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What Is a Panic Attack?

A panic attack is an overwhelming surge of sudden fear and terror, sometimes brought on for no apparent reason or disproportationately to any known cause. Panic attacks are characterized by their abrupt, devastating, and immobilizing effects. You can experience a panic attack anytime, anywhere, without reason.

Panic disorder occurs after repeatedly experiencing panic attacks persistently for at least a month. The unpredictable nature as to when another panic attack will occur can be a source of constant anxiety for sufferers.1

Relationship Between Substance Abuse and Panic Attacks

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimates that 20% of individuals diagnosed with anxiety disorders also suffer from a substance use disorder.2 A study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information found 39% of subjects with a panic disorder had abused at least one substance – 10% with alcohol, 6% with illicit drugs. In most of these cases, substance abuse began before the onset of panic attacks.3

There are several possible reasons for the relationship between substance abuse and panic disorders. One may be that substance use may cause a person more likely to experience panic. Another is that, due to differences in neurotransmitter levels, those who are more likely to experience panic may also be more likely to experience positive effects from drugs and alcohol, encouraging them to use them more often. After the onset of panic, many use drugs to self-medicate against the effects of their panic disorder.

Panic Attacks Signs & Symptoms

Panic attacks activate your body’s fight or flight response. While the fight or flight response can provide many benefits in a crisis – like fast decision making and the ability to avoid hazards – in absence of a true emergency, these responses can be disproportionate to the situation and leave a person feeling the following discomforts:

  • A sense of impending doom or danger
  • Feeling that you may be dying
  • Derealization/detachment
  • Loss of self-control
  • Nausea
  • Sweating
  • Trembling/shaking
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Throat tightness/trouble breathing
  • Chest pains
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, or faintness
  • Numbness or tingling sensations in limbs

Causes of Panic Attacks or Panic Disorder

Panic attacks are like the body’s nervous systems ringing a “false alarm,” preparing the rest of your body and brain for a life-threatening situation. Our nervous systems don’t always have sufficient information to identify a perceived threat from a real one. While there is no single cause of panic attacks for all individuals, here are some broad explanations to consider:4

Genetics

Definitive evidence for a primary genetic cause of panic attacks has not been found, but some psychologists claim the phenomenon is hereditary. An individual is two to three times more likely to suffer from the panic disorder if a close family member also suffers from them. Interactions between the body and the brain, determine how the brain perceives fear and anxiety – all systems genes can affect.

Major stress

Someone may suffer from panic attacks due to significant life stress or long periods of chronic stress. Stress can come from a multitude of sources, from incredibly serious issues such as the death or severe illness of a loved one, or unhealed trauma, or from less conspicuous sources, like incredibly demanding work environments, or sustained financial concerns which threaten a person’s livelihood.

Individual Temperament & Sensitivity to Stress

The likelihood of suffering from panic attacks increases if a person has a prior history of depression or anxiety, or other mental health issues. Rumination creates increased risk of panic attacks, as anxious thoughts may begin to escalate, and lead a person into a panicked state.

The Impact of Substance Use on Brain Function

Substance use alters your brain's normal functions and the effects are highly variable from person-to-person, and dependent on a number of factors. Increases in anxiety and panic are common results of substance use. Substances which reduce a person’s connection to reality may experience panic as a result of feeling out of control. Some may experience panic attacks after the effects of the drug wears off.

Many drugs “use up,” or deplete a person’s neurotransmitter receptors faster than they can be replaced by the body, leaving a person without the ability to get the benefits of mood enhancing or stabilizing neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin after the initial high is over. After this happens a person’s mood can become incredibly unstable. Anxiety, depression, mood swings, and even psychosis are common results of the chemical imbalances in the brain brought on by substance use. Prolonged substance use can alter neurochemistry in more severe and permanent ways, with the effects escalating over time. 

Substances Likely to Cause Panic Attacks and Anxiety

Some substances that can contribute to having a panic attack will be detailed below.

Alcohol

Alcohol and panic attacks  both affect parts of the brain which control rational decision making. The combination of these two effects on the brain can result in severely impaired abilities to make safe choices in response to stressful situations.

Cocaine and Methamphetamine

Cocaine and methamphetamines are incredibly addictive stimulants as they allow the brain to release high levels of dopamine and other pleasure-inducing neurochemicals. However, these neurotransmitters are also related to less pleasant cognitive phenomena, such as phobias, obsessions, compulsive behavior, and panic attacks.

Marijuana

Marijuana is often used for its calming effects, however these are typically short lived compared to its prolonged effects on heart rate and anxiety. An elevated heart rate and/or anxiety level can result in a panic attack as feelings of discomfort escalate.

Opioids

Opioids and their effects on the body are broad reaching, as they affect the entire central nervous system, acting as a depressant. The primary effects of opiates are feelings of euphoric calm, a great reduction in the body’s ability to sense pain, and for many, reductions in anxiety. Physical dependence on opiates can develop within weeks, and tolerances begin to build immediately, resulting in an increased risk of lethal overdose.

Effects of Substance Abuse on Panic Disorder Symptoms

Substance use disorders can further elevate panic disorders, and even create feedback loops where substances used to mitigate anxiety may actually contribute to them, resulting in increases in both substance use and anxiety. Additionally, many substances impair the brain’s decision-making and judgment abilities. The combination of impaired decision making and fast decision making encouraged by fight-or-flight responses can lead to undesired outcomes.

Panic Disorders and Alcohol

Alcohol intoxication, which is known to impair a person’s judgment and decision making abilities can have dangerous consequences when paired with panic attacks, which entice a person to make fast decisions very quickly, without the ability to evaluate all possible risks and outcomes. Individuals with histories of panic attacks should avoid alcohol consumption in settings where they have a history of experiencing anxiety and/or panic.

Panic Disorders and Marijuana

Marijuana elevates your panic disorder symptoms and puts you at a greater risk of suffering from heart attack and related cardiovascular diseases. During a panic attack, your breathing is erratic. Therefore, if you are not thinking straight because of marijuana, you may die from a lack of oxygen.

Panic Disorder and Stimulants

Stimulants give you a very high upsurge of chemicals in the brain within a short time. Hence, you get an overwhelming low when they are out, leading to negative thoughts and harmful risk-taking behavior. The stimulants also caused shallow breathing and increased heart rate, which cannot be appropriately controlled during a severe panic attack episode.

Treatment for Anxiety Related to Substance Abuse at ANEW Treatment Center

At ANEW Treatment Center, we offer dual diagnosis services, to treat both substance use and anxiety holistically. Dual diagnosis allows assessment of individual challenges and tailored intervention, by allowing all facets of your recovery to be addressed in a streamlined way. Different types of panic disorder affect each person differently and require specific methods to address. Some treatment options available include;

Behavioral Therapy

In behavioral therapy, patients work with trained therapists to analyze and evaluate individual concerns, and gain a comprehensive understanding of the individual’s background, goals, and challenges. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps patients to recognize destructive thought patterns and how to correct them, is commonly utilized in behavioral therapy.

Medication

There are many safe and effective treatment methods which utilize prescription medications in the treatment of both anxiety and substance use disorders. Medication management is one of many services offered at ANEW Treatment Center. Medications like SSRIs, may be used to manage a patient’s anxiety, while other medications may be used to help reduce substance use by reducing the intoxifying effects of many substances.

Other Therapy Models

Group and family therapy are commonly used in the treatment process to help establish a support network for patients. Occupational therapy can be used to supplement life-skills and raise a person’s confidence or self-esteem. Art therapy may also be utilized in the treatment process as a means of providing patients with an outlet for anxiety and other emotions.

Treatment for Substance Abuse Related Anxiety at ANEW Treatment Center

panic disorder

Treatment for substance abuse related anxiety At ANEW Treatment Center is here to address your needs with individualized care and a holistic approach. Anxiety and panic can be debilitating sensations. The feelings experienced while going through a panic attack are equivalent to those experienced during a true emergency, as the brain and body truly believe this is what they are experiencing.

If left untreated, it can leave a person grasping at straws, desperate to find whatever is available to subdue the body’s natural responses to perceived threats. At ANEW Treatment Center we have helped patients who have been where you are. You and your experiences are unique, but we know the anxiety and panic you have felt and have treatment options available to find what works for you. You do not have to live a life ruled by panic and anxiety. Reach out to ANEW Treatment Center to improve your life now.

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