A New Study Reveals Why You Feel So Anxious When You're Hungover

by Natalia Lusinski

Now that the holiday season is in full swing, it also means that parties are, too. Oftentimes, alcohol goes hand-in-hand with them. While you may know that alcohol is a depressant, there’s also a link between alcohol and anxiety. And, a new study found that if you’re more on the shy side versus the extroverted one, it may cause have “hangxiety” — aka anxiety during a hangover — the next day.

Researchers from the University of Exeter and University College London (UCL) analyzed 100 social drinkers with either low or high levels of shyness and the findings were published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. The participants were tested at home and were randomly assigned to drink or remain sober. Then, each evening and the following morning, researchers tested their baseline measures of shyness, social phobia, and alcohol use disorder (AUD) symptoms. While drinking approximately six units of alcohol slightly decreased anxiety in the highly shy people in the moment, it greatly increased their anxiety the next day. In addition, among highly-shy participants, the researchers found a strong correlation between elevated anxiety levels on the second day and Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT) scores, a test which is used to screen and identify people who may develop a problem with alcohol.

"While statistics show that, overall, people are drinking less, those with lower levels of health and wellbeing — perhaps including people experiencing anxiety — are still often doing so,” first author Beth Marsh, of UCL, said. When you’re drinking, you may feel more relaxed due to your blood alcohol content (BAC) being higher. But, as the BAC levels decrease, feelings of depression and anxiety can take over, Psychology Today reports.

Adam C. Earnheardt, Ph.D., chair and professor of the department of communication at Youngstown State University, tells Bustle that the study’s findings make sense. “Alcohol is a social lubricant, so it makes sense that those who score high on shyness might drink alcohol to lessen anxiety about social interaction and feel more extrovertish,” he says. “But, it also makes sense that these same people would feel uncomfortable and anxious the next day over how they acted the previous day.”

Hangiexty May Lead To Problems With Alcohol

While you may view alcohol as a social lubricant, it can have detrimental results if you’re reliant on alcohol to feel more at ease in the moment, yet more hangxious, so to speak, the next day. “This research suggests that this might have rebound consequences the next day, with more shy individuals more likely to experience this, sometimes debilitating, aspect of hangover,” Professor Celia Morgan, of the University of Exeter, said. “These findings also suggest that hangxiety in turn might be linked to people’s chance of developing a problem with alcohol.”

What This Means For Shy People Or Introverts

Ashley Batz/Bustle

If you tend to be more on the shy side, Professor Morgan said the key is accepting being shy or an introvert. “This might help transition people away from heavy alcohol use,” she said. “It’s a positive trait. It’s OK to be quiet.”

However, Dr. Earnheardt says that while the study’s an important one, the sample size was small, so t's important to not overgeneralize the findings. “It’s worth noting that drinking and anxiety can be managed,” he says, and that drinking responsibly is the first step.

“No one is suggesting you should ‘drink to excess,’ but introverts and extroverts alike should consider the amount of alcohol they can handle without overindulging, which is different for everyone,” he says. For instance, according to the USDA Dietary Guidelines, moderate drinking for women is defined as one drink per day, and high-risk drinking for women is considered four or more drinks per day, or eight or more drinks per week.

Second, Dr. Earnheardt says to consider how alcohol consumption makes you feel the next day. He says to ask yourself if you're confusing physical and mental reactions. That is, are the physical symptoms of the hangover exacerbating the mental reactions? “If so, consider that it may not be anxiety and just your body trying to rebalance itself,” he says.

Dr. Earnheardt also says, as difficult as it may be, talk to friends and other introverts about how they handle their hanganxiety. “See if they get it, and how much it actually impacts their social interactions,” he says.

What This Means Overall

It goes without saying that drinking is not a long-term solution for feeling comfortable socializing. So, another option — shy, introvert, or not — is to not drink at all.

“Abstaining from alcohol can be very beneficial,” Dr. Jennifer Caudle, family physician and associate professor at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine, tells Bustle. "For some, it can be a good opportunity to take a step back and regroup, and for others it might be a good opportunity to reevaluate drinking habits altogether.”

Dr. Adam Lipson, a neurosurgeon at IGEA Brain & Spine, agrees. “The effects of alcohol are more significant than some realize — it impacts brain function and neurochemistry,” he says. “Frequent hangovers are a sign of alcoholism; in my world as a surgeon, one hangover is too much.” He adds that everyone has a different relationship with alcohol, but frequent hangovers should be considered a red flag. And, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the cerebellum, an area of the brain that controls coordinating your movements and possibly certain forms of learning, is most frequently damaged when it comes to chronic alcohol consumption.

If you want to control the amount of hangiexty you experience, becoming aware of your drinking limitations, and adjusting them accordingly, is the first step. And, if you really want to avoid hangxiety, with Dry January coming up, you can always take a break from drinking altogether. Cheers to that.

Editor's Note: If you or someone you know is seeking help for substance use, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357).