Ever drink because you're anxious, then feel anxious because you drank? That's "hangxiety."
Here’s a scenario you may know all too well. You’re out at a bar with friends, the music is pumping, and you’re feeling pretty great. The cocktails also happen to be particularly delicious, and they’re going down easy. You’re carefree, relaxed, and laughing with your pals. Then tomorrow morning comes. Not only are you experiencing a physical hangover, but you seem to have a mental one as well, in the form of heart-racing, palms-sweating, thought-looping anxiety.
You may not know it, but you’re dealing with something that many have come to refer to as “hangxiety.”
While alcohol can certainly act as a social lubricant and festive treat, the truth is, it can equally bring out or worsen mental health conditions. In fact, according to a 2019 study, around 12 percent of people experience anxiety while hungover.
Hangxiety is a popular term used to describe feeling intensely anxious in the setting of nursing a hangover,” says Tracey Marks, M.D., psychiatrist and author of Why Am I So Anxious?. “It’s not an official clinical term or disorder, but it is a thing that many people can experience.”
A steep rise in mental health conditions has certainly incited a growing awareness of anxiety and its many triggers and forms—and this includes the anxiety that can often follow a bout of heavy drinking. Dr. Marks also says that the serious challenges of the past three years have increased our anxiety levels, and at the same time, many folks have used alcohol consumption to cope and manage—which in turn has only invited more anxiety.
The silver lining to the rising anxiety, rising alcohol consumption, and rising anxiety due to alcohol consumption, is that there’s also been a recent increase in people considering “complete wellness,” says Taish Malone, Ph.D., licensed professional counselor with Mindpath Health. “I think more people are considering how their behavior in general affects their bodies,” she says.
What’s more, Malone says, this increased self-awareness can also be prompted by the closing of another year, a time when many feel included to re-evaluate their principles, goals, and the state of their physical and mental health. “The onset of the cooler weather, paired with holidays, and the approaching new year often give people more opportunities to reflect on who, where, and how they are,” she says. “Health or way of life are often the themes of their self-reflection.”
If you’re someone who tries to calm their anxiety with a stiff cocktail or glass of buttery Chardonnay, only to wake up feeling extra-anxious, it may be time to address this "hangxiety" once and for all. As Malone points out, “alcohol should never be a way to escape from reality or to numb emotions that are uncomfortable.”
What Causes Your Hangxiety?
First, Malone explains exactly what happens to the brain while drinking, noting that alcohol reaches the brain in only five minutes. Even if you don’t notice, the first impacted areas of the brain include motor and cognitive functioning. Next, that feel-good hormone dopamine gets released, giving you a false sense of relaxation. If you continue to drink heavily, slower reactions, distorted thinking, and impaired walking can follow.
Then comes the next morning. There are several biological factors that come together if you’re experiencing post-drinking anxiety, and Dr. Marks says the most prominent effect on the body is dehydration.
“Dehydration causes metabolic imbalances,” she explains. “These imbalances can trigger panic and anxiety in some people who are more sensitive to these body changes. Alcohol is considered a nervous system depressant that slows brain activity," she continues. “When the alcohol levels drop, you can get a rebound agitating effect.”
How to Prevent and Ease Hangxiety
Address your anxiety before drinking.
Don't make alcohol a coping tool for anxiety. Enjoy it moderately for its positives, and meanwhile have other effective tools on hand to manage your anxiety.
“If someone has pre-existing anxiety, they should use anxiety-reducing tools and strategies to manage their anxiety before they start drinking,” Dr. Marks says. “For example, the person with generalized anxiety who drinks to wind down should first wind down with exercise, meditation, or watching a comedy show before they drink. This way, they’re partially relaxed before they start drinking, and the alcohol doesn’t have to do the heavy lifting to make them feel better.”
If you're someone who relies on alcohol to feel more comfortable in social situations—in other words, to ease some social anxiety—instead, find better ways to confront and address social fears outside of drinking. Is someone who makes you annoyed, nervous, or self-conscious joining the dinner reservation? Your fallback solution might be ordering five martinis to get through it. But instead, practice a little deep breathing before you go; prep some cordial conversation starters to use; challenge yourself to react with patience; schedule a quick therapy session for guidance. Then enjoy your martini slowly and mindfully.
Drink in moderation.
This should come as no surprise, but to skip the hangover—and accompanying anxiety—the next morning, drink in moderation. This, Malone emphasizes, really is the most responsible way to enjoy alcohol, the event itself, and those around you.
One way to achieve this? Surround yourself with people you can trust to help make sure you don’t exceed a reasonable amount of alcohol, Malone suggests. Hold yourself accountable and be mindful of pacing. “Pacing can help you know how inebriated you are and mitigate alcohol abuse symptoms,” Malone says. She recommends pacing your drinking with 30- to 60-minute intervals in between drinks. If you feel like you need a drink just to have something to do with your hands, grab a water or seltzer!
Eat food and drink water.
Speaking of water: “I encourage those who plan to drink or are drinking to make sure they have eaten and continue to drink water. Eating combats the alcohol dominating the intestines. The water helps keep you hydrated, Malone says. Drinking alcohol might make you feel like you're quenching your thirst in the moment, but actually most alcohol is a diuretic (a substance that makes you lose water), and contains a lot of sugar, "so dehydration is a concern.” If water gets boring for you, here are some other delicious (non-alcoholic) drinks that are super-hydrating.
Practice relaxation techniques.
If you tried your best to follow all of the above tips and still wake up feeling incredibly anxious, it’s time to break out the relaxation techniques.
Specifically, Dr. Marks suggests grounding exercises, which can be an effective way to calm yourself and focus on your environment. One simple exercise she shares is choosing a color and naming all the objects in the room with that color, which can help bring you back to the present moment.
You can also stimulate your vagus nerve, the superhighway between the brain and gut that controls several bodily functions. This is also the collection of nerves that comprises your parasympathetic nervous system, which relaxes your body in times of stress. To do this, Dr. Marks recommends “vagal maneuvers” such as splashing cold water on your face or chest or humming with the “ohm” sound, which will each stimulate the nerve.
Dr. Marks is also a proponent of progressive muscle relaxation to soothe anxiety, an approach in which you’ll purposely tense and relax isolated muscles throughout your body. She says it’s a helpful way to loosen muscles you may not have realized are tense. To practice progressive muscle relaxation, YouTube is an excellent source for guided sessions.
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