Is There a Connection Between Substance Abuse and Panic Attacks?

There is a definite link between substance abuse and mental health disorders like anxiety, depression, and other psychological issues. Sometimes it is the mental illness that causes the substance abuse as people attempt to self-medicate the symptoms, and other times it is the substance abuse that brings on the symptoms of mental illness. For the purposes of this article, the focus will be on the latter – specifically, how the abuse of some substances can result in the individual suffering anxiety and panic attacks.

Some substances can cause a person to be more likely to suffer the adverse symptoms of an anxiety disorder, one of the worst is panic attacks. The good news is that substance use disorders and addiction are completely treatable, and panic attacks that result from them often go away on their own when the individual gets into recovery and stops using the substance.

What Are Anxiety and Panic Attacks?

Anxiety is a feeling of fear, which is completely normal in some situations – the first day of a new job, giving a speech in front of a large audience, or hearing a loud noise in the middle of the night. But a person who suffers from an anxiety disorder may have the sudden feeling of fear in situations that don’t warrant it or even for extended amounts of time. Panic attacks are episodes in which the sudden feeling of fear becomes debilitating and lasts for ten minutes or more. Panic attacks can be terrifying events for the person who is suffering from them as they commonly have a number of the following symptoms:

  • Pain or discomfort in the chest
  • Feeling faint or dizzy
  • Fear they are dying
  • Intense feeling of impending doom
  • Fear of losing control
  • Feeling detached
  • Sick to the stomach
  • Numbness of the feet, hands, or face
  • Increased heart rate, or pounding heart
  • Shortness of breath, or hyperventilating
  • Sweating, hot flashes, or chills
  • Shaking or trembling

Substances That May Cause Anxiety and Panic Attacks

Not every substance has the propensity to cause anxiety or panic attacks in the user. However, there are a number of substances where it does happen. Even substances like caffeine, nicotine, and sugar, when consumed in more than moderate amounts, may cause a person to feel some of the symptoms of anxiety. Generally speaking, if one of the effects that the substance being used has on the body is increasing the heart rate, then it’s possible that the user could suffer anxious feelings or a panic attack when they are using the drug.  

Let’s take a look at how abusing specific substances can lead to anxiety or panic attacks.

Alcohol Abuse and Panic Attacks

While abusing alcohol can cause a person to do things that they normally wouldn’t do (like having severe mood swings, outbursts of anger or sadness, or rages), it is typically the withdrawal from alcohol that causes anxiety and panic attacks in some users. Additionally, some people who already suffer from anxiety attempt to use alcohol to manage it, making the symptoms much worse when they stop drinking.

Cocaine or Methamphetamine Abuse and Panic Attacks

Cocaine and methamphetamines are both stimulants that can be snorted, smoked, or injected. They tend to give users a false sense of power and energy which can quickly lead to negative behaviors like being paranoid, violent, or promiscuous. These types of stimulants are especially dangerous for the heart, as they increase heart rates quickly and drastically. Anytime the heart speeds up in that manner, the user can feel the symptoms of anxiety or go into a full-blown panic attack.

Marijuana Abuse and Panic Attacks

Marijuana can be smoked, consumed, or “dabbed” – which is a sort of vaporizing of cannabis extracts that have the highest levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) of all the forms of marijuana. Abuse of marijuana can cause mood swings, lack of motivation, anxiety, and panic attacks. In fact, it has been shown that lifetime marijuana users are significantly associated with lifetime panic disorder sufferers. Even those who have only used marijuana regularly for a short period of time (less than a year), have a much higher risk of being diagnosed with an anxiety or panic disorder than those who do not use marijuana.

Opioid Drug Abuse and Panic Attacks

Opioids include prescription painkillers as well as the illicit street drug heroin. They are used in a variety of ways including ingesting pills, snorting, smoking, injecting, or dermal patches depending on which opiate is being used. Opioids are characterized by short periods of pleasurable and euphoric feelings. However, abusing these drugs can lead to feelings of severe depression, anxiety, and insomnia. Additionally, the withdrawal from opioids is often extremely uncomfortable for a day or more, with some symptoms (like anxiety and panic attacks) lingering for weeks.

Treatment for Substance Abuse Related Anxiety

If you or a loved one is suffering from anxiety or panic attacks that are related to substance abuse, the symptoms will likely go away if you stop using the substance. However, if you are dependent upon or addicted to the substance, you probably won’t be able to stop using it on your own. Seeking help for a substance abuse problem is often a difficult decision to make, but it may be one of the best you can make for yourself and your family.

If you need help for a substance abuse problem, you may choose to attend a medically-supervised detoxification which will help you to stop using drugs or alcohol more comfortably and without the severe withdrawal symptoms, you may suffer if you try to detox at home. There are medications and therapies that can help you make it through the withdrawal period without (or to a lesser degree) anxiety and panic attacks. Detox followed up by outpatient or inpatient addiction treatment, like that offered at Serenity at Summit, will get you on the road to recovery from both drug or alcohol addiction and panic attacks.

Substance Abuse Prevention for Teenagers

Teenagers are more likely to try experimenting with substances than adults are, and the consequences of doing so can be long-lasting. In fact, studies show that people who begin using substances at a young age are much more likely to become addicted later in life. Preventing teens from using drugs or alcohol is essential because it is such a vulnerable time in their lives. Because brain development continues until a person’s mid-twenties, teens don’t yet have the capacity to weigh decisions the way adults do. So, using drugs or alcohol can be especially dangerous for teenagers.

Consequences of Teenage Substance Abuse

Teenage substance abuse isn’t something that should be downplayed. Parents are sometimes quick to assume that their teens using drugs or alcohol is a phase that they will outgrow, or they attempt to help their teen by covering up for them or hiding the fact that they are using. While some teens may be going through a phase that they will outgrow later, the consequences of teenage drug and alcohol use are still too risky to ignore. They include:

  • Mental health issues such as anxiety and depression
  • Broken relationships with family members and friends
  • Medical problems
  • Disciplinary issues at school
  • Poor academic performance
  • Legal issues
  • Injuries due to accidents, physical and sexual assault

Teenagers Who May Be at Risk of Substance Abuse

While substance abuse and addiction can affect anyone, from any walk of life, there are some adolescents who may be at a higher risk of developing problems with drugs or alcohol. Some of the common risk factors are:

Teens in transitional periods of life. This may seem like the total of teenage years, as there is much changing that goes on for adolescents. But for teens who are moving from middle school to high school or changing schools for other reasons, or who are going through a life-changing event such as moving to a new city, parents divorcing or remarrying, or a loss of a friend or family member to death, it can be a particularly vulnerable time. This is a time that parents should pay close attention to their teens.

Teens who have mental health issues. Depression, anxiety, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and other mental conditions all put teens at a higher risk of becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol. Parents must ensure that their teens are being properly treated for any mental health issues.

Teens who don’t have positive role models. Teens who live in broken or abusive homes are some of the most likely people to become addicted to drugs or alcohol. It’s essential that parents or other adult family members step in and help these teens to navigate the difficult situations they are in.

Substance Abuse Prevention Methods for Teens  

Communities, government agencies, schools, and parents are always looking for new ways to prevent teenage drug use and drinking. While it is still a huge problem nationwide, the rates of substance abuse and addiction have decreased over the last several years. This can only be seen as the result of the preventative measures that are currently being used. It may not be eliminating the problem of teenage substance abuse, but it is reducing it. The two biggest factors in substance abuse prevention for teens are education and parental involvement.

Education as Substance Abuse Prevention

As stated earlier, the human brain is not finished developing until a person is about 25 years old. That means that the teenage brain is still in a stage of development and that can lead to unpredictable behavior and poor decision-making. Providing teens with education about drug and alcohol addiction and the risks associated with drug use and underage drinking can help them to make better decisions about their physical and emotional health and their future.

Family Involvement as Substance Abuse Prevention

Perhaps the biggest impact on teenage drug and alcohol use is parental influence and involvement. Teenagers who have grown up with parents or adult role models who have talked with them about the risks of drug use and underage drinking are far less susceptible to drug abuse and addiction. Some of the methods parents can use to instill strong anti-drug use values in their children include:

Setting the right example. Parents are the biggest influencers on children. By showing them responsible drinking and abstinence from drugs, they are able to lead their kids by example. That means not driving after drinking, abstaining from drugs, and showing an overall responsibility when it comes to alcohol.

Debunking Misconceptions. It’s essential that parents debunk misconceptions like “everybody drinks” or “one time won’t hurt” with their teens.

Opening the lines of communication. Parents must work diligently to make sure that the lines of communication with their teens stay open. That means that being judgmental and condescending must be avoided. It also means that parents should be honest about their own experiences with drugs and alcohol and not try to avoid any discussions about substance abuse.

Dispelling the media that glamorizes and romanticizes drug and alcohol use. Movies and television often make it seem exciting and glamorous to drink alcohol or use drugs. While parents may be able to minimize their kids’ exposure to things like that, it’s impossible to avoid them completely. That means that it’s important for parents to engage their teens in conversation about what they see on-screen and let them know the truth – that drugs and alcohol are not as harmless as they make it seem.

Getting Help for Your Teenager

If you have a child in their teens who you think might be abusing drugs or alcohol, it’s important that you deal with it sooner rather than later. Serenity at Summit offers treatment programs for teens and young adults that are designed especially for those age groups. We can help your family find hope and healing.