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The Anxiety Disorders Association of America claims that twenty percent of all patients with anxiety disorders, including panic attacks, also abuse substances such as alcohol. Alcoholism and panic attacks appear so often in patients that it cannot be a coincidence. Although the exact cause of panic attack disorder is unknown, studies do support the theory that alcohol can trigger panic attacks in some patients suffering from an anxiety disorder.
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The Dangers of Self Medication
Each person has different reasons for using alcohol or another substance to help ease the symptoms of panic attacks. Alcohol is generally thought of as a legal substance that can help nervous, tense people unwind and relax. But relying on alcohol as self-medication never works out. A patient may wind up with more panic attacks than ever and also become an alcoholic.
A 1990 study, “Substance Abuse and Panic Related Anxiety: A Critical Review" by Brian J. Cox, et al. published in “Behavior Research and Therapy" raised a few eyebrows. It evaluated other published studies about alcohol and panic attacks concluded that self-medication was a leading reason of why those suffering from panic attack disorder turned to the bottle for help.
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Does Alcoholism Come First?
But this viewpoint was countered in a study done nine years later on 97 patients suffering from panic attacks. Of those studied, only ten percent admitted to abusing alcohol. From that number, only one patient claimed that he or she began drinking in order to help soothe symptoms of panic attacks. All of the others claimed that they began having panic attacks only after they began drinking, according to “Relationship between Substance Abuse and Panic Attacks." David A. Katerndahl and Janet P. Realini. “Addictive Behaviors." Sept. 10, 1999.
Unfortunately, panic attacks are a common symptom of alcohol withdrawal. The patient than drinks to eliminate the panic attacks and the vicious circle is complete. When alcoholics are drying out under medical supervision, they are often given benzodiazepines, a class of anti-anxiety medications. As benzodiazepines can also become addictive, they are only given for short-term use.
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Alcohol should never be used as a short-cut to stopping a panic attack. Alcoholics will get panic attacks when they go through withdrawal symptoms. In a 1993 study published in the “Canadian Journal of Psychiatry", women were more likely to use alcohol as self-medication, but men were more likely to first become alcoholics and then develop panic attacks when they underwent withdrawal. Panic attacks did not seem to be any more severe if alcohol was related in any way.
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Anxiety Disorders Association of America. “Substance Abuse." http://www.adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/related-illnesses/substance-abuse
“Substance Abuse and Panic Related Anxiety: A Critical Review." “Behavior Research and Therapy." Vol. 28, No.5; 1990. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2256896
“Relationship Between Substance Abuse and Panic Attacks." David A. Katerndahl and Janet P. Realini. “Addictive Behaviors." Sept. 10, 1999. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6VC9-3XBV75W-J&_user=10&_coverDate=09%2F10%2F1999&_rdoc=1&_fmt=high&_orig=search&_origin=search&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_searchStrId=1628463073&_rerunOrigin=google&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=052bf99fd517a1a2c85d1bf9e1eb1ff1&searchtype=a
“The Role of GABA in the Pathogenesis and Treatment of Anxiety and Other Neuropsychiatric Disorders Part 2: The Treatment of Alcohol Withdrawal." http://www.vcu-cme.org/gaba2/overview.html
“Panic disorder and alcoholism: effects of comorbidity." Chignon, JM, et al. “Canadian Journal of Psychiatry." Sept. 1993. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8242521