Limited alcohol use is often considered acceptable in many situations. The occasional night cap to unwind, or the couple of celebratory drinks during a social gathering, are usually not problematic and may even be considered socially customary. But, if you have panic disorder or another anxiety disorder, alcohol use may become a problem. Many studies are increasingly showing a correlation between anxiety disorders and alcohol abuse disorders
Alcohol is a drug that depresses the central nervous system. Initially, alcohol consumption has a sedative effect and produces a sense of euphoria and decreased inhibitions, seemingly providing relief from anxiety. Unfortunately, long-term effects of alcohol abuse are not so pleasant. Chronic alcohol abuse may result in tolerance, dependency, and damage to many organs of the body, including the brain, liver, and heart.
The Tension Reduction Theory of Alcohol Use
People with anxiety disorders, including panic disorder and agoraphobia, often use alcohol as a primary means of coping with fear and anxiety. One theory of why this occurs is the “tension reduction hypothesis.” Simply put, this theory suggests alcohol is used as a self-medicating method to reduce stress and anxiety.
Anxiety Disorders and Alcohol Abuse Disorders
People with anxiety disorders are up to three times more likely to have an alcohol or other substance abuse disorder than those without an anxiety disorder. But, studies have shown that problem drinking is more prevalent in certain anxiety disorders, and that typical alcohol use varies between these disorders. For example:
- Social Anxiety Disorder and Agoraphobia: Problem drinking tends to begin after the onset of symptoms related to social anxiety disorder and agoraphobia. For example, someone who has social phobia may fear going to a social gathering where there may be many unfamiliar people. Just the thought of attending such a gathering produces a lot of anticipatory anxiety. To relax, the individual self-medicates with alcohol.Unfortunately, this type of drinking behaviour has inherent problems. Alcohol consumption becomes a “crutch,” and social situations where drinking is not possible may be avoided. Another problem is that long-term alcohol abuse usually means building a tolerance to its effects. This results in increased alcohol consumption to get the desired result.
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Panic Disorder: For generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder studies have shown a different trend of alcohol use. Problem drinking tends to begin after or around the same time as symptoms of panic disorder or generalized anxiety disorder present. This may indicate that some of the initial anxiety and panic symptoms experienced are related to alcohol withdrawal or that alcohol use has somehow provided a mechanism for these disorders to develop.
Alcohol Abuse Can Increase Anxiety and Panic Symptoms
What begins as a way to cope with anxiety, can quickly have the opposite effect and increase distress.
Problem drinking leads to alcohol withdrawal. This is often called a “hangover.” The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can include:
- Panic Attacks
- Elevated blood pressure and heart rate
- Increased body temperature
These symptoms tend to create a cycle of heightened anxiety and increased problem drinking.
Women who go through trauma have more risk for drinking problems. They are at risk for drinking problems even if they do not have PTSD. Women with drinking problems are more likely than other women to have been sexually abused at some time in their lives. Both men and women who have been sexually abused have higher rates of alcohol and drug use problems than others.
Up to three quarters of those who have survived abusive or violent trauma report drinking problems. Up to a third of those who survive traumatic accidents, illness, or disasters report drinking problems. Alcohol problems are more common for survivors who have ongoing health problems or pain.
Alcohol can make PTSD symptoms worse
You may drink because using alcohol can distract you from your problems for a short time. You should know, though, that drinking makes it harder to concentrate, be productive, and enjoy all parts of your life.
Using too much alcohol makes it harder to cope with stress and your trauma memories. Alcohol use and intoxication (getting drunk) can increase some PTSD symptoms. Examples of symptoms that can get worse are numbing of your feelings, being cut off from others, anger and irritability, depression, and the feeling of being on guard.
If you have PTSD, you may have trouble falling asleep or problems with waking up during the night. You may “medicate” yourself with alcohol because you think it’s helping your sleep. In fact, using too much alcohol can get in the way of restful sleep. Alcohol changes the quality of your sleep and makes it less refreshing.
If you have PTSD, you may have bad dreams or nightmares. You may drink because you think using alcohol will decrease the number of bad dreams or how scary they are. Yet drinking just continues the cycle of avoidance found in PTSD. Avoiding the bad memories and dreams actually prolongs the PTSD. You cannot make as much progress in treatment if you avoid your problems. Alcohol use problems make PTSD treatment less effective.
When you suddenly stop drinking, the nightmares often get worse. Working with your doctor on the best way to reduce or stop your drinking makes cutting back on alcohol easier. You will be more likely to have success in your efforts.
Alcohol as an Escape from Stress and Anxiety
People dealing with excessive stress and anxiety can be tempted to turn to alcohol for solace. In the beginning this type of substance abuse can bring comfort, but in the long term it just makes problems a great deal worse. This is because the individual will not be dealing with their issues, just temporarily numbing the mind to them. The long term consequences of substance abuse can be addiction. This can rob the person of everything meaningful in life – including their sanity. Those persons that are not dealing with PTSD may be particularly at risk of falling into addiction.