As Covid restrictions ease and my fully vaccinated self can finally sit at a bar again, I am celebrating the only way I know how to celebrate anything: by regularly getting obliterated. But one aspect of post-pandemic life I did not anticipate having to get reacquainted with is my crippling hangxiety.
You know when you wake up the morning after a long night of heavy drinking with an inescapable sense of dread, agonizing over all the dumb, embarrassing things your drunk self may have said or done in front of your peers. Honestly, it doesn’t even have to be binge-drinking-levels of crazy to induce an anxiety hangover; simply dwelling on how your inebriated self (tipsy, blackout or anywhere in between) may have acted the night before often ends in you burying your pounding little head in your bed covers and vowing to never have a sip of booze again.
If it makes you feel any better, it seems like almost every person who consumes alcohol has experienced this feeling. There’s even a #hangxiety hashtag with 12.3 million views on TikTok populated with videos from users discussing feelings of anxiety and agony after a night of drinking.
While “hangxiety” is not an official medical term, there is a biological reason we might have feelings of anxiety, dread, fear, regret and guilt in our hangover state. Alcohol affects several systems, including neurotransmitters like serotonin and endorphins and primarily impacts the GABA pathway, which includes motor control, memory and anxiety, explains Hannah Tishman, a licensed Clinical Social Worker at New York’s Cobb Psychotherapy. “When you stop drinking for the night, your brain has been trying to adapt to the alcohol’s sedative effects and this often leads to irritability, jitters, and anxiety,” she tells InsideHook.
“Alcohol, like most substances, releases dopamine in our brain in heavy doses. We can’t release it without consequences, though, which leads to a dopamine rebound effect that happens after alcohol is leaving the system,” adds Dr. Jenna DiLossi, a Licensed Psychologist and Co-Founder of Center for Hope and Health. The brain’s attempt to balance itself chemically after drinking is a major factor in hangxiety, says Aniko Dunn, a Doctor of Psychology at EZCare Medical Clinic.
Then there is, of course, the behavioral factor.
“Alcohol lowers our inhibitions. When you’re drunk, your prefrontal cortex operates less optimally. This is why people often feel more emboldened to say or do things that they wouldn’t normally do in a sober state,” says DiLossi. “This is also similar to why people with social anxiety disorder report feeling more comfortable socializing when under the influence. You are more likely to do things that are out of character — sending a drunk text, hooking up with your ex, revealing something at happy hour, etc. that can cause anxiety and shame the next day.”
American researcher, professor and author Brené Brown refers to this anxious morning-after sensation as a “vulnerability hangover,” which happens after we feel emotionally exposed around others, explains Hailey Shafir, a licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor and licensed Clinical Addiction Specialist. “When experiencing this, many people tend to rewind the ‘blooper reel’ of awkward moments in their mind, making them feel even more embarrassed or ashamed,” says Shafir.
So, as DiLossi notes, it’s a perfect storm of a dopamine rebound with reflections on atypical behavior that can trigger hangxiety.
So what can we do about it? A lot, actually.
First, tell yourself hangxiety is completely normal and partly out of your control.
“Recognize and acknowledge that this is typical and partly biological. There’s power in calling that out and moving forward! This is part of the decision to drink alcohol, and it will pass,” says DiLossi.
Also, most likely no one even remembers what you did or said.
“Remind yourself that most of the time, other people were also drinking and thus not as aware of your actions as you think they may have been. Everyone’s inhibitions were lowered, and they may share your spotty memory. What you think you said or did that was so awful may not actually be how they perceived it or remember it,” she adds.
It’s still important, though, to know your limits and how not to cross them. If you are worried about how you behaved the night before, ask someone. “If you have a friend who was there and who you trust, check in with them and trust their perception of the night before. Your memory is riddled with shame and guilt, which will influence your memory, whereas your friend’s report is going to be more neutral and fact-based and authentic.”
Stop pressing play on the blooper reel
It’s easy to get caught up in replaying every little thing you said or did the night before … but you gotta stop. “We can do this by practicing mindfulness, which means focusing our full attention on something in the present moment. Our breath, a task … or by using one or more of our five senses to become more aware of our surroundings. This simple practice helps to interrupt the negative thoughts feeding into the shame and anxiety, making it much easier to manage,” says Shafir.
Practice “reframing” the night’s events.
Shafir also explains that we can use Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to put the encounter into perspective, which is called “reframing.”
“Practice reframing by changing a thought like, ‘I made a fool of myself last night’ into ‘well, I was a little awkward but everyone is sometimes’ or, ‘in the big picture, this one interaction isn’t all that important.’ This helps us to ‘scale’ the interaction in a way that reminds us that it isn’t as big of a deal as we’ve made it in our mind.”
Limit your alcohol consumption.
The obvious solution to your hangxiety is to stop drinking. But if you don’t want to completely cut out alcohol altogether, reducing your alcohol intake is the best option, says Dunn.
You can also practice balanced drinking. “Rather than binge drinking, try drinking water between each drink, says Ray Sadoun, a London-based mental health and addiction recovery specialist.
“Another tip is to make sure you do not have anything on your to-do list the day after a night out. If you have added stressors such as work and family commitments, your anxiety will be worse. Finally, consider making changes to your social life. Rather than drinking every weekend, you could go to the movies, find a new hobby or enjoy a cozy night in. You do not have to forbid yourself from drinking, but reducing your consumption is likely to improve your anxiety.”
Know when to seek professional help.
It’s important to note that just because you’re dealing with anxiety after drinking, it doesn’t mean you have an anxiety disorder or an alcohol problem, says Dunn, but if you do notice your hangxiety affecting other aspects of your life, it’s best to seek professional help.
“It is recommended if you continue to experience feelings of anxiety or other symptoms, even if you have had a few drinks, it could be a sign of a serious or bigger problem. Precisely, if your hangxiety persists or if it interferes with your ability to work in important areas of your life — such as your job or relationships — it may be time to seek professional help from a therapist, psychologist or other mental health professional,” explains Dunn.
Lastly, get out of bed, grab a breakfast sandwich and get on with your day!
“It’s usually not the best idea to drink more alcohol; you’ll just prolong the shame and anxiety and dopamine rebound. Drink water, get outside, do things that help you care for your mental health. This will help you get back to ‘normal’ quickly!”