Hangxiety Makes a Bad Hangover Even Worse. Here's What to Do About It.
Have you ever woken up after a night of drinking and felt not just hungover — headache, nausea, the works — but also anxious on top of that? Hangover anxiety (aka hangxiety) is a thing, and it really feels like being kicked while you're down. You already feel physically awful, exhausted, and sick, and then your brain decides to chip in with some anxious, agitated, ruminating thoughts. It's as fun as it sounds. You just want to crawl back into bed and sleep until it's all over, but of course, your mind is racing too fast for even that to be possible.
That's hangxiety for you. While it isn't an official diagnosis, there's no question that a lot of us experience it. "Your hangover is your body doing what it needs to do to recover [from drinking]," explains Monica Vermani, C. Psych, a clinical psychologist in Toronto and author of "A Deeper Wellness: Conquering Stress, Mood, Anxiety and Traumas." During this recovery period, she tells POPSUGAR, "there are a lot of things going on in your body, including dehydration, headache, fatigue, and nausea. Some people, on top of these unpleasant symptoms, also suffer from hangover anxiety — also known as hangxiety."
While there isn't much scientific evidence to support a direct, causative link between hangovers and anxiety, "people can certainly become anxious while hungover," says Tracey Marks, MD, psychiatrist and author of "Why Am I So Anxious?: Powerful Tools For Recognizing Anxiety and Restoring Your Peace". She describes anxiety as "an associated symptom," which means that we're not sure if hangover anxiety is actually caused by a hangover, but they do often occur together.
If you're experiencing hangover anxiety, what can you do about it — and why does it happen in the first place? We've got the answers below.
Hangover Anxiety: Why Does It Happen?
"Anything that upsets your body's metabolic equilibrium can have a negative effect on your mind and body and potentially trigger anxiety," Dr. Marks says, and that includes alcohol. Though we don't know if being hungover directly leads to anxiety, there are a number of theories as to why it might happen.
- Pre-existing anxiety, especially social anxiety: People prone to anxiety or social anxiety may be more vulnerable to hangover anxiety, Dr. Vermani says. That's because those of us who get anxious in social situations might rely on alcohol to help us relax. Once that effect wears off (whether that's later the same night or the next day), they might experience rebound anxiety, which Dr. Marks says "is often worse than the original anxiety that they used alcohol to manage."
- Brain-chemistry changes: When you consume alcohol, it causes a calm-inducing neurotransmitter called GABA to spike. "This slows down your functioning, which is why you relax and chill out when you drink," Dr. Vermani explains. As your body recovers from the alcohol and tries to restore balance, it produces more glutamate, a neurotransmitter with the opposite effect, which can lead to feelings of agitation and restless energy.
- Low blood sugar: Sugary cocktails and low-carb alcoholic drinks alike can lead to a drop in blood sugar after consumption. This can make you fidgety and anxious as your body tries to compensate by releasing stress hormones, Dr. Vermani says.
- Alcohol's depressive quality: You might feel happy while you're drinking, but alcohol is technically considered a depressant. It slows down your mind and body, Dr. Vermani explains, which can negatively impact your mood in the moment. And as it leaves your body, things start to speed up: your heart rate increases and your thoughts start to race and ruminate. The transition from a slow, calm mindset to a more energized or even panicky one can feel jarring in and of itself, leading to feelings of anxiety.
- Disrupted sleep: Sure, you might fall asleep right away after a night of drinking, but studies have shown that people sleep less and get lower-quality rest after consuming alcohol. In general, it "inhibits healthy sleep patterns and leaves you feeling exhausted and drained of energy," Dr. Vermani explains. Lack of sleep has an impact on your mood and emotional health, studies show, and by extension, may worsen anxiety symptoms.
Hangover Anxiety Symptoms
What symptoms can you expect from hangxiety, and what does it feel like when it happens? The experience can be different for everyone and can range from general angst to feelings of panic. There are physical signs to watch out for, too.
Symptoms of hangover anxiety can include:
- Racing heart
- Racing thoughts
- Numbness in your extremities
- Dissociative feelings, including feeling disconnected from your environment or yourself
- Throat tightness
- Feelings of worry, depression, agitation, or irritation
While many symptoms of hangover anxiety can be managed at home (more on that below), reach out to a mental health professional if you're regularly experiencing intense anxiety symptoms that disrupt your daily life.
How to Treat Hangover Anxiety
Hangxiety is rough, but "given time and rest, good self-care, and hangover symptom management, you will begin to feel normal," Dr. Vermani says. The recovery time from hangover anxiety varies among people and levels of alcohol consumption, she notes, but many of the techniques we use for managing general anxiety can be helpful.
Meditation and deep breathing practices are a good place to start, Dr. Vermani says. For acute moments of hangover anxiety (think: thoughts spiraling, hands shaking, feeling out of control), Dr. Marks recommends trying a sensory grounding exercise to "calm yourself or feel oriented to the present moment." This involves naming five things you see, four things you hear, three things you feel, two things you smell, and one thing you can taste or one good thing about yourself. Another exercise to try: picking a color and naming all the objects in the room with that color.
Addressing other symptoms of your hangover may also be helpful. Eat a filling meal or snack, drink lots of water, and take medicine if you have a headache or nausea. Feeling better physically might help you improve mentally, and once you're back on your feet, you can also try some light exercise, like a walk or yoga practice. Some gentle movement can help to break you out of an anxiety spiral by grounding you in your body.
How to Prevent Hangover Anxiety
When it comes to preventing hangover anxiety, unfortunately, there aren't many shortcuts. "Self-moderation [of alcohol] is key," Dr. Vermani says. She and Dr. Marks both recommend staying hydrated during and after drinking, which can lessen the overall intensity of a hangover and, by extension, the symptoms of anxiety afterward. Try drinking a glass of water between alcoholic drinks, Dr. Vermani suggests, or have one drink and then switch to mocktails for the rest of the night. "You will feel the initial relaxing effects of alcohol," she says, but without the next-day effects.
It's also a good idea to be mindful about drinking in general. "The short- and long-term negative impacts of over-consumption of alcohol are quite severe," Dr. Vermani points out, noting that alcohol is a "toxic carcinogen, and highly detrimental to our health," both physical and mental. If you frequently deal with hangxiety after drinking, consider cutting back or seeing if symptoms improve when you pass on that last drink or stay away from shots. You can also talk to a mental health professional, who can give you personalized tips and techniques to manage your anxiety. And if you're finding it difficult to cut back on alcohol, consider reaching out to a doctor, loved ones, or a mental health professional to get help.