Relationship Between Substance Abuse and Panic Attacks

Panic disorder and substance abuse may be more connected than you think. Read on to learn about their relationship.

Table of Contents

What is a Panic Attack?

Panic attacks are sudden and intense feelings of anxiety or fear. Usually, the feelings are so intense that you cannot function normally with them. Some people experiencing a panic attack report that they were so afraid they thought they were having a heart attack.
Panic disorder is a condition where the person has had at least two panic attacks in their lifetime. They may also feel the need to change their lifestyle or make other big adjustments to avoid panic attacks happening in the future.1

Causes of Panic Attacks

The exact causes of panic disorder aren’t yet well understood. The condition is known to run in families, which may suggest a genetic cause, and there are changes in brain structure and neurochemistry in the people who suffer from the disorder.

However, it’s not clear whether this is a disorder you’re born with or if it develops over time with exposure to situational stressors.2

Understanding Panic Disorders

It’s important to note that panic disorder is distinct from other disorders that may include panic attacks like PTSD, in that the panic attacks may be harder to predict, may or may not have specific causes, and the person doesn’t need to have an identifiable history of abuse or neglect to develop panic disorder.

However, there are some other mental health disorders that panic disorder may be comorbid with, so having another mental health disorder doesn’t prevent also having panic disorder.

Understanding the Relationship Between Substance Abuse and Panic Attacks

There is a connection between using illicit substances or misusing or abusing prescription medications and developing panic disorder. A disproportionate percentage of the people who have panic disorder have also previously or currently used an illicit drug. Additionally, a majority of the people who have a panic disorder and used illicit substances started their drug use before developing the panic disorder.3

That’s particularly important because it means that the illicit drug use was unlikely to be an attempt to self-medicate for panic disorder itself. In fact, only a very small percentage of the people studied for illicit drug use and panic disorder started their drug use as a means of self-medicating for the disorder.

Panic Disorders: Risk Factors for Substance Misuse

It’s also important to know that many of the people who have panic disorder may also deal with a substance-induced anxiety disorder. Substance-induced anxiety disorders are relatively common among illicit drug users. Even among people who are self-medicating for anxiety disorders, the risk of those same substances increasing their anxious symptoms is high.4

Substances That May Cause Anxiety and Panic Attacks

There are a lot of different substances that can cause anxiety and panic attacks. It’s important to know that these drugs can cause panic attacks while you’re using them, but also after use or between doses.
In fact, for many people, panic attacks are more common between uses while they are sober, in part because they may be relying on the drug to blunt the emotions and sensations that are causing their anxiety. Here’s a quick overview of some of the most common substances that may cause panic attacks.

Alcohol Abuse and Panic Attacks

Alcohol use and abuse has a relatively high potential to result in a panic disorder or other anxiety disorder. It’s thought that the people who have this reaction might have been using alcohol to reduce anxious feelings that didn’t previously rise to the level of a disorder, but that the use of alcohol to numb the problem may have actually left them more vulnerable to anxious feelings.5

Cocaine Or Methamphetamine Abuse and Panic Attacks

Anxiety is a common symptom of both cocaine and methamphetamine withdrawal, which is important to acknowledge both because treating the anxiety may lead to better outcomes, and because it’s important for people who use these drugs to understand that anxiety disorders are one of the risks of their drug use.6

Marijuana Abuse and Panic Attacks

While marijuana is often used to help calm intense emotions and anxiety, lifetime use of the drug is also associated with higher rates of panic attacks, anxiety disorders, and other unwanted outcomes. Like other forms of medication-induced anxiety, this condition might be treatable but is likely to be chronic.7

Opioid Abuse and Panic Attacks

Opioid use may also cause chemical and structural changes in the brain that make substance-induced anxiety disorders much more common.

Effects of Substance Abuse on Panic Disorder Symptoms

In people with panic disorder, the use of drugs like alcohol, marijuana, and stimulants may be especially problematic. For these people, the drugs may offer temporary relief from the worse of their symptoms, but they’re simultaneously likely to make those symptoms seem more intense when they reoccur after the drug use is over.

Since drug use often starts before the development of a panic disorder, it’s reasonable to conclude that drug use is a risk factor for developing this disorder and similar disorders. Continued drug use might also be associated with worse outcomes or more severe symptoms and more frequent panic attacks.

Treatment for Substance Abuse-Related Anxiety

There are a lot of options for treating substance abuse-related anxiety. Depending on where you are on your path to recovery, that can include things like withdrawal and detox support, cognitive treatments for your disorder, prescription medications to help ease symptoms, and other treatments like group therapy or support groups.

Treating substance-induced anxiety disorders can sometimes be more complicated than treating straight panic disorder, and you may be more likely to need panic attack medications to help avoid the more serious symptoms of the disorder. However, help is out there, and you can live a happier and much less anxious life once you get the help you deserve.

Getting Help for Panic Disorders & Co-Occurring Substance Abuse

For women with panic disorders and co-occurring substance abuse or substance-induced anxiety, there is help out there.

At Soledad House, we provide a women-only treatment program with a wide range of treatments, support options, and care services that can be tailored to meet your individual needs.

Reach Out and Begin Healing

Getting treatment early is critical for helping get the best possible outcomes for both panic disorders and substance use disorders, so if you think recovery in a women-only space might be the right option for you, reach out to Soledad House today.