Five percent of all American adults (more women than men) suffer a panic attack at least once during their lifetime. Although this is worrying, it is unsurprising, because an estimated 52.9 million adult Americans struggle with mental health disorders.
Of these, 9.7% report using alcohol to help with their symptoms, a choice that sets off a vicious cycle. In this article, we dissect the link between alcohol, panic attacks, and mental health disorders.
What Is a Panic Attack?
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM) defines a panic attack as “an abrupt surge of intense fear or discomfort” that manifests as physical symptoms without any real danger or apparent cause.
The Science Behind Panic Attacks
Predisposition to panic attacks is a result of many factors, including:
- Structural brain changes
- The amygdala, thalamus, and hypothalamus are key brain areas involved in panic attacks. Studies show that the amygdala (which interprets external stimulus) is 8% smaller in patients who experience panic attacks. In other words, the amygdalas in these patients are more likely to misinterpret real-world situations and trigger panic attacks.
- The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis controls the body’s hormone production. In patients that experience panic attacks, this axis is impaired, leading to excess production of the fight-or-flight hormones (i.e., noradrenaline).
- Decreased neurochemical sensitivity. Research shows that individuals who experience panic attacks have:
- Lower levels of endorphins, which are feel-good hormones that relieve anxiety and promote feelings of well-being.
- A lower sensitivity to calming hormones such as:
- Serotonin, due to genetic mutations
- Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), also due to genetic changes
- An increased sensitivity to carbon dioxide, which sets off a hormonal cascade that can induce a panic attack.
- Genes. Data shows that people with a family history of panic attacks are more likely to experience them. The largest study on this subject compared 1,000 twins and found that 30-46% of individuals had a positive family history of experiencing panic attacks. Researchers believe that there are many genes (such as the COMT gene) responsible for this.
Panic Attack Symptoms
- Shortness of breath (90%)
- Trembling or shaking (85.7%)
- Palpitations (80%)
- Feeling dizzy or fainting (71-76%)
- Excessive sweating (66.6%)
- Tingling/numbness (54.3%)
- Fear of dying (46.2%, of which 25.5% tried to take their own life)
- Choking (35%)
- Chest pain (28.5%)
- Feeling unreal or detached(27%)
- Hot flashes/chills (7-20%)
- Nausea (12.5%)
- Losing control (undetermined frequency, but could be as high as 100%)