Close up, wine glasses in a row tipped over sideways on a table

Alcohol & Anxiety: Hangxiety is the Emotional Hangover

“Hangxiety” is another word for the depression and anxiety many of us experience after a night of heavy drinking. Even if you didn’t do anything embarrassing the night before, you may still wake up with a feeling of guilt or shame that you can’t trace back to a real cause. You may reach out to friends and family asking “was I really that bad last night?” or go through your text messages and DMs trying to identify the cause of your anxiety without success. What causes hangxiety, and what can you do if you’re experiencing it?

Drinking alcohol affects our brains and the balance of neurochemicals that contribute to our mood. When we drink, our bodies flood feel-good chemicals like dopamine and gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) into our brains causing us to feel happy and relaxed.  This artificial mood-lift disappears when you take the alcohol away, leaving our brains running on empty by the time we wake up the next morning. Add to this the disrupted sleep, dehydration, nausea and impaired decision-making that can result from too many drinks, and you have a perfect storm to trigger anxiety and depression.

Much like a physical hangover, the only way to prevent hangxiety is to drink responsibly, or not at all, and the only real cure is time. If you are experiencing hangxiety, the best thing you can do in the moment is to be kind to yourself while you wait for your brain chemistry to readjust.

Here are a few ways that you can help yourself reset and recover from hangxiety.

Make sure your physical needs are met first

Are you thirsty? Drink some water. Are you hungry? Eat something. Feeling stuffy and gross? Take a long hot shower. These small improvements to your physical well-being can make a real difference in your mental well-being.

Calm hangxiety with intentional breathing

Deep intentional breathing can help calm you down by increasing oxygen flow in your body and focusing your attention on yourself and your own well-being. Sit or lie down in a comfortable position with your eyes closed and try a four-square breathing pattern. Apps like Headspace can help you find a breathing pattern that works best for you.

Build your anti-hangxiety nest

Your immediate surroundings can impact your mental health significantly, and making small changes around your home can boost your mood and help you relax. Make your bed, fold some laundry, or do some other small household chore to neaten your space. Light a candle, buy yourself flowers, play relaxing music. Appreciate your own ability to make positive changes in your environment no matter how small, and enjoy the nest you are building for yourself.

Audit your internal monologue

When we’re caught up in hangxiety we can let our self-critical thoughts get out of control and become overwhelmed with disproportionate guilt and shame. Writing these thoughts down can show where they come from, reduce their power, and help us to realize when we’re being unfair to ourselves. Listen to your internal monologue - what am I thinking or feeling about myself right now? Would I speak to someone I love this way? Is criticizing myself making me feel better, or worse?

Combat hangxiety with exercise

No need to over-exert yourself - a 15 minute walk around your neighborhood can help your body to release neurotransmitters like endorphins that relieve pain and stress, and brain chemicals like dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin that contribute to regulating your mood. Plus, a dose of sunshine, the faces of other people, and the beauty of the world around you can increase your sense of wellbeing.

Contact your anti-hangxiety network

Talk to a loved one, or interact with a pet if you have one. Feeling connected to others, whether animal or human, can increase feelings of self-worth that might have taken a hit from your hangover, and help you look forward to the future with optimism.

If you experience hangxiety often, or if you find yourself turning to alcohol on a regular basis to deal with the anxiety and depression and feel it would be difficult or even impossible to stop, a therapist can help you understand the internal and external factors that may be leading you to drink in excess, and show you tools you can use to build a happier, healthier life for yourself.