It’s 9.30am on a Sunday morning when you wake up suddenly in a cold sweat, unable to get back to sleep for your much needed lie-in.
You went out the night before to celebrate it being payday, or because it was a friend’s birthday, or just to catch up with your workmates – whatever the reason, it doesn’t matter.
The niggling thoughts in the back of your mind remain the same: ‘Did I embarrass myself last night?’ ‘Did I say something stupid?’ ‘What if I fell out with everyone?’ ‘Oh God, I bet everyone hates me.’
In fact, you have such a fear of the ‘what if’s’ that you don’t feel as though you can face reality just yet – even though there’s no way you’re getting back to sleep with everything going on in your head.
So you just lie there, staring up at the ceiling and panicking until you eventually pluck up the courage to pick up your phone and message your WhatsApp group to face the music.
Typing out ‘Was I a complete embarrassment last night?!’, you wait for your fears to be confirmed – only to receive multiple messages asking what you’re talking about and confirming everyone had a great time.
To some of you, all of that might seem a bit excessive; it’s only a night out, what’s the big deal? But for others, that’s the reality faced each morning after a heavy (or light) night of drinking.
Hangover anxiety – or ‘hangxiety’, as it’s been coined – is a legitimate phenomenon which directly impacts some people’s moods and goes hand in hand with physical hangover symptoms, such as headaches and nausea.
As per Drinkaware, hangxiety occurs when the sedative effects of the alcohol wear off as your body processes it. ‘You can begin to experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms similar to feelings people who are dependent on alcohol may have,’ according to the website.
These symptoms can be psychological such as feeling depressed or anxious, with many people feeling the effects of this the morning after drinking alcohol because they are withdrawing from its effects.
UNILAD spoke to one woman whose hangover anxiety got so bad she had to end her seven-year career in the music industry, which required her to stay out socialising (often drinking) until the early hours of the morning.
The 26-year-old, from central London, started noticing the impact hangovers were having on her health around three years ago, when she ‘started getting more responsibilities’.
With symptoms such as fatigue, lethargy, and an overwhelming sense of guilt, the woman said hangovers would cause her to ‘panic’ about things she normally wouldn’t.
The woman, who now does PR for small fitness brands, explained:
A lot of people say that the anxiety you feel the morning after drinking is purely caused by feelings of regret about embarrassing things you might have done when drunk or don’t remember.
This isn’t the case for me.
She went on to say how she can get the feeling after a simple dinner and drinks, on nights when she can ‘completely remember’ nothing eventful happened. ‘Just a few extra glasses of wine a bit too late will push me over the edge,’ the 26-year-old explained.
Describing the feeling as ‘a comedown without the drugs’, the woman said her anxiousness usually lasts for two days – or three if she goes out clubbing.
Having also been diagnosed with panic disorder, the woman explained how hangovers ‘100 per cent’ make her condition worse. ‘My panic often centres around health so you can see how feeling like you’ve inflicted feeling like crap on yourself can trigger thoughts about death.’
She has since given up drinking to the point of hangover – after a doctor advised her to – and says she has now found a ‘happy medium’ where she can have a couple of drinks and then stop. This woman isn’t the only person to have given up drinking because of hangover anxiety; 28-year-old Millie Gooch did exactly the same thing.
The founder of Sober Girl Society, Millie, from London, started the page when she was seven months alcohol-free with the hope of creating something for ‘the millennial Brit party girl who still wanted to do all the same things (dancing, dating etc…) but just wanted to take alcohol out of the equation’.
Millie made the decision to go alcohol-free last year when she realised the only thing that would pick her up from feeling ‘miserable, unproductive, demotivated, stressed and anxious’ was going out at the weekend and getting drunk.
She told UNILAD:
I felt 100 times worse in the morning and hangover anxiety had a lot to do with that. I realised I was getting myself in to a cycle of feeling a bit shitty, partying to feel better, feeling even shittier and just doing it over and over again.
On a classic hangover I always suffered from ‘The Fear’, worrying what I’d said or done. I frequently experienced blackouts and fuzzy memories when I was drinking so that never helped the situation.
Hangovers always left me feeling super low and my ‘Sunday blues’ were horrific. They got worse as I got older. When I was 18 at university, I could pick myself up and dust myself off by a 9am lecture but at 26 my Sunday hangxiety started rolling into Monday and Tuesday too.
For Millie, she found that the only way to get rid of hangover anxiety was just to not drink in the first place. Since giving up alcohol, the 28-year-old says she’s had more time to work on her self: ‘reading books, getting outside, taking classes, going to the gym.’
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Hangover anxiety known as ‘hangxiety’ or ‘the fear’ is extremely common and whilst a lot of it is a direct result of blackouts and memory dips, (Did I call my boss a prick?’ ‘Did I snog my friend’s brother?’ etc.) there is also a lot of actual science-y stuff behind it. The Guardian* did a great piece on it back in January which goes in to more detail but if you can’t be bothered to read it, the main takeaway is this – David Nutt, professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College, London says, “Alcohol targets the Gaba (gamma-aminobutyric acid) receptor, which sends chemical messages through the brain and central nervous system to inhibit the activity of nerve cells. Alcohol stimulates Gaba, which is why you get relaxed and cheerful when you drink. The first two drinks lull you into a blissful Gaba-induced state of chill. When you get to the third or fourth drink, another brain-slackening effect kicks in: you start blocking glutamate, the main excitatory transmitter in the brain. More glutamate means more anxiety. Less glutamate means less anxiety. Not only does alcohol reduce the chatter in your brain by stimulating Gaba, but it further reduces your anxiety by blocking glutamate. In your blissed-out state, you will probably feel that this is all good – but you will be wrong. The body registers this new imbalance in brain chemicals and attempts to put things right. It is a little like when you eat a lot of sweets and your body goes into insulin-producing overdrive to get the blood sugar levels down to normal; as soon as the sweets have been digested, all that insulin causes your blood sugar to crash. When you are drunk, your body goes on a mission to bring Gaba levels down to normal and turn glutamate back up. When you stop drinking, therefore, you end up with unnaturally low Gaba function and a spike in glutamate – a situation that leads to anxiety.” The article goes on to mention a study which shows hangover anxiety doesn’t affect everyone in the same way which is why some of your mates might seem absolutely fine on a hangover and why sobriety is about making a decision that is best for YOU. 🧠 #sobergirlsociety *FULL ARTICLE LINK IN BIO
Behavioural psychologist Jo Hemmings – who is supporting Macmillan’s Go Sober for October fundraising challenge which last year raised £4.4 million to support people living with cancer – reinforces this, saying taking a break from alcohol ‘is the obvious answer’ in situations such as these.
Describing hangxiety as a ‘miserable combination of drinking too much the day before, coupled with feelings of stress, worry and guilt from what we actually did or said’, Hemmings stressed that drinking amplifies feelings of stress and anxiety a person might already be feeling.
Speaking to UNILAD, the behavioural psychologist explained:
As alcohol leaves the body during the night, it also depletes your levels of serotonin, the chemical that regulates our mood, so you might feel even more stressed the next day.
If you’ve had a pretty standard hangover before and then get your first proper hangxiety attack, you are much more likely to have them in the future.
Our brains ‘remember’ the additional feelings of stress, guilt and concern and our fear of experiencing hangxiety again, heightens our stress and increases the chances of it happening.
It’s also important to note that hangxiety is more prevalent in people who are prone to anxiety in the first place – especially those who use alcohol as a social lubricant to calm their nerves.
Hilda Burke, a psychotherapist from London, reinforces this, stating: ‘While alcohol may feel initially like a conversation “lubricant”, unfortunately it can seem like more of an inappropriate “laxative” for others.’
Also the author of The Phone Addiction Workbook, Burke works with many clients who ‘self medicate’ with alcohol in an attempt to silence their anxious thoughts, only to find these thoughts are exaggerated the next day with their hangover.
Burke told UNILAD:
Most of my clients who self medicate this way also feel intense shame about it – they often express a sense of frustration about why they do it to themselves knowing that the outcome will be that they feel twice as bad about themselves.
So while the act itself feels self destructive, their self judgement on that act compounds the feeling even further.
The psychotherapist said anxiety can often surface after a night of socialising in a way that ‘really punishes them’, for example: rehashing the events of the night and worrying they’ve said or done something which they feel bad about.
Particularly in a work situation, where the person has been socialising with colleagues on a night out, Burke explained people will express anxiety about who they spoke to and made an embarrassment out of themselves – even if nothing of the sort happened.
The price of relieving social anxiety can be deep shame and regret the day after when the drinker cannot remember what they said nor to whom they said it.
Of course, hangover anxiety doesn’t affect everyone in the same way, nor does it affect everyone at all. According to a study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, as per The Guardian, shy people had much higher levels of anxiety the day after drinking alcohol than those who weren’t shy.
Why? One theory is that alcohol’s seesaw effect on Gaba levels (whereby your body brings Gaba levels down when you are drunk so you end up with unnaturally low Gaba function when you stop drinking) is more pronounced in shy people, as their baseline Gaba levels may be lower to start with.
If you are someone who suffers with hangxiety though, all is not lost and there are some options available to you which might help prevent you from falling down a rabbit hole of ‘OMG what did I do last night’ the morning after drinking.
Including, but not exclusive too: slowing down your breathing to help slow your heartbeat down; staying in the present moment through meditation instead of dwelling on the past; avoiding greasy fast-food; and most importantly learning from your past experiences.
If one too many drinks pushed you slightly over the edge, set your limits and stick to them the next time you go out drinking. You don’t have to give up completely, but taking a break from alcohol for whatever amount of time is always an option.
For now though, let’s just appreciate how unfair it is that we have to deal with all of this on top of extreme nausea, headaches, and the general feeling of shitness.
If you have a story you want to tell send it to UNILAD via [email protected]
A Broadcast Journalism Masters graduate who went on to achieve an NCTJ level 3 Diploma in Journalism, Lucy has done stints at ITV, BBC Inside Out and Key 103. While working as a journalist for UNILAD, Lucy has reported on breaking news stories while also writing features about mental health, cervical screening awareness, and Little Mix (who she is unapologetically obsessed with).