panic attacks are not fun. Drinking is probably one of the worst things you can do. I didn’t know that until I became educated on the disease of alcoholism.

One day at a time…


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  • Josephine Wright

    I have anxiety all of the time. I think it comes with the territory when you are a lawyer and running your own practice. I am thinking of going to AA but have not done so yet. I practice law in a very small rural community. I am scared of the social stigma of going to a face to face meeting. Have you ever tried on-line AA? I really don’t know much about AA but I think it is time that I learned more. How do you get a sponser?

  • Lane

    I didn’t get my very first panic attack until AFTER I quit drinking. And it wasn’t like I quit cold turkey. I slowed down 5 summers ago by only drinking on weekends until eventually I was drinking nothing. With no help. Yes, it WAS a miracle! Not only that, but soon after I quit, there were no cravings (and there still aren’t, 5 years later).

    Then I started having panic attacks, which, by the way, all surrounded going to work (on the bus) and being at work (didn’t much like being there, but that’s like many folks). Very first attack was on the bus. Weird. But, I didn’t have any attacks at home! Guess it was where I wanted to be, or something. AHA moment: I first began drinking due to social anxiety! Told my doc about the attacks and was put on Cymbalta, which is good for much that ails ya in the head. Must be why it’s so expensive! The attacks did stop, but when I’ve tried to go off Cymbalta, found that I would get depressed in no time. Hmmm . . . .

    Aside from the cost of Cym, I feel better than liquor ever made me feel, and no booze is involved. Good enough. I’ll try to go off Cym again, once the life I thought I’d have after quitting happens, or at least partially. I had to find out for myself that just because I quit, things did NOT get better. At all. I can’t get a job — it’s been 4 years — want to talk about hypocrites? I used to be a legal assistant, and none of the law firms want to dirty up their precious firm with a recovering alcoholic! HA! P.S. Don’t tell the truth about recovery in the interview if you want a job, I guess. I’ve been reading that THAT profession has the most alcoholics, b/c they’re SO stressed out! And THEY don’t want to hire ME! Wouldn’t you then think: their legal assistants must be a little stressed out, too?

    Anyway, I also haven’t had a boyfriend for like, 10 years or more . . . not really sure anymore (life really sucks even w/o just hugs), and I’ve had to come to terms that I won’t be having children, b/c during the crucial childbearing years, I was busy drinking alone on my couch. No wonder I’m depressed, actually! This is probably the same way overweight ppl feel after gastric bypass, or anyone losing a whole bunch of weight, really. Nope, life won’t change for the better, exactly like you imagine it will. Maybe b/c we muddied it up in the first place with our “habits”?

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