Last week was my birthday, so I had friends over, and we all drank a bit too much. I woke up next to one of my friends, and I told her that I felt like I was dying. She laughed and said she had a headache too. But I didn’t know how I could explain it to her. I wasn’t dying of pain or nausea; my mind was literally telling me that I was going to die. It wasn’t even five hours since we had gone to bed, and yet my mind was racing with thoughts and fears. It felt like I would never feel okay again.
But how do you explain hangxiety to someone who has never experienced it?
People often joke about how much worse hangovers get as you reach adulthood, but what they seemingly forgot to mention was hangxiety. Because I would take a regular physical hangover over hangxiety any day. Give me a toilet bowl to puke in, as that is better than this war raging on in my mind and the intruder in my thoughts.
Hangxiety affects more people than you’d expect, often jokingly named ‘Beer Fear’, and so it’s time to educate ourselves on why hangxiety happens and what we can do about it. Consider forwarding this to your fellow hangxiety sufferers so you can be united in the fight against hangxiety.
Hangxiety is the unofficial, non-medical term given to ‘hangover anxiety’. It’s when you feel extreme anxiety the morning after an evening of drinking. It’s a symptom of alcohol withdrawal, like a milder version of when someone who drinks heavily suddenly quits cold turkey.
Alcohol consumption changes the levels of brain chemicals, like serotonin which regulates your mood and anxiety. Initially, alcohol depresses the central nervous system, which is why you feel calmer when drinking or more depressed if you’re prone to it. But after a while, this feeling goes away, and anxiety spikes back up, twice as strong. Alcohol also impacts the brain by affecting the neurotransmitters GABA and glutamate, which have opposing inhibitory and stimulatory effects on your brain. Glutamate actives the nervous system and helps your cognition, learning and memory, whilst GABA decreases activity in the nervous system. Alcohol increases the amount of GABA we have, relaxing us, whilst reducing the amount of glutamate, making us feel slower and less stressed. But the morning after, the calming effects of heightened GABA are gone, and so “the balance shifts towards a state of excessive excitation” (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism). Your brain is working overdrive to sort itself out, and that involves doing the opposite of what was done to it, so extra heightened awareness and extra anxiety.
Check out this viral Tiktok explaining hangxiety!
This experience is usually worsened by the impact hangxiety has on sleep. Drunk people usually fall asleep quickly, and enter a deeper sleep than they usually would. Then, about four hours later, withdrawal kicks in and leads you to wake up feeling jittery and uncomfortable. Since you don’t get enough sleep to work through the alcohol, you feel even worse, and the tiredness exasperates your anxiety sensations.
Everyone experiences hangxiety differently, just like having anxiety or social anxiety can be a unique experience. For me, it’s waking up and feeling wide awake, like I couldn’t possibly sleep more, even though I’m exhausted. It’s my brain running a thousand miles a minute and refusing to quieten. I feel certain that I embarrassed myself somehow the night before, and I’m running through everything I said or did (at least what I can remember) and trying to find the culprit. Did I post something on Instagram? Did I message my ex? It’s an unstoppable paranoia that consumes me, and this mean little voice tells me that everyone is laughing at me, everyone is mad at me. I feel it physically as well; my body feels heavy and anchored to the spot; I couldn’t move if I tried. My heart is racing rapidly, and it’s a struggle to breathe normally. I feel trapped in the bed and yet walking around feels terrifying as well.
I asked a friend about her experience with hangxiety, and she said that it often starts before she’s gone to sleep, when she gets home from wherever she was. She already begins questioning everything and looking for her mistakes. She tosses and turns in bed, not only because of her thoughts but also as a result of her physical symptoms. The hangxiety is accompanied by a strong pain in her stomach and a sinking feeling, which leads her to curl up in a fetal position. But even though it starts at night, her hangxiety still continues into the following day, no matter what she’s doing.
Hangxiety feels different for everyone, but it’s usually centred around self-doubt and a feeling of dread. It’s as much a physical ailment as a mental one.
“The people who were more shy had much higher levels of anxiety [the following day] than the people who weren’t shy.” - Celia Morgan, University of Exeter.
Research suggests that shy people are more prone to hanxiety following a night of drinking, as the alcohol’s seesaw effect on their GABA levels is more noticeable, with a lower baseline of GABA. Shy individuals may drink more than their extroverted counterparts in order to feel comfortable and keep up socially, so they may have a higher alcohol effect for that reason. It could also be that shy individuals are more contemplative, so they think more about the evening than someone else would.
“It could also be a psychological effect – people who are more highly anxious are more prone to rumination, going over thoughts about the night before, so that’s another potential mechanism.” - Celia Morgan, University of Exeter.
Individuals with social anxiety are more likely to experience hangxiety than those without. This is because drinking can temporarily relieve anxiety, which tempts many into drinking too much and thus feeling the consequences the next day. Individuals with social anxiety are also more prone to doubt themselves generally, so it may be their usual level of self-doubt and rumination, but then accompanied by the physical effects of a hangover, and thus a hangxiety.
But it can also be the case that individuals without social anxiety or any other mental illness experience hangxiety the day after drinking. Some individuals are just more prone to the damaging effects of alcohol, and we can’t really know why.
There is yet to be a cure for hangxiety, just like there’s no one pill to solve a hangover. But if anyone’s a scientist here, I’d love to get a solution that I could swallow with a glass of water!
Until we have that miracle fix, all we can do is care for ourselves and treat the symptoms of a hangxiety.
I’m not going to tell you to stop drinking or ‘just don’t drink so much next time’, because I don’t give advice that I don’t follow. Alcohol is a tricky subject, and it is woven into so many social situations. Alcohol is dangerous and harmful, so it’s always worth drinking less often or a smaller quantity. But it also can be super fun to drink with friends, and you can have a good time together. If alcohol is becoming an issue for you, then it is definitely something to address. I have times when I have to take a step back and reconsider the role of alcohol in my life and when I mistakenly use it as an emotional bandaid.
But when you wake up with hangxiety, you don’t want to be told that you shouldn’t drink again or should drink less; that isn’t helpful. You want to know that everything will be okay, that the world doesn’t actually hate you and that you didn’t make a complete fool of yourself. So here it goes…
What you’re feeling isn’t real, your mind and body are just trying to trick you; they’re sneaky like that. You had a good evening, and don’t let them tell you otherwise. Your friends enjoyed being with you, and they were also drinking a lot. They would be surprised to hear that you’re feeling this way, so reach out to them and let them help you. Either way, you’re going to be okay, this will pass. Look after yourself.
Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.
Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.
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