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Ethanol (ethyl-alcohol) consumption has a very strong impact on every aspect of human health and social life. Being a very small molecule soluble both in water and fats, ethanol easily travels through the body after ingestion and gets into every single cell. Therefore, it is not strange that it has effects on practically all organs and systems. However, the most pronounced effects of alcohol are on the nervous system and behavior. Heavy drinking produces transient as well as permanent damage to the nervous system, which reflects on one's behavior too.

Relationship between Mental Disorders and Alcohol

Alcohol abuse has long been associated with some psychological and psychiatric disorders. In one study conducted in the US, 22% of patients who had some mental disorder during their lifetime also abused alcohol. Another study used a 10-year follow-up period to examine how mental disorders affect the risk of alcohol and substance abuse. They have proven that psychiatric patients have a significant risk of alcohol abuse.

The most common group of mental disorders associated with alcohol abuse are anxiety disorders. These problems have been noticed both in binge drinkers and in alcoholics, and they include generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and agoraphobia (an intense fear in unfamiliar, open, and crowded environments). Paranoid patterns in the behavior of heavy drinkers have also been reported.

Panic Disorder and Alcohol

Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder characterized by panic attacks. Panic attacks can last from several minutes to several hours and they represent periods during which a person has a strong feeling of fear and anxiety. During a panic attack, persons often have an unrealistic feeling of chest pain, shortness of breath or choking that triggers the attack. Data about the prevalence of alcoholism in patients with panic disorder are controversial; some of the studies showed no connection while others found that 20-30% of these patients abused alcohol. Anyway, doctors noticed that many persons that end up in medical offices to deal with their drinking problem also have the signs of panic disorder. This phenomenon may stem from the fact that alcohol withdrawal can produce panic-like behavior. Even some binge-drinkers report panic, uncontrolled fear and even more severe mental disorders such as suicidal ideas after binge drinking. The reason for that may be the compensatory over-excitation of neuroreceptors after the sedative effects of alcohol.

If you are a heavy drinker, do not try to quit drinking abruptly as it can produce serious withdrawal effects including panic-like behavior. Talk to your psychiatrist on how to resolve the problem gradually.

Although there is scientific evidence proving the relationship between alcohol abuse and psychiatric disorders, it is still unclear whether the alcohol increases the risk of psychiatric disorders or persons with these disorders have a higher tendency to abuse alcohol. More research is certainly needed in order to answer this and related questions. Results of the studies conducted so far should serve as a warning of how harmful the effects of alcohol can be, especially for patients with existing mental disorders.

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