You’ve got a raging thirst but you can’t drag yourself out of bed for a glass of water. All you remember from last night is going off on one about a man who “hatfished” you on a date while wearing a cap, only to realise the guy listening to you was heavily receding. None of your friends have messaged you this morning so you assume they must hate you now. You lie in the foetal position and kid yourself into believing you are still asleep so you don’t have to deal with the consequences of your actions. You have “hangxiety” (hangover anxiety) or you are suffering from a “prangover” (pranging out hungover), and it’s the worst feeling in the world.
There’s a scientific reason why drinking makes us feel like this. “Alcohol is one of the most promiscuous of drugs, in that it affects a lot of different types of receptors and hence the majority, if not all, of the neurons,” says David Nutt, professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London and author of 2020 book Drink? The New Science of Alcohol and Your Health.
That blissed-out state we associate with drinking is caused by alcohol enhancing the Gaba receptors (neurotransmitters that essentially turn off the brain) and this calms you down by making fewer neurons fire.
As we enter withdrawal, the brain increases levels of the main excitatory transmitter, glutamate, in an attempt to decrease Gaba, and this chemical imbalance results in anxiety. Or, in other words – as Nutt puts it: “The brain is a finely balanced machine. You add in alcohol and that balance dissolves like a sugar cube in hot tea.”
To make matters worse, this anxiety tends to kick in when you’re trying to sleep off the alcohol. “As your blood alcohol level goes down during the night, you’re left with too many receptors and so too much glutamate activity,” says Nutt. “And that is why you are too alert, and why the world seems too much.”
Compromised glutamate levels also lead to memory loss, forcing your brain to try to fill in the gaps in what you did after hitting that third bottle of wine. “Because of the physical effects of the anxiety, you tend to think the worst,” says psychotherapist Rachel Buchan. “But not remembering leaves you with this feeling that you lost control of what was happening or what you were doing. It’s horrible.”
Before any of you mindful drinkers start to feel smug, it is worth noting that hangxiety is not always alcohol-related, according to clinical psychologist Linda Blair. A lot of social anxiety is caused by a buildup of energy that we don’t know what do with. “You’ve been directing all your excitement towards this particular event and now it’s over but the energy is still there, bouncing around.” That is when we start to obsess about what we said and did. “You want to use that energy to fix your worry but, of course, you can’t. You can’t go back in time.”
Some of us are more predisposed to ruminate than others. “Certain people are more reflective than they are impulsive,” says Blair. A lot of this is genetic but there is a learned element to it. “They deal with problems by thinking them through again and again until they calm down. It’s not a good strategy, but it becomes a pattern.”
And, of course, we are all a bit rusty since Covid lockdowns. “When you’re socialising, you’re constantly gauging the other person’s feelings and reactions, so you can respond appropriately,” says Blair. “We’re out of practice. This makes us more tired than usual, which can trigger anxious thoughts.” When our bodies are depleted in this way, we tend to think emotionally rather than logically, negatively rather than positively.
Knowing all this probably isn’t going to stop you partying – and nor should it. But before you resign yourself to waking up on 1 January full of self-loathing, there are things you can do to lessen the symptoms of hangxiety. Ones that go beyond paracetamol, ordering from Deliveroo and turning on a reality TV show.
Speak to your friends
“Go for a coffee with someone you were at the party with and you’ll see that they won’t treat you any differently from the way they did before the party,” Blair recommends. “But don’t bring up what you said. All it does is make you look needy – they’ll give you reassurance by enjoying your company.” Just make sure you pick someone sympathetic, not that friend who’ll remind you of the time you cornered that Irish girl in the kitchen so you could rant about your family from Cork.
Try some breathing exercises
Buchan advises inhaling and exhaling through your nose rather than your mouth. Four seconds is good but do more or less if that doesn’t feel comfortable. Try to imagine your stomach is a balloon: as you inhale, it expands and as you exhale, it contracts. “This will deepen your breath, which will have a calming impact on your body,” says Buchan. “You can do it anywhere and no one knows you’re doing it.”
“Exercise will help speed up your metabolism and so help shift your hangover,” Nutt says. But avoid anything too strenuous because that can put a strain on the cardiovascular system. Think a light jog or a long walk. Shuffling to the Co-op in your dressing gown for some Pringles doesn’t count.
To avoid that disappointing crash after a party, Blair recommends making sure you have something else exciting in the diary. “So when you wake up you think, That was so fun, and I’m so sorry it’s over, but actually, I have that work party on Tuesday so I can get excited about that. If you set up something else immediately, you will give your emotions and your energy a direction.”
Don’t overthink things
Sure, your mind is racing and you are sweating a bit thinking about what happened last night, but, advises Blair, don’t just rush to conclusions. You could choose to call that grouping of symptoms anxiety, she says, but you could just call it a hangover.” Blair says this can help us reframe. “When you think of it in that way, it’s in your control and not taking you over.” Sometimes a hangover is just a hangover. Everyone at the party is probably feeling the same as you. And it, too, shall pass.
Eat before you go to bed (and have a good breakfast)
“Alcohol wreaks havoc with our blood sugar levels, which can disturb sleep,” says nutritional therapist Alice Mackintosh. “Another side-effect of high blood sugar is that our bodies release more of the stress hormone cortisol, and, for many, this can lead to anxiety.”
Eating something before you go to bed can stabilise blood sugar and absorb some of the alcohol in the gut. “Aim for some protein and fibre, as these are critical for gut health. If you’re home and need something quick, go for wholegrain toast with peanut butter and banana.”
Eggs make the perfect hangover breakfast. “They’re rich in amino acids to aid liver function, protein, B vitamins, nutrients such as choline, and healthy fats to help get you back on your feet,” says Mackintosh. Eat them on toast with avocado and some mushrooms as both are “rich in detoxifying B-vitamins, folate and antioxidants.” If you’re vegan, go for baked beans instead of eggs, because these provide all-important protein and fibre.
You could also pop some supplements containing B vitamins, magnesium, and vitamin C to aid liver function and antioxidants NAC, or milk thistle.