Hangovers bring many things – dehydration, headaches and nausea but also feelings of anxiety and guilt. This ‘hangxiety’ isn’t simply caused by what we can or can’t remember doing – it’s the way alcohol physically changes our brain.
Our first couple of drinks generally make us feel calmer and more peaceful and accepting. That’s because alcohol targets that brain’s gaba receptors, reducing the number of neurons that fire, and inhibiting brain activity.
As we continue to drink a further change happens in the brain, and alcohol starts to block the effect of glutamate. Glutamate is the brain’s main way of communicating excitement, and less glutamate means that we are physically unable to be as anxious. That might be why drink is so appealing for some people. But how does blocking an anxiety transmitter lead to hangxiety the morning after?
Our bodies crave internal balance, a state called homeostasis. It doesn’t know that these are temporary changes caused by the alcohol. Our body’s reaction to a state of increased gaba levels is to actively try to reduce them. Its response to low glutamate levels is just the opposite – it produces more.
Our body is now actively reducing our ability to feel calmer, and actively increasing the amount of anxiety transmitter in our brain. For most of us the majority these attempts by the body to correct itself take place while we’re asleep. That’s why we wake with that feeling of unfocussed anxiety and stress.
Just like other aspects of alcohol and hangovers this isn’t felt identically by everyone. Research suggests that hangxiety is felt more strongly by people with underlying social or generalized anxiety. It’s thought that their lower starting levels of gaba may be making them more prone. There’s also evidence to show that hangxiety may be keeping people locked into problem relationships with alcohol. A drink to ‘take the edge off’ as a response to hangxiety only feeds the problem.
What’s clear is that the use of alcohol to overcome social anxiety is having a longer-term rebound effect.
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