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Can’t shake ‘The Fear’ after a night of drinking? There’s a scientific explanation for that dreaded hangxiety


By Sarah Gill
20th Jun 2022

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Can’t shake ‘The Fear’ after a night of drinking? There’s a scientific explanation for that dreaded hangxiety

Sunday scaries, hangxiety, relentless grogginess — ‘The Fear’ by any other name still smells just as sour.

We’ve all been there. Waking up, dry mouth and foggy head, the distinct taste of baby Guinness laced with regret lingering at the back of your throat.

As the wheels start turning, we begin to recall saying yes to one last round, thinking it was a great idea to text your ex, and bowing out of the bar as gracelessly as possible.

Many think of their hangover as a punishment, a form of retribution for a long night of drinking, or a warning sign to call it quits a little earlier next time. Yet somehow, we never seem to learn, giving the phrase ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ a whole other meaning.

These nagging headaches and feelings of foreboding tend to coincide with the Sunday scaries, that restless feeling of anticipation for the working week ahead, and can manifest differently in everyone.

Where some find themselves feeling sluggish and lethargic, others can become engulfed by anxiety, combing through their hazy memories trying to recall if they may or may not have annoyed someone over the course of an evening. Was I too loud? Is my Instagram story too loud? Are you mad at me?

If this resonates with you, you’ll be happy to hear that there’s a scientific reason for this so-called hangxiety.

Detoxing

It’s a well-known (and often ignored) fact that alcohol is a depressant, whether you opt for a chilled glass of vino or a fish bowl of booze. While we may consider it a social lubricant, it actually forces the brain to switch off the central nervous system, leaving us in a state of physiological stress.

It can increase cortisol levels, blood pressure and your heart rate, which are symptoms largely associated with anxiety. The day following a night of drinking is essentially a detoxification period as our bodies attempt to regulate themselves.

According to experts, alcohol stimulates the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptor, which sends a message through the central nervous system to inhibit us. This is why we feel more laid back and less self-conscious when we drink — but what goes up, must come down.

When we surpass a couple of casual drinks and descend into binge-drinking territory, our brains start blocking out glutamate, which is the most abundant excitatory neurotransmitter released by nerve cells in your brain.

Our bodies are incredibly perceptive, and this new chemical imbalance needs to be rectified. When the night’s over and the drinks stop flowing, our nervous system embarks on a mission to bring down GABA and push up glutamate levels, and this rapid change brings about those all too familiar feelings of anxious humility.

So, when you wake up in the morning feeling dehydrated, downtrodden and downright dreadful, it’s our bodies trying to undo the damage. It’s also why we tend to crave all of the junk food, because when our blood sugar levels drop off that alcohol-induced high, we want to rebalance them as best we know how: carbs.

The cure

While the answer is clear: if you don’t want to feel the cold hands of The Fear clutching at your throat, give the booze a miss. However, if you’re a glutton for punishment, self-preservation and pain mitigation are key.

Pre-empt your future struggles by ensuring you’re well-hydrated before you head out, and try to punctuate the evenings with a good old glass of water. If you can, clear your schedule and afford yourself the luxury of wallowing a little bit before you’re forced to pull yourself together.

With each passing year, we tend to add another step to our hangover ritual. In college, the fizzy kick of Lucozade and a cursory sweep of a makeup wipe under my eyes had me poised and ready to head back to the beer garden, it’s taking a little more to get me off the ground.

While it may not help when you’re in the throes of a relentless hangover, being gentle with yourself and realising that there are plenty of other people at home feeling the exact same can ease the burden, just a little.

If you are concerned about your own or a loved one’s drinking, Drink Aware provides dedicated information and support services across the country.