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Alcohol and Health

Anxiety Attacks vs. Panic Attacks: What's the Difference?

June 14, 2023
11 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
June 14, 2023
11 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
June 14, 2023
11 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
June 14, 2023
11 min read
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Reframe Content Team
June 14, 2023
11 min read

We’ve all reached for a glass of wine or a mixed drink to calm our nerves or unwind after a long day. So it seems unlikely that alcohol might trigger anxiety –– but can it?

As counterintuitive as it might seem, it can! In fact, drinking is associated with many negative effects. Understanding the differences between anxiety and panic attacks, and whether what we’re feeling is at all related to our drinking is crucial –– especially if we’re already prone to anxiety of any kind.

In this article, we'll dig into the differences between panic attacks and anxiety, define hangxiety, and explore their connection to drinking.

Understanding Panic Attacks​​

Panic attacks are like summer storms. They come on strong and suddenly –– characterized by intense fear and discomfort, a rapid heartbeat, chest pain, trembling, and shortness of breath –– and then they leave just as fast. These can last anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes.

They are episodic in nature and although they typically don’t last very long, they can leave us drained in their aftermath. Panic attacks often seem to have no discernible cause.

A recent study shows that alcohol can act as a trigger for panic attacks, once its more pleasurable effects subside. This is because alcohol affects your brain, impacting serotonin and other neurotransmitters that help regulate mood.

Unpacking Anxiety

Because anxiety and panic attacks can be closely intertwined, it’s important to understand their distinctions.

While panic attacks are fleeting storms, anxiety is more like a persistent drizzle. Anxiety is a broader concept. It can manifest as persistent worry, restlessness, irritability, and difficulty concentrating. It encompasses various anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and social anxiety disorder.

Anxiety attacks are not a proper psychological condition. But people use this term colloquially to describe bouts of anxiety. Generally, though, anxiety is more chronic, whereas panic attacks are acute, occurring in bursts.

Anxiety can show up around understandable stressors –– like moving, relationship trouble, financial distress, or other major life events. However, anxiety can be caused by a variety of other factors:

  1. Genetics and family history: There may be a genetic predisposition to anxiety disorders, which means that people with a family history of anxiety are more likely to experience it themselves.
  2. Traumatic experiences: Our past informs our present. Trauma, like physical or emotional abuse, accidents, systemic injustice, or the witnessing of a disturbing incident, can trigger anxiety symptoms.
  3. Medical conditions: Certain medical conditions, such as chronic pain, heart disease, respiratory disorders, or hormonal imbalances, are associated with anxiety.
  4. Substance abuse: Substance abuse –– including alcohol, drugs, or even too much caffeine –– can contribute to or worsen anxiety symptoms.
  5. Medications: Some medications, such as certain antidepressants, stimulants, or steroids, may have side effects that include anxiety or increased anxiety symptoms.
  6. Chronic health conditions: Living with chronic illnesses like diabetes, autoimmune disorders, or chronic pain can create ongoing stress and anxiety.
  7. Personality traits: Certain tendencies –– like being highly self-critical, having low self-esteem, or being prone to perfectionism ––  can make us more susceptible to anxiety.
  8. Brain chemistry: Imbalances in brain chemicals involved in mood regulation (such as serotonin, dopamine, or norepinephrine) can contribute to anxiety disorders.

Breaking the Stigma

Recognizing when alcohol consumption becomes problematic is essential for both ourselves and those around us. Understanding the distinctions between AUD and binge drinking enables us to navigate our relationship with alcohol more consciously.

While binge drinking may be a behavior exhibited occasionally, AUD is a chronic condition that requires professional intervention. By fostering awareness, empathy, and open discussions, we can support those struggling with alcohol-related challenges and encourage responsible drinking habits in our communities –– or seek support ourselves.

If we’re struggling with AUD or engaging in regular binge drinking, getting the right professional help and support is crucial. A recent study shows that if we have a family history of AUD, we might be more likely to binge drink. Binge drinking or having AUD is not a moral failure.

Thankfully, various treatment options are available including therapy, support groups, and medical interventions, which can assist individuals in managing their alcohol-related challenges. Online programs, like those found on the Reframe app, can help those seeking to ameliorate their relationship with alcohol. However, if you are deep in the throes of AUD, this will not substitute professional treatment.

It's important to note that anxiety is a complex condition, often influenced by a combination of factors. While cutting back on drinking can help, talking to a doctor or mental health profession can also be key in treating our anxiety.

Drinking and Its Effects on Anxiety

Interestingly, drinking can contribute to anxiety –– particularly during hangovers or withdrawal periods –– because of its effects on several neurotransmitters, including GABA. Like serotonin, GABA is a neurotransmitter that helps balance mood and regulate feelings like fear and anxiety. As a result, anxiety may be more noticeable during hangovers.

When those normal physical hangover symptoms –– the headaches and/or nausea –– also combine with feelings of anxiety, this unfortunate combination is known as "hangxiety." Recent studies have revealed that hangovers can intensify anxiety symptoms, leaving us feeling guilty, regretful, and irritable.

While panic attacks are sudden and intense, anxiety is a constant companion, influencing everything we do, think, or feel. Hangovers can make these symptoms worse.

Alcohol-Free Coping Strategies for Anxiety

So, how can we weather this storm? Thankfully, there are plenty of healthy ways of managing our anxiety without reaching for that glass.

  1. Practicing mindful drinking is one way to curb your intake and reduce your likelihood of hangovers. The important first step is developing an awareness about our drinking and why we do it. If we drink too much, we’re just not going to feel great.
  2. Exercise has been shown to be a powerful ally in reducing anxiety, as it releases endorphins and boosts mood. Getting your heart rate up can have positive effects on your brain by releasing feel-good endorphins. Yoga, brisk walks, cardio –– the key here is movement that feels good.
  3. Meditation and deep breathing techniques can also help calm our mind and body by keeping us present. Engaging in mindfulness practices, like meditation or deep breathing, allows us to find moments of calm amid the chaos. As an added bonus, it can support us as we change our habits.
  4. Engaging in hobbies can be a way to channel your anxious feelings and thoughts in a productive way. How about painting, birding, or cooking? Bring back that sourdough starter and give it a whirl in the bread machine.
  5. In the midst of a panic attack, try box breathing. Think 4-4-4-4: inhale for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts, exhale for 4, hold for 4. Repeat this 2-4 times until you feel a little better.

Key Takeaways

Practicing mindful drinking, exercising, getting enough rest, and engaging in self-care can ward off anxiety and help us cut back on drinking. In the longer term, continuing to interrogate our relationship with alcohol can help us drink less.

As a bonus, cutting back on drinking could be a great way to avoid hangxiety –– and it may even decrease our general feelings of anxiety.

Remember, we don't have to face this storm alone! Loved ones and mental health professionals can provide us with the lifelines we need when the waves of anxiety become too much. They can help us develop healthier coping mechanisms, offer guidance, and lend a compassionate ear during our journey to sobriety.

Reclaim Your Calm and Thrive With Reframe

Changing our relationship with alcohol is one of the best things we can do to improve our quality of life. Don’t wait –– download Reframe right now and kickstart your journey to wellness.

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit gives you the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people from around the world who know just what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app today!

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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