We’re all familiar with the dreaded physical ailments that accompany a hangover: the exhaustion, the nausea, the I-think-I’ve-got-a-drill-in-there headache… But some of us are unlucky enough to experience the emotional and mental effects of alcohol too. The creeping dread, pit in your stomach panic, the jittery shame spiral…
Yes, you guessed it, we’re talking about The Fear. In fact, anxiety after drinking is so common that it has even been given its own name. Let us introduce you to hang-xiety: the friend-after-the-night before no one’s keen to invite round.
Whether you woke up in bed squirming about something you said, the guy you snogged in full view at the office party or that dad dance move you pulled out the bag and found h.i.l.a.r.i.o.u.s at the time… It doesn’t really matter.
Because here’s the thing: the scary thing about hangover anxiety is that you don’t have to have actually done anything to warrant it.
Sure, you may well have made a prize tit out of yourself (we’re not here to doubt that). But the point is, this feeling can happen without any cringe behaviour whatsoever. It’s more like being submerged in a cloud of dread you can’t quite shake off. And all it feels as though there’s left to do is ride it out...
We’ve all heard alcohol be described as a depressant - but what does that actually mean?
That lovely relaxed feeling you get when you enjoy your favourite tipple is in fact alcohol playing around with your body’s chemistry.
More specifically, it alters the neurotransmitters in our brain - serotonin and dopamine which are responsible for mood, sleep and metabolism (amongst other things). Initially it heightens these levels giving us that first spike of happiness and chill time. But as the effects wear off, these highs come crashing back down again.
And the result? The Mother of all comedowns. It’s this withdrawal that causes us all those horrible feelings like irritability, depression and anxiety. Not dissimilar from the kind of experience someone dependent on alcohol gets when they go cold turkey.
The scariest part is that these changes can actually be long-term. Alcohol leaves the body over the course of anywhere between 3 - 10 days.
Yes, you heard that right. It could take up to 10 days to recover from the lows of that Saturday night binge-drinking session.
And it’s not just the brain that’s impacted when we drink heavily. Having a drink or two will make our blood sugar levels rise. But a big time binge-drinking session makes our blood sugar levels drop dangerously low. This can trigger a stress response in our body which effectively thinks we’re starving, causing a barrage of symptoms: headaches, fatigue, racing heart, shakiness.
Dehydration causes the same: dizziness, fatigue, light-headedness…
See a pattern? The physical effects of boozing can actually mimic an anxiety attack. No wonder we feel panicked.
Unfortunately, there’s more. Alcohol seriously impacts our quality of sleep (and not just because you’re getting up to pee more often).
We know what you’re thinking… That evening glass of wine sends you right off? We’re sorry to say alcohol tends to cause more problems than it solves when it comes to the sleep department.
It’s true that alcohol can, on occasion, help you nod off faster. But studies have shown that it doesn’t take long to build up a tolerance to its sedative effects. What’s more, it dramatically interferes with our quality of sleep once we hit the land of nod.
Research into the effects of alcohol on sleep have shown marked changes to the sleep cycle. After a heavy night, in the first half of our sleep, we spend more time in deep sleep. This might sound all well and good, but our sleep cycle is finely tuned to cater to our body’s needs. When it goes out of whack, it’s generally not to our benefit - and the same applies with booze.
During the second half of the night, the alcohol begins to leave our system and this is also when its sedative effects wear off. This second half of our sleep after drinking tends to be filled with sleep disturbances and mini-awakenings. These mini-awakenings are otherwise referred to as the “rebound effect” and they might be so small that you don’t even notice them. But whether you’re conscious of them or not, they seriously impact the quality of sleep we get.
It has been proved time and time again that poor quality of sleep massively impacts mood, exacerbates anxiety and can even be tied to increased likelihood of developing depression. No wonder a hangover can leave the best of us feeling like a bag of nerves.
The simple advice would be don’t drink - or drink less. But we know that’s not what everyone wants to hear. If you’re currently stuck in the throws of hangxiety, here are a few simple things you can do to help ride it out:
Make an effort to go about your daily activities as normally as possible. You might feel like you want to wrap yourself up in your duvet and forget about the world outside, but distracting yourself from racing thoughts and getting back into your body can help. Try watching your favourite show, take a walk to the shops to stock up on supplies or arrange to meet a close friend and talk it out.
Drink drink drink (water, that is). As mentioned above, dehydration can be a big part of the problem. Try to avoid coffee as caffeine is a diuretic and will dehydrate you even further. Swap it instead for a ginger tea with a dollop of honey which helps metabolise the alcohol in your system and also settle your tummy.
Remember to eat. When we’re feeling very anxious it can be easy to forget to eat. The same goes when we’re stuck in an episode of hangxiety. Eggs, oats and toast make a good breakfast option as they help provide you with a much-needed burst of energy. Eggs are especially good as they contain cysteine which helps to breakdown acetaldehyde the main cause of a hangover.
Most of us have been guilty of having a few too many, and experiencing a case of the accompanying post-drinking blues. But if this has become more of a permanent feature for you, your anxiety might be stemming from something a bit deeper.
Hangover anxiety can happen to anyone, and alcohol affects everyone differently. But it’s likely to be happening more frequently (and also more severely) if you’re someone who already struggles with anxiety.
Some people take to drinking to mask their discomfort in social situations. And it’s certainly true that alcohol can help us loosen up and feel more confident in the moment. The problem is that when it wears off we end up back to square one. Lowered inhibitions when we’re drinking can cause us to behave in a way we wouldn’t normally feel comfortable doing. This might add to that boost of “confidence” at the time, but it can lead to a lot of shame and toe curling moments the following day when we realise that we might have overstepped our boundaries and acted “out of character”.
Relying on any substance for its ability to make you feel different should always be taken seriously. It’s thought that around 20% of people with social anxiety have a drinking problem. If you find yourself frequently waking up after a night of drinking over-playing all the embarrassing things you said or did, you might be suffering from social anxiety. Similarly, if you wake up at the crack of dawn filled with sense of dread or panic, you might be experiencing a type of anxiety disorder called GAD (generalised anxiety disorder).
If anxiety after drinking has become something of a regular occurrence for you - rather than a one-off spell - it might be worth speaking to a therapist who can help you get to the root of your anxiety and also learn techniques to help you manage you anxiety when it strikes.
That buzz from alcohol might be a nice boost at first, but if you’re the type of person who is prone to anxiety, it's likely to be doing a lot more damage in the long run. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide if it’s worth the rewards.
A final word for anyone paralysed by hangxiety and playing over the previous nights events: most people are only concerned about themselves - and they probably didn’t pay much attention to you anyway. Take some comfort in that :)