Hangover Anxiety: It’s Real and Here’s Why It Happens

Norwegians call it fylleangst

But you might recognize it in its millennial incarnation: “hangxiety.” Believe it or not, it’s become so heavily referenced in popular culture, it’s causing whole swathes of young people to quit booze.

You may be thinking you’ve never experienced it before… but think again.

Have you ever woken up suddenly after a night of drinking, with warm skin and a parched throat? Have you ever felt your face throb in tandem with your temples? Have you ever lain in bed all day, seemingly paralyzed and glued to the sheets? 

Then you’ve experienced the physical side effects of a hangover. 

Now, couple those effects with what we know to be the physiological effects of anxiety (sweating, nausea, faster or irregular heart beat, etc.) and you’ve got hangxiety.

Depending on the loss of control experienced the night before, the anxiety can range from a light needling to a full panic in the frontal cortex. 

Concerns about bad behavior, forgotten conversations, missing personal effects…Everyone has been there.

But thanks to the younger generations’ focus on mental health and identifying trauma triggers and emotional unrest, research has been spent in dealing with one of the most commonly identifiable feelings social young people experience….


Here’s what happens in your body…

Alcohol’s Job 

Alcohol is a depressant. 

Now, that doesn’t mean that it makes you depressed. It means it lowers the serotonin in your brain, which is the neurotransmitter that sends a signal to your brain to make happy. 

Additionally, alcohol suppresses the nervous system, which is responsible for removing and flushing toxins from your body. Specifically, it hunts for the Gaba (gamma-aminobutyric acid) receptor. This receptor blocks the activity in your brain that causes nervousness or excitement, which is why drinking produces a calming effect. 

As you continue to drink, the brain starts blocking glutamate, which causes anxiety. 

Your brain is desperately trying to correct this imbalance – the low glutamate and the high Gaba, but you won’t feel that happening in your drunken state.

But when alcohol starts to evacuate the system…

The nervous system starts working again. That means it starts pumping out cortisol, the stress hormone, trying to clean up the mess you’ve made in your body. 

In the morning when you wake up and the alcohol is evacuating your system, all of a sudden, you feel it: abnormally high glutamate and lowered Gaba. 

Not only that, but glutamate is responsible for cementing memories. So if your glutamate is suppressed and blocked after six or seven drinks, remembering the night’s events becomes extremely difficult.

Obviously, this causes additional emotional anxiety. Couple that with your body physically producing unreasonable amount of stress-inducing hormones, and you’ve got hangxiety.

This anxiety is not limited to those who experience anxiety as part of their mental health cocktail. 

It is, however, often worse when anxiety or depression are already part of your regular experience, because your body starts off with lower supplies of the happy chemicals that alcohol depletes. 

So What Can We Do? 

Unfortunately, the answer is simple: don’t over-drink and stay hydrated.

The grand irony is that most of the time, over-drinking is an effect of social anxiety. But the cost you’ll pay the next day is much more chemically serious than the social anxiety that had you nervous in the first place.

Especially because one of the only palliatives is drinking again, to continue the cycle of lower glutamates and high Gaba. Many an alcoholic has been borne out of this cycle.

Although drinking alcohol in the short term can certainly alleviate social anxiety, it wreaks havoc on your brain’s chemical regulatory system over the long term. 

But in the meantime… if you’re dealing with hangxiety, there are a few things you can do to help:

  1. Take a shower. You probably don’t want to, but sloughing off the spilled drinks and sleep sweat of the night before has a relieving effect on the body.
  2. Drink water. Your body is crying out for it, and although it will take a little while to right itself, drink water steadily throughout the day.
  3. A few hours after you wake up, take a nap. Of course, this is only if you can, but the sleep you got last night wasn’t great. It was deeper than sober sleeps, but less restful and more stunted. Wake up, shower, drink water, eat something light (like toast), and see if you can give your body another restorative chance.

There you have it – it’s not in your head, and there is a scientific reason for your pins-and-needles anxiety. 

And the only antidote? Drinking responsibly.

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Dr. Pedram Shojai

NY Times Best Selling author and film maker. Taoist Abbot and Qigong master. Husband and dad. I’m here to help you find your way and be healthy and happy. I don’t want to be your guru…just someone who’ll help point the way. If you’re looking for a real person who’s done the work, I’m your guy. I can light the path and walk along it with you but can’t walk for you.