Why Drinking to Control Social Anxiety Can Backfire

At first glance, you might think that having a drink or two might be a good way to deal with your social anxiety. After all, using alcohol is considered by many people to be a good way to unwind after a stressful day. Before you reach for that bottle of wine, snap the cap on that beer or start lining up shots, you need to consider something else: Bending the elbow to control your anxiety can backfire on you and make you feel more anxious the next day.

“Hangxiety”: When a Hangover and Anxiety Meet

If you have ever woken up the morning after drinking feeling stressed or guilty about things you said or did the night before, then you experienced what is commonly called “hangxiety.” As if it’s not bad enough feeling dehydrated, headachy and generally like you’ve been hit by a freight train (the hangover), you get to deal with anxiety as well. How exactly does this double whammy occur? [Hint: It’s not just the result of being dehydrated because of alcohol use.]

How Alcohol Use Leads to Anxiety

Step 1: Alcohol Calms the Brain

When you first start drinking, alcohol interacts with the Gaba receptor. This receptor sends chemical messengers through the brain as well as the central nervous system to slow down nerve cells’ activity. As a result, you start to feel relaxed and in good spirits (no pun intended). This stage lasts for the first couple of drinks.

Step 2: More Inebriated, Even Less Anxiety

Once you get into your third or fourth drink, the alcohol is actively blocking glutamate. This is the brain’s principal excitability transmitter.

As people continue to drink alcohol, they tend to become less anxious. Someone who is very drunk is even less anxious than a person who has only had one or two drinks. The endless trains of thought that go along with being anxious are pretty much shut down. This may sound like it’s a desirable state of mind, but it isn’t exactly as advertised.

Step 3: Body Tries to Correct Imbalance in Brain Chemistry

You know that your body works like a very-complicated machine, right? When something is even the least bit out of balance, it tries to correct it and put things right.

When you get drunk, your body knows that its Gaba levels are out of whack. It goes into overdrive to bring them down to normal levels. At the same time, it’s trying to get the glutamate back up.

Step 4: Hangxiety Can Occur

At the point where you stop drinking, your Gaba function is really low and your body has caused your glutamate levels to increase rapidly. This creates the perfect situation for you to feel very anxious. It’s also the reason why some people experience seizures while going through alcohol withdrawal.

The anxiety starts while you’re sleeping off the alcohol you consumed. You wake up feeling jittery and your “fight or flight” hormone (noradrenaline) levels are higher than usual. Alcohol consumption causes them to increase slightly, then they rise as the alcohol wears off. The surge of noradrenaline in the brain can cause severe anxiety.

Who is Affected Most by Hangxiety?

Not everyone feels the effects of hangxiety to the same extent. The results of a study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences found that hangxiety effects people differently. Researchers asked a group of participants about their anxiety levels before, during and then the morning after they consumed alcohol. They found that people who were more shy had much higher anxiety levels the day after drinking than the participants who weren’t as shy. The researchers also found a link between those who experienced significant hangxiety and those who had a problem with alcohol abuse.

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