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Can Alcohol Cause Anxiety?
If you experience anxiety after a night of heavy drinking, you’re not alone. Colloquially coined “hangxiety,” many binge drinkers feel hyperarousal in the form of stress, shakes, guilt and worry from heavy drinking. Learn some of the reasons behind hangover anxiety.
What Causes Hangover Anxiety?
If you’re binge drinking or drinking several days a week, alcohol could be causing more than just headaches and a queasy stomach the next day. It could be a culprit of anxiety. This type of anxiety goes beyond worry over your antics from the previous night and includes physical and psychological symptoms. Hangover anxiety is a real issue that can indicate your drinking could be a problem and perhaps you should consider alcohol rehab.
Reasons for hangxiety include:
Rebound Anxiety: The Boomerang Effect
In the moment, alcohol may ease nervousness and uncertainty, making you feel relaxed and a little giddy. That’s because ethanol acts on receptors in the brain (GABA receptors) responsible for making you feel calm. The problem is that this relaxed feeling is short-lived. When your nervous system receives “sedating signals,” it goes into overdrive in an effort to restore balance. This can cause hyperarousal and make you feel more anxious once your body metabolizes alcohol.
Serotonin Syndrome: Too Much of a Good Thing
Serotonin is often called the “happy chemical” because of its impact on positive feelings and sense of wellbeing. Found in the brain and blood, serotonin plays a role in emotions, appetite, sleep and motor functions. Alcohol can temporarily boost levels of serotonin. The serotonin excess contributes to decreased inhibitions and the “up” feeling you may get after drinking alcohol.
However, too much serotonin backfires. Research suggests excessive serotonin contributes to feelings of panic, agitation and anxiety. This may happen toward the end of a drinking episode or the next day (hangover anxiety). Serotonin syndrome is the same reason why there are warnings on antidepressants like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) that urge people not to mix them with alcohol. Too much serotonin can cause undesirable symptoms.
Mind-Body Connection: Physical Symptoms of Anxiety
Overdoing it with alcohol can cause physical symptoms that mimic those of anxiety. For instance, when you abuse alcohol you can experience a drop in blood sugar as well as dehydration. Sometimes these imbalances can leave you feeling weak, dizzy, shaky, nauseous, and bring about heart palpitations and confusion. Physiological symptoms of anxiety can trigger psychological anxiety symptoms like ruminations, worry and dread.
Slumber Sabotager: Disrupted Sleep Patterns
It seems counterintuitive that alcohol has sedating qualities but also disrupts sleep. However, research shows alcohol abuse can negatively impact sleep in a number of ways. You may fall asleep faster after a night of drinking, but the quality of sleep is poor. Alcohol can cause erratic breathing patterns and snoring. It can decrease REM sleep, which plays an important part in the restorative part of slumber, memory and mood. After your liver metabolizes alcohol, the sedative quality wears off and you may wake up throughout the night and earlier in the morning. Studies show sleep disturbances are highly linked to anxiety disorders, exacerbating symptoms such as irritability.
Pre-Existing Anxiety Disorders: Fueling the Fire
If you already have an anxiety disorder, alcohol abuse can compound your symptoms. Some research shows people with anxiety disorders are two or three times more likely to abuse substances. Self-medicating anxiety with alcohol can feel like the perfect solution at first. It may help grease the wheels for social interactions, slow down the rumination hamster wheel in your brain, and relax you. In actuality, alcohol abuse makes your anxiety worse. It’s a temporary fix that can lead to long-term problems. You begin needing more and more alcohol to feel normal and may even begin using it in the mornings to stave off anxiety rebound when your body withdraws from alcohol.
Alcohol Addiction: Physical and Psychological Dependence
With continued abuse, you’re at risk for developing a physical and psychological dependence on alcohol. You may feel unable to face social situations without it. You may experience withdrawal symptoms in the absence of alcohol like anxiety as well as tremors, headaches, insomnia, nausea, mood swings and heart palpitations.
Can alcohol cause anxiety? Yes. It can also make an existing anxiety disorder much worse. Whether alcohol abuse or anxiety came first, specialized treatment that addresses both issues can help you recover from these difficulties and live a life free of addiction.