Hangovers are bad enough. Mustering the willpower to get a glass of water, let alone make an egg sandwich, can take multiple hours. But now there’s a new symptom in the news: hangxiety, which is exactly what it sounds like—feeling anxious while hungover.
A hangover is already painful—the headache, the exhaustion, the upset stomach, the grumpiness. You check your phone for regrettable texts, your face in the mirror for regrettable Sharpie drawings, and your hotel room for Mike Tyson air drumming to Phil Collins songs.
But there’s a new hangover symptom that’s having its (groaning, leave-me-alone) moment in the sun: hangxiety.
Hangxiety is exactly what it sounds like: the phenomenon of feeling anxious while hungover.
This week, just in time for your holiday office party or your sister-in-law’s annual New Year’s Eve bash, here are 5 facts about hangxiety you can wash down with two Advil and a big glass of water.
Fact #1: Hangxiety isn’t just anxiety about what you said last night—it’s driven by brain chemistry.
Folks who have a beer after work to unwind or down a shot before a party to loosen up know firsthand that alcohol can make you feel calmer and improve your mood, at least at first.
The calming part comes from alcohol’s effect on GABA and glutamate, neurotransmitters that, respectively, slow things down and amp things up. Alcohol increases the effects of GABA, suppresses the effects of glutamate, and, long story short, inhibits our inhibitions, which is why we end up with a lampshade on our head and embarrassing evidence on Instagram.
The good mood part comes from an increase of dopamine and serotonin, the neurotransmitters of the reward system. That’s why drowning your sorrows “works”—a big release of feel-good neurotransmitters means you feel better, at least temporarily.
But the morning after, all that brain chemistry has to rebalance, and the rebound comes with a vengeance. It’s like holding a beach ball underwater, only to have it surface with a big splash.
Specific to hangxiety, the morning after the calming effects of suppressing glutamate and increasing GABA, the opposite effect occurs. Anxiety-like symptoms such as an elevated heart rate, sweating, feeling shaky, and nausea, not to mention simply feeling restless and worried, all hit like the wrecking ball that is now inside your skull.
For what it’s worth, hangxiety isn’t limited to humans. The same effect has even been found in mice. In a study published in Behavioural Brain Research, a team of scientists injected a group of mice with enough alcohol to induce a hangover and another group with a neutral saline solution. A few hours later, compared to their sober compatriots, the hungover mice spent more time hiding in dark corners of a maze and less time exploring a new box, both behavioral indicators of increased anxiety and fear. Let’s hope the researchers filled their water bottles with mouse Gatorade after the experiment was over.
Fact #2: But hangxiety is also psychological.
Hangxiety doesn’t stop with brain chemistry and physical symptoms—you feel it between your ears as well.
Psychological hangxiety happens in a couple of ways. First, there’s a misinterpretation of the symptoms of hangover—trembling, GI problems, racing heart, headache—as anxiety. Interpreting physical symptoms as anxiety in your body can trigger actual anxiety in your brain; in other words, your brain says, “Hey, my body feels anxious; therefore, there must be something to be anxious about!”
But it also happens due to behavior—we swirl in an anxious shame spiral while vaguely remembering heckling a bouncer, flirting with the diner hostess, and wondering where we left our phone (answer: likely with our self-respect).
More concerning, we may worry about a time period we can’t remember. Pondering “What if” and “Did I?” is naturally a huge driver of anxiety, not to mention a sign of problematic drinking.