By: Gina Henschen, LPCC
With the holidays behind us, you may be making plans to start fresh in the New Year. Maybe you had one too many nights of indulgence last month and you’re trying out “dry January,” or perhaps you’re rethinking the role alcohol plays in your life for other reasons.
While an occasional alcoholic beverage here and there isn’t cause for concern, excessive alcohol consumption can lead to various undesirable consequences, including hangxiety.
While most people are familiar with the physical side effects of a hangover—nausea, headaches, fatigue, etc.—the mental and emotional consequences of hangovers are seldom discussed. Enter “hangxiety,” a cheeky term for the anxiety you may feel after a night of excessive drinking.
What is Hangxiety & Why Does it Happen?
“Hangxiety,” short for “hangover anxiety,” is a new term for an age-old phenomenon: anxiety experienced after a night of heavy drinking. Hangxiety typically consists of traditional anxiety symptoms like racing thoughts, shortness of breath, sweating, and a general feeling of nervousness or dread.
Some people who experience hangxiety may feel anxious about whatever they said or did the night before when they were under the influence. But even if you remember the entire night and know that you didn’t do anything embarrassing, you may still experience that uncomfortable feeling of anxiety for no apparent reason. Rest assured, there is a scientific explanation for this seemingly illogical phenomenon, and a neurotransmitter called GABA is at play.
GABA, which is short for gamma-aminobutyric acid, is a naturally occurring neurotransmitter that assists in nervous system regulation. When we have GABA in our system, we may feel calm and relaxed during times of stress. Drinking alcohol may initially stimulate GABA production, causing us to experience lowered inhibitions and feelings of relaxation.
However, having many drinks over time eventually reduces the production of GABA as our nervous system attempts to gain equilibrium. When the booze wears off, we’re left with a system that’s depleted of GABA, causing us to feel that uncomfortable feeling of hangxiety the next day.
Hangxiety Cure: How to Get Rid of Hangxiety
A hangover is essentially a miniature form of alcohol withdrawal. After a night of heavy drinking, you may be tempted to reach for a “hair of the dog” to alleviate your hangover symptoms, including hangxiety. However, if you’re always coping with alcohol withdrawal by drinking MORE alcohol, you can see how this can quickly become a vicious cycle. Seek support from a professional counselor if you feel like your drinking has gotten out of hand.
To get rid of hangxiety (among other hangover side effects), you can try:
Engaging in deep breathing
Listening to a guided meditation
Watching a lighthearted TV show or movie
Replenishing your system with water and nutrient
Getting some fresh air
Of course, the best way to avoid hangxiety is to limit your alcohol consumption in the first place. If you do plan to imbibe, make sure to eat a solid meal in advance and drink plenty of water before, during, and after the festivities.
Does Alcohol Make Anxiety Worse?
Many of us have heard that alcohol can help “take the edge off” during a stressful situation or serve as a “social lubricant” during parties and gatherings. However, these effects are short-term, and alcohol can actually exacerbate anxiety in the long run.
If you have an underlying anxiety disorder, you may want to reconsider drinking during the winter season. Try an alcohol-free “mocktail” or opt for a non-alcoholic drink like tea or hot chocolate instead. Winter can be challenging enough, so don’t let alcohol worsen your anxiety!