After a night of drinking, many people experience the typical symptoms of a hangover— nausea, headache, fatigue, sensitivity to light and sound, dizziness, and shakiness.
But for some people, these symptoms are overshadowed by hangxiety: intense feelings of anxiety, verging on dread, that follow an episode of drinking.
If you’re struggling with anxiety or panic after a big night out, we’ll help you understand why it happens, what to do about it right now, and how to prevent it in the future.
Why do you get anxious after drinking alcohol?
In the simplest terms, you get anxiety after drinking because of the effects alcohol has on your brain’s chemical levels and neurobiological processes. Anxious feelings after drinking are often attributed to the physiological experience of alcohol withdrawal.
When alcohol reaches the brain, it stimulates GABA activity, leading to feelings of ease and relaxation— alcohol slows your brain down and body way down. Because alcohol has a depressive effect on your brain and the rest of your body, you may experience relief from anxiety after the first couple of drinks.
But when alcohol is leaving your system, GABA levels fall off precipitously, leading to a heightened and anxious state.
Plus, if you drink often and in large quantities, your brain may learn to make up for the depressive effects alcohol has on your CNS by staying on high alert.
Once the alcohol and its depressive effects wear off, your brain is left on high alert. This is another reason you may feel anxious after drinking alcohol.
On top of these factors, the common symptoms of a hangover, like dehydration, shakiness, increased heart rate, and low blood sugar, can cause feelings of restlessness and agitation.
Does alcohol cause anxiety?
Doctors often attribute anxiety after drinking to withdrawal from alcohol. If you experience mild anxiety after having a few too many, it may be attributable to a much milder version of severe withdrawal.
What’s more, many people use alcohol as a way to self-medicate mental health conditions, like social and other kinds of anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and depression.
And people with an alcohol use disorder (AUD) are 2 – 3 times more likely to suffer from anxiety. Unfortunately, using alcohol only worsens mental health issues in the long run.
What to do about hangover anxiety
So you’re feeling the effects of last night’s drinking, and you’re ready to start feeling better. Here are 7 things you can do right now to combat hangxiety.
1. Get some exercise.
Exercise can have an immediate beneficial impact on your mind and body. That’s right, physical exertion in the form of moderate or vigorous exercise can lead to lower levels of anxiety and depression. Why? Exercise reduces stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline and triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s natural stress relievers and pain reducers.
2. Drink clear liquids.
Alcohol is dehydrating, and without enough water, your cognition and mood can suffer. Make sure you stay hydrated by drinking water and other clear liquids when recovering. You can also try sports drinks with electrolytes and other nutrients to help you replenish your body’s stores.
3. Do breathing exercises.
Press pause and take a few big breaths. Close your eyes and focus on deep, full inhales and long, slow exhales. If it feels okay, put particular focus on lengthening your exhales, which trigger the body’s calming response and can have a relaxing effect on your whole system.
4. Try meditation.
Meditation, especially mindfulness, has been proven effective at reducing anxiety levels. Mindfulness is the practice of watching your thoughts arise and pass away without judgment or entanglement.
Try it now. Take a few extra big breaths, close your eyes, and notice what thoughts are going through your mind. Notice each thought and label it as just that— a thought and nothing more. Just watch it come up and then fade away without believing what it says or getting hooked by it.
5. Eat something nutritious.
You might want to nurse a hangover with greasy or fried food, but having something healthy and nourishing can help you recover faster. Eggs are a good choice, and so are nuts, spinach, avocados, and oatmeal.
6. Just do right now.
If you’re feeling panicky after drinking, you might be overwhelmed by all the things that need to get done. Instead of focusing on everything you can’t do, just focus on the present moment and what needs to happen next. If you get hijacked by overwhelm, take a deep breath and put your energy toward the next right action.
7. Get some perspective.
Anxiety often focuses on and magnifies what’s wrong. That’s why saying how you feel out loud to an understanding friend can help improve your outlook. Try zooming out and widening the lens of your awareness to put anxious feelings in perspective.
If the anxiety lasts more than a couple of days or persists despite your drinking less, it’s a good idea to talk to a medical professional about anxiety treatment.
When to get help with your drinking
While it may offer some short-term relief, alcohol is not an effective long-term strategy for anxiety, depression, trauma, or other mental health issues. In fact, it can worsen all of these conditions.
No matter how much alcohol you consume, if your drinking feels out of control, worries you, or worries those close to you, that’s a good enough reason to seek help.
No matter what your circumstances, it’s never too late— or too early— to reach out for assistance. There are many different ways to get support for your drinking, which means there’s probably at least one that’ll work for you. Learn more about alcohol treatment options.
- Drinking alcohol interferes with the chemical balances in your brain.
- Anxiety is a side effect of the withdrawal from alcohol.
- You can reduce hangxiety with exercise, hydration, breathwork, and mindfulness.
- You can also prevent it in the future by limiting your alcohol intake, staying hydrated, having enough to eat, and getting plenty of rest.