Experts explain why drinking alcohol can fill you with anxiety and dread the morning after.
A few too many drinks at a social engagement can seem like a good idea at the time. That is, until you wake up the next morning with a cotton mouth, a raging headache and a inexplicable dread about everything that happened the night before.
Hangover anxiety is so common it even has it’s own portmanteau – ‘hangxiety’ – and it’s typical after an evening of heavy drinking. But why does it happen and what can you do to combat it? We asked experts to explain…
Scientifically, what are the causes and symptoms of hangxiety?
“Hangiexty is a popular cultural term for the negative emotional feelings experienced during a hangover,” says Dr Aria Campbell-Danesh (dr-aria.com). “The main symptom is increased anxiety, which is often accompanied by feelings of fear, guilt and shame.”
Dr Campbell-Danesh says that hangiexty is caused by a neurochemical response to alcohol consumption and withdrawal, as ethanol affects the biochemistry of the brain. During alcohol withdrawal (aka a hangover), he says, the brain has to compensate for the chemical effects of ethanol exposure.
“Consequent changes in the balance of neurotransmitters, specifically decreased levels of ‘GABA’ and increased levels of ‘glutamate’, are believed to be responsible for causing hangxiety.”
The phenomenon is widely researched. “Hangxiety has even been observed in animal studies, with mice displaying more anxiety-related actions during an alcohol hangover,” he notes.
Recent studies have found that shy people are more prone to hangxiety – what reasons might there be for this?
“A possible reason is that shy people are more likely to be socially anxious and therefore to ruminate after a social event,” says Dr Campbell-Danesh. “The mind has evolved with a negativity bias and alcohol can lead to gaps in the memory of the night before.”
As many of us know too well, this can create the perfect hangxiety storm: a shy, socially anxious person dwelling negatively and trying to fill in the gaps about what happened on a night out, with the mind jumping to worst-case scenarios.
Research has touched on a link between hangxiety and alcohol misuse – is this a concern and should people be worried about it?
“It’s true that research has found a link between shyness and alcohol misuse: individuals who are shy are more likely to have alcohol-related problems,” says Dr Campbell-Danesh.
“Using alcohol as a coping strategy to manage shyness has been identified as one explanation for this association. If you are shy, it would be worthwhile re-evaluating your relationship with alcohol.”
He says that if social anxiety is causing you distress and interfering with your lifestyle, you should speak to your GP as there are evidence-based therapies that can empower you with the skills to manage your anxiety without resorting to a drink or two.
Can anything be done about hangxiety?
The first step is to recognise how you feel. “Say out loud, ‘I’m feeling anxious, fearful, worried or guilty’,” says Dr Campbell-Danesh.
“Neuro-imaging studies show that putting your feelings into words actually dampens down the activity of the brain regions responsible for these emotions. This will reduce the intensity of these feelings.
“The second step is to become aware of the stories that your mind is creating about what has happened. Do you have irrefutable evidence for this or is there another possibility?
“When you recognise that your current thoughts are not facts, you then have the headspace to open yourself to other less negative explanations.”
Breathing is an incredibly powerful tool that can help to calm you down during periods of anxiety. “When we’re anxious, we tend to take short, shallow breaths,” says psychologist Dr Meg Arroll. You can combat this by breathing deeply.
“Place one hand on your tummy and the other on your chest. Breathe in through your nose so your tummy lifts and then exhale through your mouth, letting your tummy dip back down,” she advises.
Is there anything I can do to help with hangiexty?
Simple dietary changes can help, alongside supporting your diet with B vitamins says Rob Hobson, Healthspan head of nutrition (healthspan.co.uk).
“This group of vitamins pack a real health punch and are involved in energy production within cells, helping to reduce tiredness and fatigue, improving brain and nervous system function, aiding memory, supporting immunity, maintaining normal heart health and insuring healthy red blood cell formation.”
“There are natural alternatives which can help too such as CBD oil, which is the legal, medical form of marijuana. It lifts mood and promotes general feelings of wellbeing,” says Healthspan medical director Dr Sarah Brewer.
“It also helps reduce social discomfort, muscle tension, restlessness, insomnia and fatigue and is currently being investigated as a treatment for anxiety-related conditions such as obsessive compulsive disorder and panic attacks.”
Finally, regular exercise is just as good for our minds as our bodies. Being active naturally reduces anxiety levels and improves mood, especially if you’re outside.
So next time you’re suffering from a case of the post-booze jitters? Head outside for a mental health-friendly bike ride or run.