A hangover’s physical symptoms are all too familiar to many people: a pounding headache, unbearable nausea, light sensitivity, dizziness. Hangovers and post-drinking recovery aren’t always just physical symptoms though.
The extreme anxiety that drinking can induce can start to take your mind into uncontrollable fear. This phenomenon has come to have its own name: hangxiety.
Hangxiety is a new age term for the anxiety that is commonly felt after excessive drinking, but it isn’t necessarily a new concept.
What is “hangxiety”?
A hangover is a state of recovery for the body and brain. The body works to remedy the physical hangover symptoms and the brain works to remedy the post-drinking chemical imbalances that often cause a spike in anxiety. Hangover-related anxiety can be separate from the physical symptoms; during this time of “hangxiety”, there is more panic experienced, even if a person may not have an anxiety disorder to begin with.
Some symptoms of hangxiety:
- Constant state of restlessness
- Inability to focus on normal tasks
- Feeling overwhelming shame, worry or embarrassment from previous night
What causes hangover anxiety?
When you’re drinking, alcohol disrupts your brain functionality releasing an excess of “feel-good” chemicals like endorphins. The next morning you are drained from those mood-boosting chemicals and plunged into a rapid mood decline. The body is always trying to maintain a state of homeostasis, which then triggers the stress hormone cortisol, spiking and making you feel more anxious than usual.
Although hormonal fluctuation plays a major role in anxiety, there are actually a combination of things that may increase hangxiety:
- Social anxiety: drinking can help cope or lessen anxiety before social events. Once the effects of alcohol wear off, you are left with physical hangover symptoms that can worsen anxiety or depression.
- Alcohol detox: feeling restless, anxious, nervous, jittery.
- Dehydration/drained nutrients: this can be a source of anxiety and mood changes due to lack of water and other vital nutrients (like electrolytes).
- Exhaustion: sleep deprivation may make anxiety feel more emotionally intense.
Why am only I experiencing it?
Mood fluctuations are a common symptom during a hangover, but hangxiety isn’t universal. Hangxiety is individualistic from person to person, but a new research study suggests that highly shy people may have a higher risk of experiencing anxiety with a hangover.
In 2019, researchers looked at 97 participants across different degrees of ‘shyness’ who drank socially. 50 of those participants were asked to drink as normal, and the other 47 participants were asked to stay sober. Researchers measured levels of anxiety before, during activity, and after drinking/sober periods. The participants who drank alcohol saw a decrease in anxiety while drinking, but those who were highly shy tended to have higher levels of anxiety the next day.
Drinking provides a temporary relief of anxiety, which can be liberating for most people. These same individuals can often experience worse anxiety the next day. In return, this can lead to a cycle of substance abuse or alcohol use disorder (AUD) if someone decides to cope with anxiety through excessive alcohol use.
How to manage hangover anxiety?
If you are familiar with anxiety, you probably have some coping mechanisms to ease your mind. Sometimes those coping methods aren’t always the best way to manage hangxiety: it might not feel good to exercise while you have a pounding headache.
Manage physical symptoms:
When you feel well physically, you can focus on working through the mental aspects.
- Rehydrate: drink lots of water and nutrient enhancing drinks (smart water, body armor, gatorade, etc.). Keep in mind that chugging a large amount of water is not going to cure your hangover in a few minutes. Only IV therapy can provide instant rehydration to the bloodstream.
- Food: eat a light meal that is easy to digest and also avoid greasy, processed foods.
- Rest: sleep when you can and utilize aromatherapy if possible.
- Over-the-counter pain relief: Ibuprofen is one pain medication for hangover relief. Take a recommended dose, follow all health instructions and avoid taking on an empty stomach.
Focus on your mental health:
- Mindfulness: practice mindfulness meditation or do slow breathing exercises.
- Slowly unpack the night: don’t overthink your actions and realize that no one probably noticed what you did.
- Allow yourself to forgive: don’t be hard on yourself because you, most likely, weren’t the only one drinking.
- Talk yourself through your fears: contact trusted people in your support circle that can help talk you through your worries.
- Try stress relieving activities: walking, drawing, taking a bath, listening to music, playing with a pet, etc.
Ways to reduce hangover anxiety.
It is easy to convince yourself that you will “never drink again”, but realistically it may be beneficial to learn how to reduce hangover anxiety before-hand. It is possible to manage hangxiety if you take conscious steps to prevent it.
Some simple steps include:
- Eat before drinking, and never drink on an empty stomach.
- Always drink water throughout the night and stay hydrated at all costs.
- 1 to 1 ratio: 1 alcoholic drink per hour, and 1 water per alcoholic drink.
- Drink less alcohol to begin with.
- Set a limit, and let your friends know you are serious about maintaining this limit so there can be accountability (This would require being with friends who encourage reasonable drinking).
- Consider fast hangover relief options so you spend less time feeling physically ill.
Hangovers are a part of everyone’s drinking experience. While most hangover symptoms appear to be just physical, there may be more at hand when it comes to hangxiety. Not everyone will experience anxiety after excessive drinking, therefore, it is important to notice, acknowledge and manage. Set some boundaries for yourself, and prioritize food, water and rest the next time you drink. Learning to drink in moderation will help reduce hangovers and hangxiety over time.
Although hangover-related anxiety is common for most people, it may be a sign of something more serious in others. If anxiety persists or alcohol use begins to worsen, consider talking to a therapist or healthcare provider.
If you or someone you care about needs help, seek guidance for the next steps at:
- The American Addiction Center hotline: 866-557-2468
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration hotline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)