If you’ve ever had an alcohol-fueled night that led to a miserable next morning, then you’re already intimately familiar with the concept of a hangover. While the symptoms can vary from person to person, anyone who’s ever had a few too many cocktails, beers, or glasses of wine has probably experienced some combination of fatigue, dry-mouth, headache, nausea, and more upon waking up the next day. But there is evidence that about 12% of people who experience a hangover also experience feelings of anxiety, including overwhelming sensations of dread, nervousness, worry, and regret over what was said and done the night before. This post-drinking slump is what major media outlets have dubbed “hangxiety” — and yes, it’s a real thing.
Researchers have long understood the impact alcohol can have on drinkers’ physical and psychological states the day after drinking. As one study found, “heavy alcohol consumption lowers mood, disrupts sleep, increases anxiety and produces physical symptoms, emotional symptoms and symptoms of fatigue throughout the next morning.” But for some people, even a small or moderate amount of alcohol can prompt next-day anxiety. So why does hangxiety occur and is it preventable? Here’s what you need to know about alcohol’s impact on your mental health.
What causes hangxiety?
While not every drinker who experiences a hangover will experience a mood disturbance, post-drinking anxiety is considered a hangover symptom. As for the reason this happens, there are a few different theories. One is that people often turn to alcohol to deal with their already present anxiety. Alcohol can have a relaxing effect and can distract from issues like social anxiety .“For some people who struggle with various forms of anxiety, they may opt to drink alcohol as a means to ‘cope’ with their issues,” says One Medical mental health provider, Nate Alexander, LPC. “I have had many clients in the past that believed that by drinking in select situations where they struggle with social anxiety for instance, that their anxiety will decrease.” However, once the alcohol wears off, their anxiety returns with full force the next day. The physical symptoms of a hangover can then exacerbate these feelings.
Hangxiety can also be thought of as a sort of emotional withdrawal from alcohol. Drinking causes the body to release feel-good chemicals like dopamine and endorphins, but you might experience a comedown as your body attempts to recover and reset. Meanwhile, cortisol - the body’s stress hormone - is released both during and after drinking, and can add to your anxiety.
Another chemical that plays a role is called GABA, which is a chemical released in the brain that causes an overall depressant effect and acts as a “downer”. Alcohol stimulates the release of GABA, inducing relaxation and sleepiness. When the depressant effect wears off, it can cause a rebound over-stimulation effect, leading to feelings of anxiety or panic.
Hangxiety might also be the result of poor sleep. Drinking alcohol can result in lighter sleep and more frequent night-time wake-ups, as well as interfere with REM sleep, leaving you feeling tired, cranky, and moody the next day.
How to deal with hangxiety
While there is no sure-fire cure for a hangover, there are a few things you can do to reduce your anxiety and other symptoms.
Start by taking care of your physical symptoms. “Some tips to potentially offset or minimize the negative effects would include drinking plenty of water, restoring electrolytes, eating nutritional meals such as a healthy breakfast, and obtaining proper rest,” says Alexander. “These tips are similar to how to deal with a typical hangover.” While tackling your headache or nausea may not alleviate your anxiety altogether, doing so can help you feel better equipped to handle your emotional well-being. Try to rest and catch up on sleep, while drinking plenty of water to rehydrate. If you’re hungry, eat a light meal that’s easy to digest and avoid heavily processed, or greasy foods. You can also use over the counter medications like ibuprofen or Tylenol to relieve symptoms like headache, nausea, or muscle aches.
In addition to those tried and true tips, practicing some mindfulness and stress management techniques can also help ease your post-drinking hangxiety. Try doing some light yoga or a mindfulness meditation like this one. Deep breathing exercises can help ease a racing mind or a pounding heart, while light physical activity (if you’re up for it) can boost your energy and mood. Practice some self-care by doing things that make you feel good, like taking a bath, drawing, or listening to music.
Examining your relationship with alcohol
If you’re experiencing hangxiety often, it may be worth reflecting on your drinking habits or cutting back on your alcohol consumption.
Because everyone’s relationship to alcohol (or lack thereof) is entirely unique and influenced by so many genetic, environmental, social, and cultural factors, Alexander says it’s important for individuals experiencing hangxiety to really examine the role drinking may play in their lives.
“For many clients that I have worked with in the past, I’ve encouraged them to take a deep dive and self-evaluate their overall relationship with drinking in general,” Alexander says. “This can include everything from their family history and genetic factors to how they may view their drinking overall such as habits, past and present consequences, behaviors related to drinking and their attitude about it.”
Alexander says that engaging in this kind of self-reflection can help empower individuals to better manage their drinking. “By taking a deeper dive, a person may have a better idea on how to address their drinking more efficiently,” he says. “Awareness is one of the main tools that a person can utilize in this situation in which being well-informed and geared with ample information can lead to better planning.”
You may find that you’re turning to alcohol to cope with stress and anxiety itself. However, using alcohol in this way can lead to a dependency and even worsen your anxiety. If you feel like you’re turning to alcohol to cope or are noticing your alcohol usage impacting other areas of your life, it’s important to talk to your healthcare provider. You can also get help by reaching out to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
Have more questions about hangxiety, alcohol consumption, or your mental health? Our primary care team is here to help. At One Medical, we aim to provide exceptional care designed around you and your unique health goals. Sign up today to book a same or next day appointment — in person or over video — through our app.
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