Here’s why you feel anxious after drinking

The morning after a night of drinking can bring a lot of unpleasant experiences. There’s the pounding headaches, nausea, the dehydration, and the charmingly named “DADS,” aka day-after-drinking shits. However, for some, there’s also the overwhelming onset of anxiety—also known as hangxiety.

Hangxiety (or hangover anxiety) might feel like a racing mind, excessive worrying about what you did the night before and whether or not you embarrassed yourself, or even just a general sense of dread without a specific focus.

What is hangxiety and why does it happen?

According to licensed clinical psychologist Desreen N. Dudley, PsyD, hangxiety is an unofficial, non-medical term for hangover anxiety—but it’s still a real thing. In more official terms, Dr. Dudley explains that hangover anxiety is a symptom of alcohol withdrawal. While withdrawal is often thought of as something that happens after someone who drinks heavily stops suddenly, it can also happen on a more mild scale after just one long night of drinking. The reason this happens all has to do with alcohol’s impacts on the brain.

As Dr. Dudley explains, alcohol consumption changes levels of brain chemicals such as serotonin, which regulates mood and anxiety. Though alcohol depresses the central nervous system and can have a calming effect initially, anxiety can spike back up when those feel-good effects go away. So, even though a few strong drinks might put your mind at ease for a night, you may get bombarded with feelings of dread and regret when you wake up the next morning.

This effect can also be attributed to alcohol’s effect on neurotransmitters called GABA and glutamate, which have opposing inhibitory and stimulatory effects on the brain. GABA decreases activity in the nervous system, producing a calming effect, while glutamate activates the nervous system and is involved in brain functions such as cognition, memory, and learning. According to The Scripps Research Institute, alcohol is believed to mimic GABA’s affect in the brain, while inhibiting glutamate

“Drinking alcohol simultaneously increases the amount of chill GABA we have, whilst decreasing the amount of wired glutamate,” she explains. “This means your brain is acting in super slow-mo, giving you slower reactions and lower inhibitions.”

Then, the next morning comes and that alcohol withdrawal kicks in. As research published by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism explains, the calming effects of the heightened GABA activity go away, and “the balance shifts toward a state of excessive excitation,” aka a state of being super anxious.

So, this can all explain why you might feel anxious after drinking, but what exactly can you do about it? Keep reading to learn more.

How to avoid hangxiety:

There’s one obvious answer to preventing hangover anxiety: Drink less alcohol. “Consuming an excessive amount of alcohol can place anyone at risk of experiencing unpleasant physical and emotional hangover symptoms, including anxiety,” Dr. Dudley explains.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), defines binge drinking as five or more alcoholic drinks for males or four or more alcoholic drinks for females on the same occasion.

SAMHSA further defines heavy alcohol use as binge drinking on five or more days in the past month. These definitions don’t equate to an alcohol use disorder but can increase an individual’s risk of developing one.

If you fit within any of these definitions and you’re prone to hangxiety, it may be a sign to change your drinking habits for better mental health. In addition to drinking less alcohol overall, Dr. Dudley also recommends drinking more slowly and avoiding drinking on an empty stomach to lessen alcohol’s effects on the body and mind.

How to get rid of hangxiety:

Sometimes, no matter how much water you tried to drink the night before or how big of a meal you ate before going out, you can still wake up with a hangover the next morning.

If you’re experiencing anxiety as one of the symptoms, start by treating your hangover overall. Give yourself plenty of water, rest, and relaxation. (Check here for some of our favorite hangover cures.) While electrolyte-packed fluids may not make your nerves go away, getting hydrated and taking care of your body can put you in a better place to soothe your mind, too.

To manage your anxiety, try out different methods to see what works best for you. This might include meditating, doing some breathwork, or even making a “feel-good” list for yourself. If your anxiety symptoms persist for days, even when no drinking is involved, you may want to consult a mental health professional to see if you could benefit from other forms of treatment.

“If you are experiencing hangxiety frequently, I’d recommend seeking out virtual mental health care services, for example, through Teladoc,” Dr. Dudley says, “To request a visit with a mental health provider to learn more adaptive ways to cope with any problems you may have.”