The weird times we’re living in have caused some of us to lean on the bottle a little more than we normally would. If you’re occasionally having one too many, you may know that ominous feeling — your heart rate rising, the mental fog clearing as you start to remember the things you said and did, and then an overwhelming sense of shame and fear.
Symptoms of a hangover anxiety
“It's definitely a thing,” said Dr. Timothy Fong, a clinical professor of psychiatry and the director of the UCLA Addiction Psychiatry Fellowship. “It’s not really formally studied, but it's enough of a thing where you know people talk about it.”
Fong described hangxiety as disruptive anxiety that’s experienced after a night of excessive alcohol use, combined with some other, more typically physical symptoms of being hungover. “You just really have this rebound feeling that you just dread,” he said.
What causes hangxiety?
Dr. Nasir H. Naqvi, the program director of Fellowship in Addiction Psychiatry and an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, told TODAY that hangxiety can cause problems because it presents with some of the same bad feelings as alcohol withdrawal — a shock to the system commonly experienced by those dependent on alcohol when they suddenly stop drinking. “The anxiety triggered during a hangover mixes with the toxic body state induced by a night of heavy drinking, as well as the behavioral context that often follows heavy-drinking hangovers,” Naqvi explained.
“There's literally 10, 15 or 20 different theories about how drinking and anxiety are linked. People oftentimes forget that alcohol is a really powerful substance,” said Fong. “It affects a lot of neurochemicals and a lot of hormones in our bodies. Four or five drinks are enough to release various neurochemicals like dopamine, serotonin, adrenaline and cortisol, all of which explain alcohol's effects. When you have that happy, connected, floating feeling, that’s associated with different levels of dopamine. When you have a feeling of less anxiety, and calmness, and you’re emboldened, that’s oftentimes tied to serotonin.
Just drinking alcohol releases neurochemicals that our bodies make constantly. It’s like a gas tank where, in a short stretch of time, you keep asking your body to squeeze out more and more of certain chemicals, and they’re going to empty out. When they empty out, they take some time to refill. The next day (after drinking) your neurochemicals are usually altered or diminished — this is our best estimate of biochemically and neurochemically what’s happening.”
Fong also said, if you are even just mildly depressed or you have a little social anxiety and use alcohol to cover up that anxiety, more intense feelings of anxiety can come back in what he calls a “rebound effect” when the alcohol wears off.
When is hangxiety a problem?
Because our bodies have chemicals that react differently to different experiences on different days, it’s likely that hangxiety can happen to anyone who overdoes it, said Fong. But if your hangxiety doesn’t resolve after a day, and continues onto day two or three, that might be cause for concern. “It’s an issue when it interferes with your daily behavior,” he said. “I’d also be really concerned if the hangxiety prevents you from doing something you plan to do that day. If you have it on a Saturday, nothing is going on and you're just going to hang out until it wears off, that's not really a problem. But if you develop hangxiety on Monday and you're supposed to report or log on to work and be present all day and you can't, then it becomes a little more of a problem.”
How can you beat back hangxiety if you feel it coming on?
Here are three tips that can help you manage hangxiety — and hopefully make you feel better too.
1. Eat, drink and shower
Fong says drinking two to three glasses of water (if you can) can help to rehydrate you. If you can hold it down, eat a really small, light meal — just something to get in your stomach — and take a long shower to help get your blood flowing.
2. Clear your schedule — if you can
Do whatever you can to relieve yourself of high stakes activities for the day, suggested Fong. “If you have something that isn’t critical but takes up energy and calories, try to push that to later. But if you have something you absolutely have to go to, it’s better to do that sooner rather than later,” he said. “So many people plow through the day as a punishment for drinking, and that’s the mindset that makes people more anxious. If you aren’t well, you aren’t going to do your job well, and worse, you’re going to make yourself more anxious about meeting your obligations.”
3. Take stock of your drinking habits
Navqi emphasized that if drinking to the point of hangxiety isn’t enough to slow you down, you might want to take a hard look at how much you’re drinking. “Regularly treating one’s hangovers is a sign of a drinking problem, not a solution,” he said, adding that you can chalk up an instance of hangxiety to a lesson learned. “It is better for your health to fully experience hangxiety so that it’s more likely to deter you from future heavy drinking.”
If you think you’ve been drinking too much and would like some help slowing down, Navqi recommended seeking information from RethinkingDrinking, a website from the National Institutes of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.