Panic Attacks

A usually short but extreme experience of anxiety without an obvious cause is called a panic attack. Panic attacks are accompanied by physical and emotional symptoms such as chest pain, rapid heartbeat, sweating, and feelings of numbness, unreality, or impending doom.

Panic attacks have been linked to addiction in a couple of ways. Some people medicate themselves with alcohol or drugs when anxious. Panic attacks are also seen in withdrawal from addictions, especially those involving drugs (including alcohol).

Kindling Theory

One theory to explain panic attacks is called the kindling phenomenon. James Cocores, MD, in The 800-Cocaine Book of Drug and Alcohol Recovery (1990), says it occurs after repeated stimulation of areas of the brain. This can happen with cocaine or other drug use, or from alcoholic withdrawal (the shakes). The brain has a panic threshold and repeated stimulation appears to lower it. Lower levels of neural activity can then produce a panic reaction. When these kindled reactions are repeated frequently, the brain may become so sensitive that little or no stimulation can cause a panic attack.


Panic disorders in the general population usually respond to medication and psychotherapy. Study of the complex relationship between panic disorders and addiction is in its infancy. When panic disorders occur in sobriety or abstinence we recommend alternatives to drug therapy, including psychotherapy, relaxation, meditation, or contact with your Higher Power.

Panic attacks, see also: Addiction, Alcoholism, Behavior, Emotional aspects, Fear, Feelings, Flashbacks, Neurotransmitters, Premenstrual syndrome, Psychological problems, Withdrawal.

Updated 7 Sep 2015

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