Is there anything worse than a banging headache, parched throat and churning stomach on the morning after the night before? Yes. It’s called hangxiety. Hangover + anxiety = hangxiety. Although not a diagnosed medical condition, this portmanteau has become a popular term to describe the feeling when a hangover from alcohol and anxiety combine.
As if the general aches, pains and palpitations weren’t enough, hangxiety leaves you waking up with ‘the fear’ of what you might have said or done. It’s the shame of not remembering how you got home, and an overwhelming sense of impending doom that makes the physical symptoms of over-imbibing even harder to bear.
But why does hangxiety even happen? Are some people more susceptible than others and what can we do to avoid it? Delamere’s psychologists explain the link between alcohol and anxiety: its causes, prevention and treatment.
Want to know more about alcohol and anxiety? Speak to the team at Delamere
In simple terms, a hangover is your body’s response to withdrawing from alcohol. The unpleasant side effects can last anywhere from a few hours to a full day. Hangovers can cause symptoms that make you feel more anxious, such as headaches, dizziness, dehydration, nausea and low blood sugar.
Ironically, people often drink alcohol to forget their troubles and attempt to reduce their fears – social anxiety in particular is associated with heavy alcohol use. However, too much down the hatch can have the opposite effect and can result in hangxiety. It’s all due to how alcohol interacts with our brains.
After the first few drinks, you may start to feel relaxed and happy as your blood alcohol content rises, but when the effects of alcohol start to wear off you can experience a dip in mood. This is due to a down regulation of GABA receptors and up-regulation of glutamate receptors in the brain. One is in charge of calming the brain and the other for exciting it. As the body tries to restore the imbalance of neurotransmitters, anxiety symptoms get worse (1).
During a hangover, the brain experiences changes that make it difficult to regulate anxiety. Studies show people who already suffer with mood disorders are more likely to experience hangxiety and that any extra stress during this time can exacerbate the physiological effects. New research has also revealed that shy people are prone to suffer with hangxiety, supporting the link between social anxiety and Alcohol Use Disorders (AUDs).
Hangxiety combines all of the unwelcome physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, such as shaking and sweating, with psychological side effects of anxiety, such as general worry and unease. While recovering from anxiety after drinking you might feel:
As you already aren’t feeling at your best during a hangover, this can also cause undue worry and overthinking of troubling symptoms, such as heart palpitations. Some people even report feeling as if they are about to die. Chronic drinkers may conclude the only way to escape these emotions is to reach for another drink, but Imperial College’s professor of neuropsychopharmacology, David Nutt , says a “hair of the dog” is never a good idea.
Side effects of hangxiety can vary in length and intensity in the same way that everyone metabolises and recovers from alcohol differently. The symptoms of alcohol-induced anxiety symptoms have been known to last for several hours and usually resolve within one day.
For those suffering with alcohol addiction, anxiety after drinking can last for much longer. Post-Acute Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS) is an extended period of the withdrawal stage in which chronic drinkers experience persistent symptoms. These can recur over months or even years and require long-term management.
Anxiety can be both a reason to drink and the cause of too much alcohol, meaning the two problems can coexist and feed off each other. It’s important if you’re really struggling with alcohol dependency and anxiety to get help from trained therapists and medical professionals. In the meantime, there are some actions you can take to reduce your hangxiety.
Lower your alcohol intake
To avoid getting into a vicious cycle of drinking alcohol and anxiety, it makes sense to reduce the amount you drink. Easier said than done! You could start small by just committing to a few alcohol-free days per week, choose low-alcohol drinks or drop a drink size. If alcohol has become a problem, it will almost certainly make your anxiety worse, and you may need to quit altogether with support from a residential rehab programme.
Eat, sleep, hydrate
When your body is trying to repair itself the best thing you can do is sleep. Alcohol and anxiety both affect the quality and duration of your sleep which is so vital for recovery. Sleep will help to reduce the effects of hangxiety and give your body a chance to detox. Good nutrition and hydration is also really important in the hours after heavy drinking because alcohol depletes vitamins and minerals and causes you to lose a lot of water.
Talk to a therapist
Therapy can really help if you have problems with alcohol and anxiety. There are many types available depending on the type of anxiety, but Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is often recommended as it helps you to pinpoint negative thought patterns and learn ways to retrain your brain. You could also choose to access less conventional therapeutic techniques and somatic healing practices which are proven to help calm anxious minds.
There are many different antidepressants available to treat both short-term and long-term alcohol-induced anxiety. However, some of these will interact with alcohol and won’t treat the underlying cause. If you’ve developed an alcohol addiction and anxiety, it’s important to use specific medication to withdraw safely from alcohol first, under medical supervision, before deciding upon the best long-term treatment plan.
Hangovers are an inevitable part of drinking heavily. When they’re the result of an alcohol dependence that is causing anxiety or making it worse, we can help. Hangxiety isn’t a temporary state that will simply go away on its own. There is usually a root cause behind alcohol and anxiety problems that need specialist treatment.
Delamere offers a wide range of residential rehab programmes at our purpose-built wellness retreat in Cheshire. Whether you need help with alcohol addiction, coping with anxiety, or both, our holistic therapists provide a supportive and caring environment to work through your problems. We can help you to tackle the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal that are making your anxiety worse with a supervised alcohol detox followed by intensive psychotherapy.
The relationship between alcohol and anxiety is complex, but we have the expertise to guide you through a successful recovery. You will have access to the latest evidence-based therapies and somatic healing practices to break the cycle of hangxiety. We also provide a full 12 months of aftercare support to ensure you keep getting the help you need.
If you think you are suffering with alcohol addiction and anxiety, call us confidentially to speak to a member of the team today. Contact Delamere
1. Petroff OA. GABA and glutamate in the human brain. Neuroscientist. 2002 Dec;8(6):562-73. doi: 10.1177/1073858402238515. PMID: 12467378.
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