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Alcohol and Health

What Is “Hangxiety”? Unraveling the Science Behind Anxiety During a Hangover

June 2, 2023
11 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
June 2, 2023
11 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
June 2, 2023
11 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
June 2, 2023
11 min read
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Reframe Content Team
June 2, 2023
11 min read

We've all been there — after a great night of celebrating with friends and indulging in a few (or maybe more) alcoholic beverages, we wake up with not only a splitting headache but also a heavy sense of anxiety. As if the hangover wasn't bad enough, now we are left grappling with fear, worry, and possibly even guilt about our actions the night before.

This peculiar combination of anxiety and hangover has been dubbed "hangxiety." For anyone experiencing this phenomenon, it can be incredibly uncomfortable and unnerving. But what is the science behind hangxiety, and how does alcohol cause both hangovers and anxiety?

The Science of Hangovers

To understand hangxiety, we first need to delve into the science of hangovers. When we consume alcohol, our bodies break it down primarily in the liver, creating a byproduct called acetaldehyde. Although acetaldehyde is highly toxic, it is subsequently broken down into a less harmful substance called acetate, which is eventually eliminated from the body. However, this detoxification process takes time, and our livers can only metabolize about one drink per hour.

When we drink more than our liver can handle, acetaldehyde builds up in our system — and this excess acetaldehyde can lead to hangover symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, headache, and general discomfort. Additionally, alcohol is a diuretic and causes dehydration, which can exacerbate the unpleasant symptoms of a hangover.

The Science of Anxiety

Anxiety is a normal emotional response to stress, and it helps people react to potentially threatening situations. However, excessive or chronic anxiety can interfere with our everyday lives and well-being. Anxiety is regulated by various neurotransmitter systems in the brain, including the serotonin, dopamine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) systems. These neurotransmitters are essential for maintaining mood balance and regulating feelings of fear and anxiety.

How Does Alcohol Contribute to Anxiety?

Alcohol can temporarily reduce anxiety through its sedative and relaxing effects. It does this by influencing the neurotransmitter systems involved in anxiety regulation, specifically by increasing the activity of GABA, a neurotransmitter that reduces the excitability of neurons. This short-term soothing effect is what makes alcohol so attractive for those who are looking to relax and take the edge off their social anxiety or stress.

However, alcohol also has a more sinister side when it comes to anxiety — it can actually provide short-term relief but make anxiety far worse in the long run. For instance, studies have found that alcohol consumption can interfere with the normal functioning of the serotonin and dopamine systems, leading to imbalances that contribute to anxiety. Moreover, alcohol disrupts sleep patterns, reduces the quality of sleep, and can worsen anxious feelings the following day.

Hangxiety: The Perfect Storm of Hangovers and Anxiety

Hangxiety occurs when the after-effects of alcohol consumption (hangover symptoms) and an individual's pre-existing anxiety collide. There are several ways that alcohol may contribute to hangxiety:

1. Rebound anxiety. As the alcohol wears off, the calming and sedative effects of alcohol dissipate, causing our bodies to experience a "rebound" anxiety effect. This is especially true for individuals with pre-existing anxiety or those who regularly use alcohol to self-medicate. In such cases, the brain compensates for alcohol's suppression of the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate by increasing its activity, leading to heightened anxiety levels during the hangover.

2. Dehydration. Alcohol's diuretic effects lead to dehydration, which can contribute not only to hangover symptoms but also to feelings of anxiety. Dehydration can cause symptoms such as dizziness, confusion, and increased heart rate, all of which may be misinterpreted as signs of anxiety.

3. Low blood sugar. Alcohol can interfere with the liver's ability to release stored glucose, leading to a drop in blood sugar levels. This can cause symptoms such as weakness, nervousness, and irritability, which may exacerbate anxiety.

4. Alcohol withdrawal. Regular or heavy alcohol users are more likely to experience anxiety during hangovers because their bodies may be going through withdrawal. As the brain adapts to the regular presence of alcohol, it becomes more sensitive to its absence, leading to symptoms such as anxiety, irritability, and tremors during hangovers.

5. Guilt and shame. Alcohol can impair our judgment and decision-making abilities, leading to potentially regrettable decisions during a night of drinking. Waking up with a hangover and remembering (or not remembering) the events of the previous night can cause feelings of guilt, shame, and anxiety, thus feeding into hangxiety.

6. Sensitivity to stimuli. Hangovers can make individuals more sensitive to environmental stimuli, such as bright lights or loud sounds. Being in a heightened state of discomfort and sensitivity can increase anxiety, particularly in social situations.

Managing and Preventing Hangxiety

While there is no surefire way to completely avoid hangxiety, there are some things you can do to manage it and reduce the likelihood of experiencing this unpleasant combination of hangover and anxiety:

1. Moderate drinking. Limiting alcohol intake and drinking at a slower pace can help ensure that your liver can keep up with alcohol metabolism, reducing the buildup of toxic acetaldehyde and minimizing hangover symptoms. Additionally, consuming alcohol in moderation can prevent the rebound anxiety effect and help maintain the preferred balance of brain neurotransmitters.

2. Hydration. Staying hydrated during and after drinking can help counteract the dehydrating effects of alcohol and thus alleviate some hangover symptoms and feelings of anxiety. Be sure to drink water throughout the night and the following day.

3. Healthy diet. Consuming a balanced diet that is rich in vitamins and minerals can help to support liver function, promote overall well-being, and improve mood stability. Eating before drinking can also help to slow the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream, reducing the likelihood of a severe hangover.

4. Good sleep habits. Prioritizing quality sleep can help alleviate some of the negative impacts of alcohol on sleep patterns and reduce overall feelings of anxiety during a hangover. Establish a consistent sleep schedule and create a relaxing bedtime routine to promote healthy, restorative sleep.

5. Dealing with guilt and shame. If feelings of guilt, shame, or embarrassment are contributing to hangxiety, consider addressing these emotions through open communication with friends, self-compassion exercises, or seeking professional help from a therapist or counselor.

6. Alternative stress management strategies. If you find yourself using alcohol as a means of managing stress or anxiety, consider incorporating alternative stress management techniques such as mindfulness, meditation, exercise, or deep breathing exercises into your daily routine.

Key Takeaways

Hangxiety is an unpleasant and increasingly common phenomenon experienced by many people after a night of drinking. Although the precise mechanisms behind this combination of hangover and anxiety are complex, understanding the science behind both hangovers and anxiety provides insight into how alcohol affects the body and mind. By being aware of the potential negative impacts of alcohol on anxiety and taking steps to manage and prevent hangxiety, you can make more informed choices about your alcohol consumption and prioritize your mental and physical well-being.

How Can Reframe Help Your Hangxiety?

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol. 

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app today!

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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