Experts theorize that hangxiety is related to using alcohol to overcome social anxiety. While alcohol can help make you feel more relaxed, it can also have less-than-positive effects on your mental and physical health.
Enjoying a few drinks with friends during a night out or at a party can make for a fun evening. But the hangover you get the next day? That’s a lot less fun.
You’re probably familiar with the usual physical symptoms of a hangover — the pounding headache, the nausea, the need to wear sunglasses at the first hint of daylight.
But hangovers can have psychological symptoms too, especially feelings of anxiety. This phenomenon has been so widely reported that it even has its own name: hangxiety.
The whole concept of hangover-related anxiety is fairly new, and experts haven’t identified a single cause. But they have a few theories.
“Many people use alcohol as a social lubricant,” says Cyndi Turner, LSATP, MAC, LCSW.
If you live with anxiety, particularly social anxiety, you may find that a drink or two helps you relax and cope with nervous or anxious feelings before (or during) a social event.
“About two drinks, or a blood alcohol concentration of 0.055, tends to increase feelings of relaxation and reduce shyness,” Cyndi goes on to say.
But as the effects of alcohol begin to wear off, anxiety tends to return. Physical hangover symptoms can add to anxiety and make you feel even worse.
Whether you have one drink or five, your body eventually has to process the alcohol out of your system. This detoxification period, which can be considered a mild form of withdrawal, can take several hours.
During this time, you might feel restless, anxious, nervous, or jittery, just as you might if you were dealing with more severe alcohol withdrawal.
A type of emotional withdrawal can also occur, according to Turner.
She explains that when endorphins, your body’s natural painkillers and feel-good hormones, are released in response to traumatic events, their levels naturally decrease over a period of several days.
Drinking alcohol also triggers the release of endorphins and an eventual comedown.
So at first, drinking alcohol may seem to help numb any physical or emotional pain you’re feeling. But it won’t make it go away.
The combination of decreasing endorphins and the realization that your worries are still there is a recipe for feeling physically and emotionally unwell.
Wondering why that bathroom line at the bar is so long? Here’s one reason: drinking tends to make people urinate more than usual. Plus, despite your best efforts, you probably don’t drink as much water as you should when you’re drinking.
The combination of these two factors can lead to dehydration.
Folic acid deficiency
Alcohol can also cause your folic acid levels to dip, which could explain why you don’t quite feel like yourself the next day.
People are also more likely to indulge in foods that might also trigger anxious feelings.
Some medications also carry a risk of other side effects, including memory impairment or serious physical health concerns like ulcers or organ damage.
If you’re taking any medications, check the label to make sure it’s safe to drink alcohol while you’re taking them. The same goes for any vitamins, herbal supplements, and other over-the-counter medications.
Regret or worry
Alcohol helps lower your inhibitions, making you feel more relaxed and comfortable after a few drinks.
“But more than three drinks can begin to impair balance, speech, thinking, reasoning, and judgment,” Turner says.
That impact on your judgement and reasoning can make you say or do things you usually wouldn’t. When you remember (or try to remember) what happened the next day, you might feel embarrassment or a sting of regret.
And if you’re not totally sure what you did, you might feel nervous as you wait for your friends to tell you what happened.
- rapid heartbeat or pounding heart
- head pain
Other symptoms include sleepiness or excitability and warm, flushed skin, especially on your face and neck. It’s also possible to experience mood-related symptoms, including feelings of anxiety.
Alcohol use can affect your sleep, even if you don’t drink much. Even if you’ve gotten plenty of sleep, it probably wasn’t of the best quality, which can leave you feeling a bit off.
If you live with anxiety, you’re probably familiar with this cycle that happens with or without alcohol: Your anxiety symptoms get worse when you don’t sleep enough, but those same symptoms make it hard to get a good night’s sleep.
Why do some people wake up after drinking feeling relaxed and ready for brunch, while others stay wrapped in a blanket, feeling the weight of the world? New research suggests highly shy people may have a higher risk of experiencing anxiety with a hangover.
A 2019 study looked at 97 people with varying levels of shyness who drank socially. Researchers asked 50 of the participants to drink as they usually would, and the other 47 participants to stay sober.
Researchers then measured levels of anxiety before, during, and after the drinking or sober periods. Those who drank alcohol saw some decrease in anxiety symptoms when drinking. But those who were highly shy tended to have higher levels of anxiety the next day.
Alcohol is also known to make anxiety worse, so you may be more prone to hangxiety if you already have anxiety to begin with.
If this isn’t your first time at the anxiety rodeo, you probably already have a toolbox of coping methods. But you probably don’t feel up to taking a walk, doing yoga, or journaling about your feelings if you’ve got a pounding headache or the room spins when you move.
Manage physical symptoms
The mind-body connection likely plays a big role in hangxiety. Feeling physically well won’t completely resolve anxiety, but it can make you better equipped to tackle racing thoughts and worries.
Get your body right
Start by taking care of your basic physical needs:
- Rehydrate. Drink plenty of water throughout the day.
- Eat a light meal of mild foods. If you’re dealing with nausea, things like broth, soda crackers, bananas, or dry toast can all help settle your stomach. Aim for whatever whole, nutritional foods you feel like eating, and avoid greasy or processed foods. You can also try these hangover foods.
- Try to get some sleep. If you have a hard time sleeping, try taking a shower, putting on some relaxing music, or diffusing some essential oil for aromatherapy. Make your sleeping environment comfortable so you can relax, even if you aren’t able to actually sleep.
- Try over-the-counter pain relief. If you have a bad headache or muscle aches, ibuprofen or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can help ease pain. Just make sure not to take more than the recommended dose. Combining alcohol with NSAIDs could lead to stomach bleeding, so you may want to start with a smaller dose and see if it helps before taking more.
Take a deep breath — and then another
Deep, slow breathing can help you relax and slow a racing or pounding heart.
Breathe in while counting to four, then breathe out while counting to four again. Do this for a few minutes, until you notice your heartbeat slowing down. You can also try the 4-7-8 breathing technique.
Try mindfulness meditation
You can meditate while sitting or even lying in bed, if you don’t feel up to being upright. It can help to start with some deep breathing, so lie or sit back, close your eyes, and focus on your thoughts and how you feel, physically and emotionally.
Don’t try to judge your thoughts, avoid them, or unpack them. Simply notice them as they come up into your awareness.
Put the night into perspective
Often, a big part of hangxiety is worrying about what you might have said or done while drinking. But remember, what’s true for you is likely true for everyone else.
In other words, you probably weren’t the only one who said or did something you regret. It’s also possible no one noticed what you said or did (or already forgot about it).
Fixating on what happened can make your feelings worse. If you were with a close friend, you might feel reassured by talking to them. But for the moment, it might help to take a few minutes and examine your thoughts.
What are you most worried about? Why? Sometimes, talking yourself through what you’re afraid of and challenging that fear can help you manage it.
A bad hangover, even without hangxiety, can make you never want to drink again. That’s one way to avoid future bouts of hangxiety, but there are other things you can do to reduce your risk of experiencing alcohol’s less desirable effects.
The next time you drink:
- Avoid drinking on an empty stomach. Have a snack or light meal before you intend to drink. If that doesn’t fill you up, consider also having a small snack while drinking. Feel a pang of hunger before going to bed? Try to get in another small snack.
- Match alcohol with water. For every drink you have, follow up with a glass of water.
- Don’t drink too quickly. Stick to one alcoholic beverage per hour. Have a tendency to gulp drinks down? Try having a simple drink on the rocks that’s better suited for sipping.
- Set a limit. When you’re in the moment and having fun, you might feel totally fine to keep drinking. But those drinks will eventually catch up to you. Consider setting a limit for yourself before going out. To help you stick to it, consider partnering up with a friend so you can hold each other accountable.
Get curious about your drinking habits
If you often feel anxious after drinking, it may be worth giving your drinking behaviors some closer examination.
Anxiety can happen for a lot of reasons, but one possible cause could relate to alcohol use itself. To put it another way, you might have some awareness, whether it’s conscious or not, of alcohol’s less-than-positive effects on your mental health.
Maybe you realize you’ve started drinking a bit more to feel the same buzz. Or you’re turning to alcohol to ease tension and unwind most days, rather than once in a while. If you drink before you drive or start work, you might also feel anxious about someone noticing your alcohol use.
Over time, these habits may not only worsen anxiety after drinking. They might also create some major challenges, both for your health and in your daily life.
“If alcohol use causes a problem, it is a problem,” Turner emphasizes.
Working with a trained therapist or recovery professional can help you start some deeper analysis of any drinking behaviors you’d like to change, plus begin to identify any underlying concerns that might play a part in your anxiety.
Drinking alcohol isn’t inherently bad or problematic. There’s nothing wrong with occasionally letting loose or even having a hangover from time to time.
That said, moderation doesn’t come easily to everyone. If you find yourself frequently drinking more than you planned (and experiencing anxiety afterward), it might be time to take a step back and reevaluate things.
In her practice, Turner teaches alcohol moderation, a strategy that could help you avoid some of the negative effects of alcohol.
Moderation allows people to enjoy the pleasurable effects of alcohol before physical impairment occurs, Turner explains.
According to the most recent guidelines from the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drinking in moderation means:
- for women, having no more than 1 drink a day
- for men, having no more than 2 drinks a day
She also suggests that alcohol moderation works best when you:
- know why you use alcohol
- develop alternative methods of coping with difficult situations
- keep your alcohol use at safe levels
Keep in mind that this approach doesn’t work for everyone.
Alcohol use disorder
Alcohol use disorder can be hard to manage with moderation alone. If moderation doesn’t work for you, consider reaching out for additional help. You may be dealing with alcohol use disorder (AUD).
- not being able to stop drinking, even when you try
- having frequent or severe cravings for alcohol
- needing more alcohol to feel the same effects
- using alcohol in unsafe or irresponsible ways (while driving, watching children, or at work or school)
- having trouble at school or work due to alcohol use
- having relationship problems due to alcohol use
- cutting back on your usual hobbies and spending more time drinking
It’s easy to fall into a cycle of drinking to reduce anxiety symptoms, only to have them return tenfold the next morning. In response, you might drink more to deal with the anxiety.
It’s a hard cycle to break on your own, but a therapist can help you work through it.
“In session, I have clients think about an anxiety-provoking situation where they might use alcohol,” Turner explains. “Then we break the situation down, step-by-step, and prepare a different way to handle it.”
Not quite ready to take that step? Both of these hotlines offer 24-hour free, confidential support:
- American Addiction Centers hotline: 888-969-0517
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration hotline: 800-662-HELP (4357)
Like other hangover symptoms, hangxiety may be nothing more than a passing discomfort. Sometimes, though, it suggests something more serious.
If your anxiety persists, or if you feel you need to drink more alcohol to cope with it, consider talking with a therapist or other healthcare professional.
Otherwise, set some boundaries for yourself and make sure to prioritize food, water, and sleep the next time you drink.