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It’s payback time and you’ve got a hangover. This time, though, you’re feeling anxious as well as ill. Why is that? Cumbria Alcohol & Drug Advisory Service volunteer Steve Russell explains.
You’re suffering hangxiety or, to give it its uncontracted title, hangover anxiety. Essentially, you’re experiencing a chemical imbalance in your brain. In fact, you’re experiencing a second one. You won’t really have noticed the first because the chemical changes effected by a night’s opening couple of drinks simply make you feel that all is right with the world. This happens as a result of the alcohol stimulating the action of a calming neuro-transmitter called Gaba.
Then, as you continue drinking, the alcohol presses another let’s-take-it-easy button in your brain. This one blocks the production of glutamate, a crucial stimulatory neuro-transmitter that keeps you alert to a host of day-to-day worries, be they ordinary or extraordinary. You still feel good, great even, because the reduction in glutamate serves mainly to make you even more chilled, or to put it another way, less anxious. Certainly, any notion of payback time come morning simply does not register in your happy, stress-free thoughts.
At length, you get to those last few drinks (remember them?) and they only increase the effect. Sheer drunken bliss… and very low Gaba, very low glutamate. No worries? Not yet but soon, all too soon.
Of course, the chemical imbalance has by now gone way too far so Command Centre, Little Grey Cells, sets about compensating for the problem. You might still be awake when this process starts, but it’s by no means a quick fix so you will be sleeping in your stupor while the bulk of the remedial work gets done.
Come morning, your alarm goes off like a keening klaxon. So loud it hurts! And then you’ll quickly find that your Gaba and glutamate levels have shot up because, if anything, your system will have over-compensated with these worry-twitching transmitters, causing you another chemical imbalance. You might be feeling very anxious indeed.
Hangxiety does not affect everyone equally, though. Some people seem naturally more pre-disposed to anxiety after just a few drinks rather than the excessive number required to suffer a full-blown hangover. A growing body of evidence suggests that people who are shy and introspective are likely to endure worse hangxiety than their more confident, extrovert drinking peers. For a few, their hangxiety can be so severe that it comes not tinged with guilt but laden with it.
On the other hand, while some drinkers will worry that they can’t remember what they might have said or done, others will just write it off to experience or ask their friends on social media to fill in any gaps and have a laugh about the evening’s episode before arranging the next.
The only way to prevent hangxiety is to ensure you don’t drink enough to suffer the self-inflicted punishment of a hangover, regardless of where that threshold might be. It’s entirely up to you to decide whether that means you quit drinking altogether or learn to moderate your intake by recognising when enough is enough and sticking to it.
And if you can’t, what then? Well, before you go out for a drink or two, try focussing on what you need or want to do the following day. And who you’ll be letting down if you allow a few Friday-night drinks after work to turn into another closing-time session. Not great if you’ve arranged to redecorate the back bedroom or go out for a long day’s walk in the hills, come Saturday.
The big alcohol consumption conundrum, at least after a couple of drinks, will always be how can a little make you feel so good but a lot make you feel so bad? Well, if even a few social drinks can leave you feeling anxious the next morning you could try making one or more of them low-alcohol or alcohol-free; there are plenty now that have a genuinely enjoyable full flavour instead of that pale-imitation taste.
However, if you persist in drinking so much that you get a debilitating hangover each time, you may well be starting out on a path that will lead you to becoming a problem drinker whose hangxiety is only ever going to get worse, not better.
So, if one morning you find yourself resorting to the hair of the dog to ease your hangxiety, think on… you may be about to condemn yourself to a place entirely of your own making in a cycle of despondent and ultimately deadly dependency. Surely that’s something to worry about when you’re sober, not hungover and hangxious?
If you’d like to talk to someone in complete confidence about your drinking, you can — very easily. Either email Cumbria Alcohol & Drug Advisory Service at firstname.lastname@example.org anytime or call us on 0800 2 54 56 58 (11am-6pm, Mon-Fri). It’s a free service and our trained call handlers are completely non-judgmental.