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Can Alcohol Withdrawal Cause Anxiety?

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Alcohol misuse can cause anxiety by disrupting the balance of chemicals in the brain that affect mood and behavior. Increased anxiety can contribute to further alcohol use as a means to relieve the adverse effects associated with the condition. If a cycle of alcoholism and anxiety persists, it may be challenging to break free without professional treatment. However, discontinuing alcohol use can often significantly improve mental health, and integrated approaches that address both alcohol use and anxiety disorders simultaneously may be particularly effective in promoting long-term recovery.

If you or someone you love is struggling to control their alcohol use, Guardian Recovery can help by providing evidence-based, personalized treatment programs. To learn more about our comprehensive approach to alcohol addiction, contact us today.

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How Long Can Anxiety Caused by Alcohol Consumption Last?

The duration of anxiety symptoms caused by drinking can vary depending on several factors, such as the amount and frequency of alcohol used, individual susceptibility, and comorbid mental health conditions. There is no specific timeline that can predict how long this might take. In some cases, anxiety symptoms may persist for weeks or months even after alcohol use has been stopped and require ongoing treatment for co-occurring (dual diagnosis) disorders. (1)

Does Prolonged Alcohol Use Contribute to Long-Term Anxiety Disorders?

Long-term alcohol use can contribute to the development of chronic anxiety disorders. While alcohol can temporarily provide relief from anxiety symptoms, it can eventually worsen them over time. Alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant, and as alcohol is broken down in the body and its effects subside, there can be a “rebound” effect.  (2) This can trigger the re-emergence of anxiety-related symptoms and perpetuate a cycle of further alcohol use to ease stress. Moreover, chronic alcohol use disrupts the body’s delicate balance of chemical messengers, such as serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which play crucial roles in mood regulation.

Alcohol-Induced Panic Attacks & Anxiety Episodes

Alcohol-induced anxiety and panic attacks are not uncommon among heavy drinkers. Alcohol’s effects on the brain can cause these episodes, which can be extremely distressing and have a serious impact on a person’s ability to function and overall well-being.

Ways Alcohol Can Trigger Panic & Anxiety Include:

  • Chemical Balance Disruption—Alcohol affects various chemical messengers in the brain, including serotonin, GABA, and norepinephrine, which play roles in mood regulation and feelings of anxiety.
  • Withdrawal Effects—Abruptly stopping or cutting back on alcohol use can result in withdrawal symptoms, including increased anxiety, restlessness, and panic attacks.
  • Physiological Effects—Alcohol can cause increased heart rate, blood pressure, and sweating, which can resemble or trigger panic attack symptoms. It can also lead to dehydration, a condition that can contribute to feelings of anxiety and panic.
  • Interactions With Medications—Certain medications prescribed for anxiety or panic disorders may interact with alcohol, causing unpredictable adverse effects.

Does Genetics Play a Role in Anxiety Development?

Research has shown that genetics can also play a role in the development of anxiety disorders. Individuals with a family history of anxiety are more likely to experience anxiety themselves, suggesting a genetic component (inheritability of approximately 30–50%) to the disorder. (3) While genetics alone may not determine whether someone develops an anxiety disorder, they can increase susceptibility to it.

Genetic research has suggested that multiple genes may interact with each other and with environmental factors to influence a person’s risk of developing anxiety. For example, variations in genes that regulate the functioning of feel-good neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and GABA have been linked to an increased susceptibility to anxiety disorders.

Can Quitting Alcohol Reverse Anxiety?

Quitting alcohol can positively impact anxiety symptoms for many individuals, especially if their anxiety is induced or exacerbated by alcohol. However, the amount of improvement may vary depending on factors such as the severity of their anxiety symptoms, underlying causes, and individual characteristics.

Ways Quitting Alcohol Can Potentially Help Alleviate Anxiety Include:

  • Improved Sleep Quality—Alcohol can contribute significantly to poor sleep quality. (4) By quitting alcohol, healthy sleep patterns can be restored, thereby leading to better rest and reduced anxiety.
  • Restored Brain Chemistry Balance—By abstaining from alcohol, the brain has the potential to restore its natural chemical balance, which may help mitigate anxiety symptoms over time.
  • Improved Coping Mechanisms—Alcohol use can become a dysfunctional coping mechanism, so by quitting, individuals can concentrate on developing healthier coping strategies, such as exercise, mindfulness, and therapy.

Improved Overall Well-Being—Quitting alcohol can lead to improvements in physical health, emotional wellness, and social functioning. These changes can also help reduce anxiety and improve one’s overall quality of life.

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Alcohol Use & the Cycle of Anxiety

While alcohol may provide a brief respite from anxiety, it can also be the impetus that leads to a cycle of dependence and a worsening of mental health issues. As anxiety increases, the individual may be more likely to consume alcohol more often and in greater quantities. As alcohol’s effects subside, there can be a rebound effect on anxiety. The brain and body may respond to alcohol withdrawal by escalating anxiety symptoms, which can be more intense than the initial anxiety experienced before the alcohol misuse began.

In addition, long-term alcohol use can have adverse effects on mental health. It can interfere with brain chemistry and contribute to the development or exacerbation of anxiety and other mood disorders. Alcohol can also impair judgment and increase stress, which can further fuel anxiety. Finally, regular alcohol use can actually increase an individual’s sensitivity to anxiety triggers and the physical and psychological symptoms associated with them.

Anxiety Medications Used To Treat Alcoholism

There are several medications that may help manage anxiety symptoms and lessen the likelihood of relapse. These medications can be used as part of an alcohol use treatment program to help manage withdrawal symptoms, mitigate cravings, and address underlying anxiety disorders.

Commonly Used Medications Include:

  • Benzodiazepines—Anti-anxiety medications, such as diazepam (Valium) or lorazepam (Ativan), are often prescribed to manage alcohol withdrawal symptoms, including anxiety, tremors, and seizures. These work by enhancing the effects of GABA, which can have a calming effect on the central nervous system. Of note, using benzodiazepines in combination with alcohol is risky and can result in severe health complications and even death.
  • Antidepressants—Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), such as sertraline (Zoloft) or duloxetine (Cymbalta), may be prescribed to treat anxiety disorders or depressive symptoms associated with alcoholism. These can help regulate neurotransmitter imbalances and boost mood.

Anticonvulsants—Medications typically used to treat seizures, such as carbamazepine (Tegretol) or gabapentin (Neurontin), can be effective in mitigating alcohol cravings and managing anxiety symptoms associated with withdrawal.

Treatment Approaches for Alcohol-Related Anxiety

When addressing alcohol-related anxiety, a comprehensive treatment approach that focuses on both alcohol use and anxiety symptoms is typically recommended. Here are some common treatment approaches:

  • Detoxification—In cases of chemical dependence, a supervised medical detox may be needed to safely manage alcohol withdrawal symptoms. This is the safest and most effective when conducted under medical supervision, and medications may be used to reduce withdrawal symptoms and anxiety during this initial phase.
  • Psychotherapy—Psychotherapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), can be effective in treating both alcohol use disorders and anxiety. Therapy helps individuals identify the underlying causes of their anxiety and develop healthier coping mechanisms to manage their symptoms without the use of alcohol.
  • Medications—Commonly used to address anxiety symptoms and support recovery, medications such as benzodiazepines, antidepressants, and anticonvulsants may be prescribed based on the individual’s specific needs.
  • Dual Diagnosis Treatment—If there is a co-occurring anxiety disorder in addition to an alcohol use disorder, it’s vital to address both conditions concurrently. Dual-diagnosis programs include methods for managing both alcohol-related issues and anxiety disorders.

Support Groups—Participating in support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or other recovery-focused groups can provide invaluable support, guidance, and a sense of community during the recovery process.

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Alcohol misuse is not an effective strategy to control anxiety over the long term. In fact, alcohol’s impact on the brain and body can lead to a worsening of symptoms and increase the risk of intensifying chemical dependence over time. This is why no matter how severe your alcohol misuse is now, it’s important to seek professional help to halt the downward spiral of anxiety and addiction.

If you or a loved one needs help curbing your alcohol use and controlling your anxiety or other mental health issues, Guardian Recovery can help you break free from this vicious cycle. For a free, no-obligation health insurance benefits check and to learn more about our recovery programs, contact us today and get started on your journey to a healthier, more fulfilling life.

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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.

(1)https://www.semel.ucla.edu/dual-diagnosis-program/News_and_Resources/PAWS (2)https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0306460305001309 (3)https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/pcn.12291 (4)https://academic.oup.com/alcalc/article/50/5/536/198455?login=false

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave

L.M.H.C.

Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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