“The hangovers became worse … My family was starting to recognize that I had a severe drinking problem … I didn’t care because I was so numbed by alcohol …The hidden bottles, slurred speech, sleeping all day (passed out) and isolation was a common occurrence, and I was only 22-23 years old,” recalls Shawn A. in his HeroesInRecovery.com story. “The depression and anxiety had a chokehold on me, and what is the best way to feel better? I think you know … I was waking up every single day feeling shameful, guilty, remorseful and fearful. This feeling would never go away when I was sober.”
Hangovers are a common occurrence to those who drink to excess on a regular basis, to be sure. But for some of those people who don’t know when to stop, hangovers are horrifying.
To individuals who are prone to be anxious and fearful, there’s a plethora of things that can be concerning after a wild night of drinking and partying. Nausea and headaches might occur. Then there’s the rapid heartbeat, sweating and dizziness. Add the thought that liver disease, cardiovascular damage or depression might result, and anxiety can have a field day. Any of these conditions could definitely add stress.
If the brain is busy dealing with all of these issues surrounding hangovers, it can feel like way too much.1
Alcohol’s Erroneous Perception
It’s ironic that we are culturally conditioned to think that having a drink will calm our frayed nerves.2 Sure, in limited amounts, drinking can cause people to feel less inhibited, less fearful and more relaxed. However, over time, drinkers can build a tolerance to alcohol’s de-stressing effects. As a result, the body’s chemistry may promote even greater anxiety and stress when alcohol is consumed.
As a sedative and depressant, alcohol can do much more than lead to dependence and addiction. When consumed in excess, it can slow down the brain’s activity so much that it could cause an overdose or even death.1
How Alcohol Works in the Body to Increase Anxiety
The positive feelings experienced from drinking — such as relief, peace and relaxation — may be attributable to blood alcohol content (BAC). But just as feelings of excitement can result from rising BAC, a drop in BAC can bring on feelings of depression. In some cases, this emotional roller coaster can heighten anxiety.1
In scientific terms, alcohol affects the brain chemistry by lowering the level of serotonin. This natural message-sender in the body impacts mood, sleep and memory — key stabilizing elements that contribute to healthy bodies and sound minds. The lower the serotonin level, the worse a person’s sleep, mood and memory are likely to be. The higher the serotonin level, the better each of these areas will function.3
Why Is There Anxiety the Day After Heavy Drinking?
It’s quite normal for people to feel a bit concerned with how their body reacts to the overconsumption of alcohol. After all, it has to work extra hard to compensate and find balance. However, the usual effects are typically short-term in nature:
- Mood swings – This is due to alcohol’s effect of lowering the serotonin level in the body. Serotonin is an important chemical. When there’s a lot of it, individuals feel good. When there’s only a little, people may feel anxious.
- Blood sugar drop – Since alcoholic drinks usually contain quite a bit of sugar, there can be a major drop in blood sugar the next day. This can cause dizziness, confusion, nervousness, weakness, numbness and shaking, which, in turn, can increase anxiety.
- Dehydration – The feelings of nausea, dizziness, fatigue and weakness that come along with dehydration can compound health fears that promote additional anxiety.
- Hyperactive nervous system – To fight off the sedative effect of the alcohol, the body goes into a hyperactive state. This response can produce shaking, sensitivity to light and sound, as well as prevent sleep.
- Racing heart – Alcohol can cause the heart to speed up. Some people may interpret this palpitation false alarm as an oncoming heart attack. This, again, can increase a person’s stress and anxiety levels.
- Inability to focus – Heavy drinking can cause the head to feel fuzzy the next day. This creates a sense of disorientation, making it hard to focus.2
How to Prevent Anxiety About Hangovers
Naturally, total abstinence from drinking eliminates the possibility of experiencing an alcohol hangover. If that isn’t a practical solution, stop with two drinks, eat some food beforehand and drink lots of water. Also, drink two large glasses of water (preferably with electrolytes) at bedtime. These steps will help to lower the level of hangover.2
To reduce anxiety in general:
- Get enough sleep – Six to eight hours a night is recommended.
- Control the caffeine – In addition to limiting alcohol intake, don’t overdo caffeine, especially late in the day.
- Eat smart, balanced meals – Make healthy choices about what to eat at regular intervals throughout the day.
- Feed your spirit – Establish a routine of relaxation techniques, such as meditation or yoga.
- Work it out physically – Exercise can do wonders for a person’s outlook and self-concept.
In the end, don’t forget to look for all the good around you. “Count your blessings” may be a cliche, but regularly taking time to remind yourself of the good things in your life really can change your outlook. And a positive attitude can go a long way in dispelling fear and anxiety. It may even bring renewed balance and joy back into your life.1
1 “Alcohol and Anxiety.” Healthline, medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, CRNP, November 30, 2016.
2 “6 Reasons Why You Can Suffer From Alcohol Anxiety & What to Do About It.” Calmer You, November 26, 2015.
3 “5 Ways Alcohol Worsens Anxiety.” Anxiety, Panic & Health, October 21, 2016.
David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.