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Why You May Feel “Hangxiety” During a Hangover

According to some estimates, anxiety during a hangover affects around 12% of people and can vary in severity depending on the person.

As the body recovers from a night of drinking, a hangover creates a state of physiological stress. Generally speaking, physiological stress occurs when the body is under pressure, for example as a result of illness or injury. A kind of hangover works the same way. Not only does this cause changes in our immune system, but it also increases levels of cortisol (often called the “stress hormone”), blood pressure and heart rate – changes that also occur with anxiety.

The brain also undergoes changes. Research shows that brain activity involving dopamine (a type of neurotransmitter) is lower during a hangover. This is important because dopamine plays an important role in regulating anxiety. The increased stress during a hangover can also make it difficult for someone to cope with any additional stress that may arise throughout the period.
Interestingly, the combination of stress and sleep deprivation (reflecting aspects of a hangover) can lead to lower mood and cognitive functions (including attention and memory). Fatigue, stress, and dealing with other unpleasant hangover symptoms can also make it difficult to manage daily tasks. For example, someone with a hangover may be too preoccupied with nausea, headaches, or fatigue to be able to deal effectively with anxious thoughts.
Our own research has shown that people experience a negative change in their emotions during a hangover. Many also reported feeling like they had more trouble regulating their emotions than when they weren’t hungover. In other words, people feel bad during a hangover and find it hard to get up.

But when we asked participants to actually regulate their emotions in a computer task, they were able to regulate them to the same extent that they could when they weren’t hungover, but with increased effort. We did this by showing participants images that evoked various emotions (including positive or negative emotions) but asking them to experience their emotions without outwardly expressing them. Having more difficulty regulating emotions during a hangover could also explain why some people experience anxiety.

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In another study, our team looked at how a hangover influences executive functions (mental skills important to many aspects of our daily lives, including working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control). Participants were given a series of tasks that tested these mental skills, such as remembering a series of letters and remembering them when prompted.

We found that people with hangovers performed worse in key aspects of executive function. Executive functions help people cope with anxiety and inhibit anxious thoughts. If these mental abilities are lower during a hangover, it may help explain why some people struggle with anxiety.

Feel anxious?

But why do some people get hangxie while others don’t?

Pain is a part of almost every hangover, whether it’s a headache or muscle aches. But research shows that people who “catastrophize” pain (a tendency to exaggerate pain or expect the worst) are more likely to experience anxiety. Research also shows that this group is more likely to suffer from severe hangovers. This could explain why some people experience anxiety, while others don’t.
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People who are likely to experience anxiety in general may also be particularly sensitive to hanging. Negative life events, depression or anger over drinking, guilt over drinking, and even certain personality traits (like neuroticism) are also linked to mood swings during a hangover. It has even been reported that alcohol dependence is higher in people who report being very shy and may be linked to symptoms of alcohol use disorder.
Combined, these factors highlight why a hangover can affect people differently, and why it’s a part of a hangover worth taking seriously. Mood swings during a hangover are not only unpleasant, but can even be linked to problematic drinking, increased conflict with others, and reduced productivity at work.
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If you are someone who suffers from anxiety, the same techniques that help with anxiety will also be helpful. This can include meditation, mindfulness practice, and general self-care. Planning your evening in advance to ensure you have the next day free to recuperate and avoid other stressors (such as work or family issues) can also help manage additional psychological stress.
For some, a hangover can even be used as a bonding exercise where people can discuss their night out drinking with friends and even deal with feelings of anxiety together.

Of course, the best way to avoid suffering from hangxie is to avoid drinking altogether – or at least drink in moderation.


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Sara Adm

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