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. T