woman with head between knees suffering from anxiety after heavy drinking
Alcohol & Your Body | Sobriety

Understanding ‘Hangxiety’ – Why You Get Terrible Anxiety After Drinking

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What is hangover anxiety?

Hangxiety“, or hangover anxiety, is a buzzword used to describe the debilitating anxiety that comes after a night of heavy drinking. Maybe you’re familiar with it.

You wake up and feel gripped with panic. You become inundated with overwhelming thoughts and regrets. Your heart races and you genuinely wonder if you’re about to have a heart attack. It’s anxiety on ten and it can take you out for the entire day, maybe even longer.

man suffering from hangxiety in bed
What is hangxiety?

Why does alcohol cause hangxiety?

Hangxiety is your brain’s way of trying to restore equilibrium. When you drink, alcohol floods your brain with a surge of dopamine. It’s why getting buzzed feels good at first.

But here’s the thing about our brains: it likes balance. Alcohol disrupts the delicate balance between inhibitory and excitatory neurotransmitters in the brain.

Alcohol acts as a depressant by increasing inhibitory neurotransmission and decreasing excitatory neurotransmission. It’s why, initially, alcohol makes you feel relaxed and carefree. Alcohol increases GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid) activity which slows everything way down and calms the brain.

Alcohol also blocks glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter linked to anxiety. If you are someone who struggles with an anxiety disorder, this feels especially wonderful. For a time, it shuts all the brain chatter down.

The problem occurs when the brain tries to balance the effects of alcohol.

When alcohol artificially boosts the levels of inhibitory neurotransmission, the brain says, “Welp! Time to ramp up the excitatory neurotransmitters and get things back to normal.”

Eventually, that blissful GABA bath must come to an end. The brain responds to an influx of alcohol by blocking GABA and increasing glutamate. When this process happens, you go from happy-go-lucky drunk person to anxiety-stricken, rage maniac (or something related).

We’ve all seen or experienced the mood swing that comes out of nowhere during a heavy drinking session. The guy or gal who was telling everyone, “I love you” an hour ago is now picking fights at the bar with strangers. (Or some version of that.)

This overcorrection by the brain is also what fuels the hangxiety the following day.

yarn heart and brain
the impact of alcohol on the brain -hangxiety

Hangxiety vs Hangover – What’s the difference?

Not everyone who drinks will experience hangxiety the next day, and neither will everyone who gets a hangover.

The word ‘hangover’ encompasses a wide range of physical and emotional symptoms as a result of moderate to heavy drinking. They include:

  • fatigue
  • weakness
  • thirst
  • headache
  • muscle ache
  • nausea
  • stomach pain
  • vertigo
  • light and sound sensitivity
  • irritability
  • anxiety
  • sweating
  • increased blood pressure

Woe to the person who has the unfortunate fate of experiencing all of these at once (been there).

woman with glass of water suffering from anxiety hangover
hangover vs hangxiety

Hangxiety is the collision of a hangover and severe anxiety. It’s awful. Hangxiety goes beyond the common dread that comes with the morning after a night of heavy drinking and debauchery. It is not simply feeling embarrassed by the previous night’s decisions or behaviors.

It is a debilitating level of anxiety brought on by alcohol that prevents you from functioning normally. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, people who already struggle with anxiety and anxiety disorders are more susceptible to experiencing hangxiety after drinking.

Why you should take hangover anxiety seriously.

Aside from being horrible to experience, hangover anxiety should be taken as a warning sign of a deeper problem with drinking.

Alcohol affects our brain chemistry in profound ways. It disrupts important nerve-chemical systems in our brain responsible for regulating mood. Introducing alcohol into a brain that is already struggling to regulate mood is a recipe for disaster.

If you are someone with a history of depression and anxiety, alcohol will make it worse.

Chronic, heavy drinking is also associated with an increased risk of suicidal thoughts, attempts, and death by suicide. Extreme binge drinking can also lead to psychosis and hallucination.

Bottom line: it’s serious.

How to Get Rid of Hangxiety

The best way to stop hangxiety is to not drink heavily or at all. One of the great benefits of getting sober is that you don’t have to play Russian roulette with your mood anymore.

Additionally, you may want to make an appointment with a mental health specialist to talk about a treatment plan for your anxiety. This won’t do anything to alleviate hangxiety symptoms in the moment. However, being proactive about treating mental health problems is the first step in breaking free from the vicious cycle of self-medicating with alcohol.

If you wake up hungover with a bad case of hangover anxiety, there are a few things you can do to try to feel better. Be advised. I said ‘try’ because in most cases, you just have to ride it out.

woman with head between knees suffering from anxiety after heavy drinking
how to treat anxiety after drinking

1. Take care of your physical needs.

Hydrate, hydrate, and hydrate. In many cases, you may need to add a hydration boost like Liquid IV or other electrolyte drink. Take a Tylenol, a hot shower to get the blood flowing, and eat something. Basically, do the opposite of laying in bed dying a slow death.

This won’t likely eliminate your hangxiety but it certainly lays the groundwork for getting past it more quickly.

2. Try some relaxation techniques and breath work.

When your heart feels like it is racing a mile a minute, one of the best things you can do is breathe. Slow, controlled, breaths. You’re trying to activate your body’s parasympathetic nervous system so you can physically calm down.

Meditation is a great way to slow things down. You might also consider doing some gentle yoga, other light stretching or taking a leisurely stroll. The idea is to slow everything back down, so avoid doing any rigorous physical activity.

3. Take it easy.

After you’ve done steps 1 and 2, the best thing you can do is take it easy. If you’re able to, stay home and watching some TV or do another activity that can help you pass the time without getting worked up. You need to give your brain time to readjust.

If you find your hangxiety is lasting longer than a day, you definitely need to make an appointment with your doctor. Chronic stress and anxiety can do major damage to your health and quality of life.

Once you get stuck in a cycle of self-medicating your anxiety with alcohol it becomes much harder to quit drinking. You begin to drink to get relief from anxiety, which in turn, causes you to become more anxious. Inevitably, you increase your consumption to achieve the same numbing effects.

The longer you do this, the harder it is get sober or find any peace in your life.

The Bottom Line:

Hangxiety is not just a terrible side effect of too much drinking, it is a warning sign of deeper mental health issues and potential alcohol use disorder. The only way to avoid hangxiety is to radically change your drinking habits or get sober. If you experience recurring episodes of hangover anxiety, reach out to your doctor, and don’t be afraid to connect with a sobriety support group.

You can get past this and the best time to start is now.

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