It’s 5:30 a.m. I don’t have to be up for work for another two hours, but I’m wide awake. My heart is rapidly pounding in my chest, like it wants to bust out, and my thoughts are racing.
I live with an anxiety disorder, so this feeling isn’t new — but it is surprising. Typically, anxiety doesn’t wake me up at this hour, especially not when I’ve gone to bed late as I did last night.
Why am I so anxious right now? I pick my brain for clues. Did I have a bad dream? Have I been dwelling on the future or the past and not realizing it? Am I dying?
In all my rummaging for reasons, I don’t consider one very significant piece of information: I drank alcohol last night while out with friends. I didn’t drink to blurry excess, but I drank enough to get tipsy, and went to bed without rinsing off my mascara.
Alcohol consumption the previous night is the reason I am anxious. There’s no clinical term for it, but there is a catchphrase for this hangover anxiety — “hangxiety” — which is defined as nervousness, agitation and unease after a night of drinking.
Hangxiety symptoms are no different than regular anxiety symptoms: pounding heart, racing thoughts and a general sense of unease.
“You may also feel shaky, irritable or moody,” said Jennifer Surak-Zammitti, a psychotherapist in New Jersey.
Hangxiety can happen once we’ve had one too many — it’s simply how our brains work. And women may be more prone to these feelings because they are more sensitive to the effects of alcohol since they have less fluid in their bodies, which means more alcohol stays in their bloodstream.
“Alcohol affects the GABA chemical in our brain, which is a chemical that has a relaxing effect,” Surak-Zammitti said. “When we have a small amount of alcohol, it increases the GABA, resulting in us feeling relaxed. When we have a large amount of alcohol, it depletes the GABA, causing a feeling of panic. This type of anxiety can last for up to 24 hours, depending on how much you consume.”
Hangxiety affects about 12 people out of 100, and Surak-Zammitti noted that everyone who drinks, depending on your brain’s sensitivity to alcohol, could experience it to some degree, though people with mental illness such as anxiety may feel it more acutely.
“If you’re predisposed to any mental illness, not just anxiety, substances spark it,” Surak-Zammitti said. “Imagine a screen on a screen door where the netting is very tight. When we drink alcohol, the screen loosens and allows those illnesses to creep in. So if you are predisposed to anxiety, alcohol will make it worse.”
Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that alcohol disrupts our sleep, which can create or worsen anxiety.
“Alcohol can cause you to fall asleep, but you’re not getting good sleep because it affects your REM [rapid eye movement],” Surak-Zammitti said. “You’ll wake up groggy and unrested.”
This lack of restful sleep can also contribute to hangxiety.
Other than abstaining from alcohol altogether, how can you prevent hangxiety?
Surak-Zammitti said you should start by being aware of the fact that drinking to the point of becoming tipsy can cause hangxiety. This can help you rein it in and drink less. You can also avoid drinking liquor, which can make you more intoxicated more quickly than beer.
“Think of it as playing chess,” she said. “You need to be one move ahead of your opponent.”
And in this case, your opponent is alcohol.
Hangxiety is a natural consequence after a night of drinking, but there are ways to tame it as it’s happening.
First, Surak-Zammitti said it’s helpful to recognize that you’re anxious because you were drinking. Often, wondering what’s making you anxious makes you more anxious. If you tell yourself it’s because you were drinking, you get out of that cycle of wondering, which often feeds your anxiety.
Taking charge of your thoughts is another method of quelling hangxiety — and anxiety in general.
“We need to work on our thoughts and come up with new mantras,” said Laurel Steinberg, Ph.D., a psychotherapist, noting that women are often prone to perfectionist thinking, which can lead to more ruminating thoughts the next day, which can agitate anxiety.
According to Steinberg, you can calm your anxiety by telling yourself that drinking occasionally, and not to excess, can be part of a healthy lifestyle if it remains enjoyable. “We can have agency over our own experience and not think it’ll become out of control.”
It’s also useful to have remedies on hand that can help you relax.
“What makes you feel calm?” Surak-Zammitti asked. “Maybe it’s smelling lavender or lemon. Maybe it’s taking a bath with different salts, and if it is, get the bath ready.”
It’s also a good idea to skip the energy drinks and grande cappuccino, even though you may feel like you need a boost. Stimulants usually just make anxiety worse.
But the best way to beat hangxiety is through physical exercise.
“The way alcohol comes out of our bodies is through our pores,” Surak-Zammitti said. “So exercise is the best thing you do for hangxiety. Do some yoga or get out for a walk or run.”
In other words, try not to sweat over your night of drinking — but do try to sweat it out of your system.