Does Alcohol Withdrawal Cause Panic Attacks?

Robert Gerchalk

Robert is our health care professional reviewer of this website. He worked for many years in mental health and substance abuse facilities in Florida, as well as in home health (medical and psychiatric), and took care of people with medical and addictions problems at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He has a nursing and business/technology degrees from The Johns Hopkins University.

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Can Alcohol Withdrawal Cause Panic Attacks?

Alcohol withdrawal is associated with symptoms that can include anxiety and panic attacks. Fortunately, these symptoms are treatable, and they should never be a barrier to getting sober. Exploring how alcohol withdrawal can contribute to panic attacks along with how to prevent and treat them helps you begin your recovery with greater comfort.

What Causes Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms?

Alcohol acts as a depressant in the body’s central nervous system. When you drink alcohol regularly for a long time, your brain will begin to produce stimulating hormones in higher-than-normal levels. Your body’s other organs are also impacted by alcohol use. For instance, drinking alcohol can cause your heart rate and blood pressure to temporarily increase. Over time, excessive use of alcohol can cause strain on your body that manifests as acute or chronic health conditions that can include liver and cardiovascular disease. 

Drinking heavy amounts of alcohol regularly can also cause your body to become dependent upon the chemical reaction that occurs in your brain. When you stop drinking, the withdrawal symptoms are a result of your body continuing to crave the stimulation that alcohol once generated. While the initial withdrawal symptoms can be uncomfortable, it helps to know that they will dissipate over time Quitting alcohol opens up new opportunities for you to live a healthier lifestyle that makes it easier to achieve your goals. But you might struggle with ending your alcohol use. Trying to quit alcohol on your own can sometimes lead to developing uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms that impact your physical and mental health.

While it can sometimes be hard to predict who will develop alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS), it has been found to impact around 8% of all people who are hospitalized with an alcohol use disorder (AUD). For some people, the symptoms can resemble a typical hangover. Other people may experience severe symptoms that require professional intervention.

once your body learns to function normally without alcohol in your system.

What Are Common Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal?

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms usually begin within eight hours after someone has their last drink, but they can also occur several days later. For most people, the symptoms will peak during the first few days, but they can continue for weeks.

The physical symptoms of alcohol cessation include headaches, nausea and a loss of appetite. Some people also experience sweating, a rapid heart rate, tremors, and panic attacks. Severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms may require medical attention, which is available when you reach out for help to recover from your AUD. 

While many people manage to stop drinking without any long-term side effects, it is important to note that your experience may differ from those of other people you know. Treating your recovery as an individual journey is important, and finding the right people to guide you to sobriety can help you stay comfortable as you quit drinking.

Stopping drinking can also cause you to experience some emotional withdrawal symptoms. You might notice that you feel more anxiety than normal, which can often feel like a panic attack is occurring. People who stop drinking can also experience depression, irritability, and agitation. If you notice that you feel emotional symptoms after quitting alcohol, then it is also important to address how you feel. Talking to someone at our 24-hour recovery hotline at Alcohol Awareness can help you identify ways to ease your mental health symptoms as you adjust to life in recovery.

What Is a Panic Attack?

Most people feel anxiety at various points in their lives, whether they drink alcohol or not. You might have felt anxious before a job interview or giving a speech to a large audience.

Panic attacks involve anxiety and can be intense. Most panic attacks peak within about 10 minutes, but they can have strong symptoms that include heart palpitations, shortness of breath and an intense sense of impending doom. Since panic attacks can cause physical symptoms, it can sometimes be hard to tell whether you are having one or experiencing another, more serious event. 

If you’ve never had a panic attack before, then it is important to undergo a physical health exam to make sure that this is what is occurring. Your physician may also inquire about your substance use habits, and it is important to be honest. If you find out that your alcohol use is contributing to panic attacks, then finding effective ways to quit drinking can help you find relief.

Can Quitting Alcohol Cause Your First Panic Attack?

The answer to whether quitting alcohol can cause a first panic attack is hard to determine. However, research has revealed that there is a link between alcohol use disorders and the diagnosis of coexisting anxiety disorders of all types. While experiencing a panic attack might not be directly caused by quitting alcohol, it could indicate that your drinking habits were masking an underlying mental disorder.

There is also the possibility that some of the other alcohol withdrawal symptoms mimic or contribute to the sensations that you feel during a panic attack. For instance, alcohol withdrawal and panic attacks can both cause changes in your heart rate that might feel like palpitations. In either case, learning how to manage your panic attacks can help you continue along your path toward recovery while improving your mental health.

Who Is at Risk of Having Panic Attacks When Quitting Alcohol?

Although it can be hard to identify who will have a panic attack when they quit alcohol, there are some signs to watch out for that indicate that you might have a substance use disorder (SUD) that could result in withdrawal symptoms when you quit.

Healthcare professionals use special diagnostic assessments to determine if someone has an alcohol use disorder, and they often include asking specific questions about how and when they drink alcoholic beverages. For instance, someone who has tried to stop drinking but couldn’t might have an AUD

You may also need to be concerned about having a panic attack from quitting alcohol if you’ve experienced one in the past or have an anxiety disorder. Someone who frequently binge drinks or has more than eight drinks a week (female) or 15 drinks a week (male) could also be primed for having withdrawal symptoms. 

One of the best ways to know if you might have a panic attack from quitting alcohol is to undergo an alcohol use assessment. If you have concerns about your drinking, then it is better to be safe and discuss your worries with someone who understands alcohol use disorders.

Can Panic Attacks Interfere With Your Recovery?

The feelings that you experience during a panic attack can feel overwhelming. If you tend to use alcohol to manage uncomfortable emotional symptoms, such as anxiety or panic, then you might be tempted to do so during a panic attack.

Fortunately, you don’t have to let panic attacks interfere with your chances of enjoying a successful recovery. You can learn various techniques for managing your panic attacks along with other challenging withdrawal symptoms. Although it takes time, you can learn to live a sober lifestyle with fewer or more manageable panic attacks in the future.

How Do You Cope With a Panic Attack?

Even if you do experience a panic attack when you stop drinking alcohol, it is good to know that they are manageable. If you begin to experience the symptoms of a panic attack, then you can use one or more coping strategies to help you make it through them. For instance, sensory grounding with ice or cold water is a technique that some people use to call their attention to an external sensation.

You can also use positive affirmations, distractions, or breathwork to move through a panic attack. Depending upon the severity and underlying causes of your panic attacks, you might also work with a healthcare professional to determine if you could benefit from prescription medications or talk therapy. Learning that you can cope with a panic attack without drinking is empowering, and your body will learn how to relax without alcohol coursing through your bloodstream.

Can You Treat Anxiety and Alcohol Use Disorders at the Same Time?

When you have anxiety and an alcohol use disorder at the same time, you may be able to treat them simultaneously. Your treatment team refer to these as coexisting conditions. Alcohol treatment programs are designed to address both types of disorders, since one tends to impact the other. During your assessment for a substance use disorder, your care providers may uncover one or more underlying mental disorders.

If you find out that you have depression, anxiety or PTSD, don’t worry. All these conditions respond to treatment. Some of the same methods you use to end your reliance on alcohol are also effective for managing other conditions. Participating in a treatment program helps you to grow physically, mentally, and emotionally stronger. 

How to Get Help With Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be severe enough to interfere with your ability to stop drinking on your own. It is normal to be apprehensive about quitting drinking independently when you’ve struggled with anxiety or panic attacks in the past. The good news is that you don’t have to go through this alone. 

The professionals at our Alcohol Awareness hotline are available around the clock to provide you with compassionate guidance on how to end a substance use disorder successfully. Whether you are wondering if you have an alcohol use disorder or are concerned about experiencing withdrawal symptoms, we are here to help. Give us a call today at our toll-free, 24/7 hotline at 1-855-955-0771 to speak with a caring member of our team who is eager to guide you to a healthier lifestyle in sobriety.