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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Harris, PsyD

Cheers to the End of Dry January: Understanding Hangover Anxiety

A man sitting in bed feeling dread after a night of drinking alcohol

Many of our journeys through the desert of Dry January are coming to an end. As you’re gearing up to trade in mocktails for cocktails you might find an old familiar monster lurking in the shadows - it's hangover anxiety, or as some like to call it, hangxiety. This is not just a pounding headache and queasy stomach, but a sense of impending doom and self-doubt. Welcome to hangover anxiety, the not-so-friendly companion to a night of libations.


The Recipe:

To understand hangxiety, we need to peek into the brain's playbook. Alcohol, being the social lubricant it is, messes with our neurotransmitters. Alcohol binds to our GABA receptors. GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is a neurotransmitter that sends messages through the brain to inhibit the activity of nerve cells. Alcohol increases the release of GABA, leading to an initial sense of calm. As drinking continues, our brains also start to shut off glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter, creating a greater sense of relaxation and often leading to feeling uninhibited.

 

Like many cocktails, there is a twist. Once the alcohol leaves the scene, our brain rebounds with increased excitability. This is a combination of GABA levels being depleted from the increased production during the prior alcohol consumption and an increased production of glutamate. Together these have the opposite effect of what happens when you’re drinking and anxiety increases.


Additional Ingredients:
  • Poor sleep – Alcohol reduces REM sleep, leading to poor sleep quality.

  • Cortisol – Hangovers spike cortisol (a stress hormone) levels, leaving us to feel extremely jumpy. The combination of decreased GABA and increased cortisol sets the stage for a not-so-fabulous morning.

  • Foggy memory – Remember when alcohol reduced our glutamate production? Glutamate is also a part of creating memories. So you might spend the morning after drinking searching or obsessing over memories of things you can’t remember saying or doing the night before… which is fuel for anxiety.

 

How to Move Forward:

 The duration of hangxiety differs for everyone, typically lasting 24 hours and sometimes longer depending on how much alcohol you consume and other physical factors. Some people might never experience this phenomenon. Those who already experience anxiety are more likely to experience hangxiety.

 

The best way to prevent an anxiety hangover is to abstain from alcohol altogether. If you are going to drink, some tips to help prevent hangxiety include:

  • Stay hydrated – drink lots of water when consuming alcohol and even more the next day

  • Slow down your pace – be mindful of how much you are drinking

  • Be aware of what you’re drinking – how much alcohol is in your cocktail? What is the alcohol by volume (abv) of that beer? Is that wine pour a standard 5 oz serving?

  • Say No – Listen to your body, when you’re tired or feel like you had enough, stop drinking!

 

As you bid adieu to Dry January and embrace the joy of toasting with friends, keep in mind that hangover anxiety, while a temporary visitor, is real. Understanding the neuroscience behind it can help you make better choices at the next happy hour, hopefully leading to less unhappy-tomorrows. 

 

If you are questioning your relationship with alcohol and want support around the topic, therapy can be a great resource to explore the role alcohol plays in your anxiety, hobbies, interpersonal relationships, and mood. To meet with one of our therapists, click here.

 

For more information on alcohol use and abuse check out these websites:

 

Cheers to moderation, self-compassion, and the occasional awful hangover.

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