Hangry might just be the perfect combination of words.
You know what I’m talking about, right? When you’re so famished, you’ll snap at anyone or anything that isn’t food prepared and ready to be eaten? Hangry sums it up.
Today we’re going to talk about another wonderful word mashup: hangxiety.
You may or may not be familiar with the term, but you’ll likely relate to the feeling. Hangxiety happens when you wake up after a night of heavy drinking with the typical headache and upset stomach served up alongside a generous helping of worry and stress.
And while, as the word hangry, hangxiety helps accurately express what you’re going through, it’s also a sign that you might need some help. When we’re hangry, we take action and eat, right? And when we experience hangxiety, we’ve got to take action too.
Let’s take a closer look at the cause and effects of terrible hangxiety and what you can do if it happens to you.
What is Hangxiety?
Hangxiety is a mashup of two basic words into one super explains-it-all word. Pair a hangover with anxiety and you’ve got yourself some terrible hangxiety.
Simple enough. But let’s take a moment to break this thing down, shall we?
First Up: The Hangover.
You know the drill. Wake up, take a moment to assess your surroundings as you open one eye and, ever so slowly, the next. Both eyes open, and—bam!—a pounding headache wakes up any dormant, still-sleeping parts of your brain.
Eventually, you stand and—another jolt—lay back down as nausea makes an appearance.
Wait For It: There’s the Anxiety.
If you’re lucky, that’s it. Pinch your nose, down a liquid hangover cure, and, when the dust settles, get on with your day.
If you’re not so lucky? You can add anxiety to your list of day-after drinking ailments. This kind of anxiety may live in your mind only, or it may travel to your respiratory system, your gut and your sweat glands.
The worrying thoughts and their physical manifestations can last anywhere from a couple of hours to an entire day and range from mild to severe.
Hangxiety As A Mini-Withdrawal from Alcohol
When a night of fun morphs into a morning of pain, you might be left wondering: what gives?
As George F. Koob, Ph.D., director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, explains, “I think of a hangover as, more or less, a mini-withdrawal from alcohol and anxiety is one of the components.”
It makes sense, right?
Think of it in this way: Heavy drinking propels your body and brain in one focused direction. When you stop drinking—say, to crash on the nearest soft surface—your body and brain go through a whiplash of sorts. And you wake up with a hangover, and maybe some anxiety too.
But what’s going on inside that causes this to happen?
What Does Science Tell Us About The Interaction of Alcohol and Anxiety?
Imagine you’re sitting somewhere comfortable. Maybe on your couch at the end of a long day. At your favorite restaurant with friends. At a bar on a second date that’s going—go ahead and own it—extremely well.
You’ve got a glass of alcohol in hand, filled to the brim with your drink of choice. You’re about to take the first, glorious sip. What do you expect to happen?
Can you taste it? Can you feel it? That familiar tingle. That sensation of relief. The warmth and confidence you know are coming if you’ll just give it time.
Alcohol does the work for us, doesn’t it? It flips the switch on dopamine to make sure we get a hearty dose of the feel-goods. It turns the knob down on excitement and stimulation, and it turns the knob up on confidence and quick-thinking.
Maybe that’s how you’re able to power through your kids’ bedtime, command the attention of everyone at the dinner table or lean in for that first kiss without second-guessing yourself.
After all, things are happening in your brain. Not cliche things either. Researched and science-backed changes are at work; changes involving neurotransmitters like serotonin and endorphins, which are essential for mood-making, as well as gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA for short), a pathway directly responsible for anxiety levels.
In short, alcohol tells your brain to cool it. Don’t worry so much. Act before you think. Everything will be fine.
Meanwhile, your brain begins to realize systems are not operating as they should. Right about the time your head hits the pillow after a long night of partying, your brain kicks into gear, righting the wrongs of the previous few hours.
Your brain fights back. Time to worry a bit. Time to think before you act. Everything will not be fine if we continue on in this way.
And that’s what you wake up to—a brain in overdrive. Terrible hangxiety is your body’s reaction to the dulling nature of alcohol. A wake-up call if ever there was one.
I Have Anxiety. How Might Alcohol Affect Me?
Maybe you’re reading this and thinking, “Forget hangxiety. I’ve already got the regular variety.”
Welcome to the club. Some 40 million adults in the United States endure prolonged anxiety every year. If that includes you, you might be especially prone to bouts of terrible hangxiety.
People who already deal with anxiety often experience a more intense whiplash than the one described above. That’s especially true if you drink alcohol to help calm yourself before awkward social situations or to settle your nerves in the midst of stressful moments.
Aparna Iyer, M.D., a psychiatrist and assistant professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, explains what happens when people drink with anxiety: “Whatever [you] have quieted by drinking the alcohol, that can come back full force or even worse.”
After all, alcohol offers a quick and temporary—emphasis on the temporary—fix for what ails us. One study found that for people struggling with extreme shyness, alcohol enabled them to be more outgoing while drinking, only to find themselves with even more social anxiety the following day.
And here’s the rub: this temporary relief may entice some to treat alcohol as a medication of sorts—a way to get through the day. The thought that follows might be, “Yes, I’ll feel awful tomorrow, but I’ll worry about that tomorrow.”
And in case you’re inclined to think (as we all are, in so many situations) that this wouldn’t happen to you, keep these facts in mind: people who regularly drink alcohol to calm nerves eventually build a tolerance to the benefits, meaning it will take more alcohol to help you reach the moment of relief. Increasing your intake of alcohol, as you know, is dangerous.
That’s why it’s no surprise that Healthline reports “About 20% of people with social anxiety disorder also suffer from alcohol dependence.”
What’s an anxious person in need of help to do?
I Woke Up With Hangxiety. What Should I Do Now?
Hangxiety isn’t just a clever word found in the Urban Dictionary and buried in Reddit forums. Hangxiety is a real and concerning reaction some people experience after heavy drinking.
And if you wake up with that dreaded combination—a headache, bellyache and fear—take notice. Your body and your brain are trying to tell you that something is amiss. And we are too.
Here’s why: Hints like these are a gift. You can take this literal wake-up call to heart and get help now to avoid greater struggles in the future.
But you don’t have to take our word for it. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism offers a clear guideline on how to self-evaluate for alcohol use disorder. Among the 11 items listed, you’ll find the following question:
“In the past year, have you continued to drink even though it was making you feel depressed or anxious?”
The experience of hangxiety is a resounding “yes” in answer to this question. And a sincere reason to reach out for help—even more so if you find yourself in a never-ending loop cycling between alcohol and anxiety.
Again, George F. Koob, director of NIAA, “[People] who drink and then get anxious, and then start using anxiety as an excuse for drinking . . . you’re beginning to get in trouble in my view.”
There’s Help for Terrible Hangxiety
If this is where you find yourself—with the wake-up call of hangxiety—can we encourage you to ask for help?
Working with a professional counselor and trained medical staff allows you to tackle the problem from both sides. Here at The Right Step DFW, we’ll walk with you to discover the root causes of your anxiety and offer practical, healthy ways to steady your nerves.
We’ll also partner with you in breaking free from any alcohol dependence by helping you to develop coping strategies for stressful situations and a plan for the best path forward.
You don’t have to live hangry. And you don’t have to live with terrible hangxiety. We can help. Give us a call today at 844.675.1557.
By Stephanie Thomas
Contributing Writer with Promise Behavioral Health