If you’ve ever woken up the day after having had too much to drink, you may be familiar with the feeling. And no, we don’t mean a hangover; we mean a hangover laced with anxiety. One that causes you to ruminate over everything you said and did the night before. You relive conversations and chew the cud of every interaction that might have gone south.
You might get anxious or feel guilty about other things, like the fact that you drank too much and the next day feels wasted. It’s been called hangxiety, and with good reason, because for some people drinking too much results in elevated anxiety that feels almost like panic.
Experts contend that some people are more prone to hangxiety than others, and it may have something to do with your state before you hit the bottle, says clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly. There’s an association between anxiety disorders and alcohol use disorders, according to a wide breadth of research.
“An existing anxiety disorder can foster alcohol use and abuse because it creates a vicious cycle,” says Manly, author of the book Joy from Fear.
An individual may be feeling anxious and want to use alcohol to reduce that anxiety, often in social situations, says Manly. “Many of my patients will say that they use alcohol as a social lubricant.”
Alcohol is a disinhibiting agent that helps a person to relax, but after the alcohol wears off, anxiety returns and, in some cases, can be worse than before. “It can cause a lot of post-alcohol rumination about behavior and mistakes that could have been made,” says Manly.
Those who are more prone to mood disorders or mental health issues are the most likely to have anxiety after they drink. “When we have a preexisting condition, the alcohol relieves it temporarily, but then there’s a return to that condition,” says Manly.
If your “preexisting condition” is happiness and joy and you’re just out with friends having fun, then you’re more likely to wake up feeling much the same way (although you might have a headache.) Those who are emotionally sensitive and tend to obsess will return to feeling that way the next day when the alcohol wears off.
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The anxiety that happens post-drinking is often heightened. Manly says that the amygdala, the part of the brain tied to memory, emotions, and decision making seems to be impacted in people who have anxiety and also those with alcohol use disorders. It appears that its structure is changed; therefore, it’s not functioning properly before alcohol use and after. As a result, we’re more alert and hyper-vigilant because the body is thrown into fight or flight mode. “It both causes the anxiety and perpetuates it,” she says.
Additionally, says Manly, the prefrontal cortex is returning to functioning normally. When we’re drinking, the prefrontal cortex is disinhibited, which might cause us to do silly and sometimes dangerous things because “our higher reasoning isn’t functioning normally,” says Manly. Once the prefrontal cortex is activated again, it starts to consider the things that we might have done the night before.
According to Harold Hong, a psychiatrist with New Waters Recovery in Raleigh, North Carolina, alcohol increases levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain, like glutamate, which may increase anxiety symptoms. “Alcohol [also] reduces levels of GABA, which is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that helps regulate excitability in the brain and calm down nervous system activity,” says Hong. “Low levels of GABA can lead to increased stress and fear responses.”
The good news is that post-drinking anxiety doesn’t last forever, says Hong. Hangxiety happens in those who have anxiety long after the alcohol has metabolized, but once the effects of the hangover subside, so will the post-drinking fear. “The best way to treat this issue is to avoid excessive drinking and practice self-care strategies such as deep breathing and relaxation exercises,” says Hong.
Additionally, for those who have social anxiety and depend on alcohol to reduce it, it might be best not to put yourself in those situations. And when you have to socialize and are afraid you’ll drink too much, prepare beforehand. Drink beverages with low alcohol content, add sparkling water to water them down, drink water between beverages and allow yourself to go home early.
If you have post-drinking anxiety, exercise or do other things that will keep your mind off of rumination and the stress that goes along with it. If you can’t seem to get your drinking under control and are regularly depending on it to relax, talk to a professional.
But if you overdo it once in a while, skip the judgment, says Manly. You drank too much, and it’s done. Let it go because tomorrow is another day.
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