You’ve just had an amazing night out with friends that checked off all the right boxes: good conversation, good food, and good wine. You wake up the next morning and, as was to be expected, your headache reminds you just how much you enjoyed that wine. But then, as if out of nowhere, an overwhelming feeling of anxiety sets in. Sure, you consider yourself to be more of a high-strung person in general, but this feels nearly debilitating.
Welcome to the world of hangover anxiety—or hanxiety for short—which describes the experience of having crippling anxiety in the 1 - 2 days after consuming large amounts of alcohol. In today’s post, we’ll explore why this happens—and what you can do about it.
What are the symptoms of hangover anxiety?
As if having a headache and nausea aren’t enough when you’re hungover, hanxiety takes things to a whole other, very cruel level. While the symptoms of hangover anxiety can take many forms, the usual suspects include:
Feelings of existential dread
Over-analyzing moments from the night prior
Rapid heart rate
Feelings of dread that a panic attack could strike at any moment
While hangover anxiety can happen to anyone, it’s typically more pronounced in people who are prone to anxiety when they’re sober, too.
Why does it happen?
Your brain is essentially experiencing a small degree of alcohol withdrawal, meaning that several brain chemicals are thrown out of whack that affect your mood.
For starters, alcohol stimulates GABA production, a neurotransmitter that helps you feel relaxed. That thing that drove you nuts at work a couple hours earlier? Not such a big deal after a couple of cocktails thanks to GABA.
As you keep drinking, your brain starts blocking glutamate, a neurotransmitter that helps you feel excited. Put simply, lower levels of glutamate mean lower levels of anxiety, which takes you to an even more blissful place.
But… the body likes balance and does whatever it can to achieve homeostasis again. This explains a lot of human behaviours, like binge eating after eating an overly restrictive diet or sleeping in until noon after pulling an all-nighter. The same happens when you’re overdone drinking: your body sees that GABA levels are high and glutamine levels are low, so it over-compensates. When it lowers GABA and increases glutamine, you feel less relaxed and more excitable all at once—the perfect storm for anxiety.
To add salt to the wounds, one’s sleep cycle is usually disrupted after consuming a lot of alcohol. And when we’re sleep deprived, the part of the brain that detects fear (the amygdala) can be up to 60% more hyper-active, meaning you’re sensing threat and danger basically everywhere. Joy!!!!
Last but not least, alcohol jacks up levels of a neurotransmitter called norepinephrine in your brain, which lowers your inhibitions and increases impulsivity. While this might actually feel good in the moment, it gives your hanxiety a lot of ammo the next day as you start to reflect on all of the things you wouldn’t have done if you were sober.
How to Cope When Hanxiety Strikes
Although you might, ironically, feel like you need a drink just from reading about hanxiety, there here are some tips on how to deal with this in the future.
1. Have “no-alcohol” weekends.
The obvious answer here is to just stop drinking alcohol altogether if it’s regularly wreaking so much havoc on your mental health. But if that doesn’t feel like an ideal option for you, consider regularly scheduling weekends where you don’t have a sip of alcohol. Not one. This will not only do wonders for your mental health, but it will help your brain continue to recalibrate and mellow out.
2. Constantly remind yourself that you’re just experiencing hanxiety.
When we name our emotions, we actually activate the part of our brain that is more logical and rational, the pre-frontal cortex. When you’re feeling anxious the day after drinking, you must continually name the fact that you’re experiencing hanxiety. This is awfully tricky in the moment because hangover anxiety can be insanely convincing, but the moment that you start saying “what if” or asking yourself existential questions about life, know that it is just. the. hanxiety. Nothing more, nothing less. Even if you have to do this 2923502385093285 times in a day, just keep telling yourself, “It’s just the hanxiety, it’s just the hanxiety, this will be over tomorrow.”
3. Know that this is not the time to make any significant decisions. At all.
The hanxiety knows exactly what questions to ask to push your buttons: Does your partner really love you? Are you sure you don’t want to change careers? Do you even like your condo or should you buy a house? For the love of God, do not answer these questions when you’re anxious and hungover. If you must, write all of these questions down on a piece of paper and make a vow to yourself to reflect on them in a couple of days. But do not even go there when you're hungover. You’re not thinking clearly.
4. Distract yourself.
When you’re hungover and anxious, your goal must be to turn down the volume on that anxious voice and turn up the volume on literally anything else. In other words, you basically need to distract yourself until the day passes. For some people, the best way to achieve this is to stay home, turn on Netflix, nap, and have some quiet time. For others, it’s seeing a friend and focusing on anything but themselves for the day.
Distraction can also be especially important for those moments where you start ruminating about “all the stupid things” you did the night before. In these cases, know that no one pays as much attention to you as you think they do (which I say to be comforting). Show yourself some compassion, think about what changes need to be made in the future if applicable, and move on.
5. Ride it out.
Sometimes you just need to remind yourself that this, too, shall pass and that everything will be fine tomorrow. Unfortunately, there is a bit of an acceptance piece here where you just need to understand that although you don’t like it, you’re experiencing hangover anxiety and that’s that. Sometimes, resisting something is more exhausting than just accepting it and living with it as best you can.
6. Show your body some love.
Drink a ton of water the night of, before bed, and during the day. Stay away from caffeine, which is only going to mess with your hormones and neurotransmitters more (which we’re desperately trying to stabilize). Eat some good, nutritious food rather than greasy junk and have a nap if you need to; your body and brain are probably exhausted.
The Bottom Line
Hangover anxiety is a real thing that affects so many people, from traditionally “chill” individuals to those who have mental health diagnoses. When hanxiety strikes, your best bet is to acknowledge that it’s there, accept it (even though you don’t like it), and ride it out as best you can through distraction and/or showing your body some love.
That said, if you’re experiencing hangover anxiety regularly and/or constantly feeling embarrassed about how you act when you’re intoxicated, it might be time to consider taking a long break from alcohol altogether and/or seeking professional support. Alternatively, it could be sign that you simply need to drink less when you party, space out your drinks better, or increase your water intake on nights of heavy drinking. Together, these strategies can help decrease the overall impact that alcohol has on your brain and body and lead to much happier Sundays.
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