Alcohol and anxiety: what’s the connection?
Alcohol affects how your brain works. In small amounts, alcohol can increase your levels of a neurotransmitter called GABA. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers which have different effects on the body. GABA has a relaxing effect on the brain, which is why having an alcoholic drink can make you feel temporarily relaxed. But, if you drink a lot you can reduce your levels of GABA, causing an increase in anxiety.
If you already have an anxiety or panic disorder, you may be more likely to experience these symptoms after drinking alcohol. But alcohol can also trigger anxiety even if you don’t have an existing mental health issue.
Why does alcohol cause panic attacks?
As well as lowering GABA, alcohol can also increase anxiety and panic attacks in some people in other ways.
1. Alcohol increases dehydration
Alcohol is a diuretic. This means it causes you to pass more pee (urine) than usual. This can dehydrate you over time. If you become dehydrated it can cause your heart to beat faster and may also trigger dizziness. These symptoms can be similar to the feelings you get when anxious, which can make anxiety worse in some people.
2. Alcohol can lower your blood sugar levels
When you have low blood sugar it can trigger anxiety in some people too. It might even lead to panic attacks if you are already prone to anxiety. Alcohol can lower blood sugar immediately after drinking it – but the effect may last for several hours too. This can explain the anxiety you can feel the morning after drinking alcohol.
3. Alcohol can affect your hormones
Drinking alcohol can make you feel good for a short while because it raises your levels of a feel-good hormone called serotonin. However, when the effects of alcohol start to wear off, your serotonin levels decrease. This can lead to a rise in anxiety.
How to stop alcohol related panic attacks
You could start by keeping a symptom diary so you can see any links between when you drink, and any anxiety or panic attacks which occur later on. This can help to show you if your anxiety gets worse when you drink alcohol.
If you find a connection between drinking alcohol and feeling anxious you can take steps to reduce the amount you drink. You may also need to find other ways of coping with your stress. Aim to drink less than the recommended limits set by the UK government. This means to stay within 14 units a week. But if you still notice anxiety or panic symptoms with this level of drinking, you could try to further reduce how much you drink.
Other options to help you reduce alcohol-based anxiety or panic include the following.
- Stay hydrated. Drinking plenty of water between alcoholic drinks can help to reduce the dehydrating effects of alcohol. This can mean you may have less symptoms of anxiety when you drink.
- Eat something with your alcoholic drink. This may reduce some of the side effects of low blood sugar that alcohol can cause.
- Practice mindfulness or other anxiety reducing techniques. Managing your anxiety can mean you react less strongly to the effects of having a drink of alcohol.
- Try swapping your alcoholic drinks with alcohol free alternatives. One study has shown that drinking alcohol free beer can still cause increases in feel good hormones such as dopamine, but without the anxiety.
Taking steps to reduce your general day to day anxiety levels can also help. Things you could try include:
Remember that withdrawing from alcohol can also cause symptoms of anxiety. It can even lead to panic attacks. So, make sure you seek help from a doctor to manage or reduce the withdrawal effects of alcohol.