Hangxiety is Real

By Dorri Olds 07/21/16

A neuroscientist breaks down the reasons behind why some people feel guilty and anxious after a night of drinking.

What is Hangxiety?

Many drinkers know it well—a hungover morning with physical distress coupled with high anxiety. A recent article by body+soul wrote about "hangxiety," that horrid drunken aftermath.

Urban Dictionary defines hangxiety as: “The feeling of overwhelming guilt, stress, and worry you experience the day after a drinking binge.” While you may not find the term in a medical dictionary, hangxiety is very real. 

The Fix reached out to neuroscientist Apryl Pooley to analyze two studies, which confirm the existence of hangxiety. As written in body+soul:

“A study of 1,400 Dutch students, published in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism, found that nearly half reported agitation the day after drinking. Even more reported experiencing the negative emotions of confusion, guilt and regret. Similarly, a study at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland, found 'high levels of anxiety' in 48 healthy but hungover students.”

Pooley said, “That first Dutch study found that when participants experienced a hangover, the most common symptoms—experienced by more than 85% of those who had a hangover—were fatigue, thirst, drowsiness, sleepiness, and headache. This makes sense because alcohol is directly responsible for disrupted sleep and dehydration, which can cause the most common hangover symptoms.

“Other symptoms like anxiety, guilt, and regret could be related to more than just the biological effects of alcohol. Adverse occurrences that are more common when drinking—injuries, embarrassment, drunk-dialing or texting—can lead to anxiety the next day.”

According to Pooley, another thing to keep in mind is that many people who experience anxiety during a hangover also tend to experience higher levels of anxiety when not drinking and report higher life stress, so the hangover anxiety could be more prevalent in people who are already having problems.

But what about the anxiety? Pooley said, “The anxiety bit is a little more complicated because of the social implications and pre-existing mental states not related to alcohol. The Dutch study found that, when they did have a hangover, 25% of people reported confusion, guilt, and regret. But that could be related to any number of things that the study didn’t address.

“For example, did those 25% of participants have any mental health conditions or current life stress? Did something bad happen the night before? Injuries, embarrassment, drunk texting your ex—all of that is more likely to happen when drinking and could be responsible for anxiety, guilt, and regret the next day. It’s more than just a biological response to alcohol.”

And the second study? “Anxiety with a hangover only happened in people who had poor sleep when they weren’t hungover,” said Pooley, “and that ‘trait anxiety’—how much anxiety a person normally has—and perceived stress in the last month was highly correlated with anxiety during a hangover. So those people who had anxiety during a hangover were already experiencing problems that may not be related to alcohol itself. Additionally, people who have high anxiety and negative mood consume more alcohol—possibly as a self-medicating behavior. So the hangxiety experienced the next day could simply be the reintroduction of their baseline state after a brief alcohol-induced respite.”

The bottom line? Hangxiety is a great reason to drink less.

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.