Is hangxiety worse than ever this party season?

Written by Katie Rosseinsky

Heading into our first festive party season post-lockdowns is undeniably nerve wracking. But has it made our collective hangxiety worse? 

The lurching sensation of panic as you recall the secrets you spilled, the whirr of your brain as you rush to replay every conversation, the voice in your head insisting that you’ve done something seriously awful. If all this sounds painfully familiar, then you’re probably well-acquainted with hangover anxiety, also not-so-fondly known as ‘hangxiety’ or ‘beer fear’. The physical symptoms of a hangover are well-documented, but for an estimated 12% of people, the most punishing part of the morning after the night before is all in the mind.

“I will worry about the most insignificant things, like, ‘Oh my god, I talked for so long about Drag Race last night,” says Louise*, 26. “I know I wouldn’t care about it if I said the same thing sober – it’s just the fact that [it] was influenced by alcohol rather than fully my own choice that gives me the anxious feels. The weight of hangxiety genuinely leaves me not wanting to leave the house the entire next day.”

Raise the spectre of hangover anxiety in conversation and one word – dread – recurs again and again. “I wake up with just this general feeling of dread: about the day ahead, about the night before,” explains Abby*, 31. “I can neither stay in bed and snooze nor get up and feel ready for the day ahead. It’s like getting stuck in this awful limbo and there isn’t really a way out of it, because ultimately the damage – the drinking – is done.”

For Lily*, 30, this dread manifests in a very specific way – and her method of tackling it is certainly unorthodox. “Every time, I become totally convinced that everyone I interacted with on the night must hate me now,” she says. “Friends, Uber drivers, randoms in a bar.” So far, so relatable. “I went through a real phase of doing these big grand gestures for my friends the next morning because I felt this weird guilt. Once I even went to the supermarket and then made everyone shakshuka.”

This Christmas marks the first, proper festive party season since the start of the pandemic, and after two consecutive fallow years, that means – for better or worse – the annual office bash is back in the Outlook calendar. Socialising with colleagues is surely up there with the most hangxiety-inducing scenarios: the person in charge of giving you a pay rise looking on as you stack it down a flight of stairs is the stuff that stress dreams are made of (and you can’t usually cook them breakfast afterwards to atone).

“Embarrassing things that happen with your friends can often be laughed off, but it can really affect your reputation in the work setting,” says Millie Gooch, founder of Sober Girl Society, a community for sober and sober-curious women.

Almost three years on, I can still remember the somersault in my tummy upon waking up to a post-Christmas party Slack from my then-boss: something along the lines of “Why did we do this?”,shortly followed by a picture message that wouldn’t download on my wifi. When it finally appeared, it was totally innocuous – a screenshot of her Spotify history, a list of all the musical theatre classics we’d crucified in the Uber Pool (remember those?) – but those minutes of waiting were unbearable.

“I worry I’ve shared too much of myself [after drinking],” Abby says. “This is especially true in a working setting where I feel like I try to uphold a certain level of privacy, as I line manage a few people.” Remote working, with its lack of face-to-face contact, can exacerbate these worries too, as Louise explains. “Pre-Covid, I would have seen these colleagues every day and had the chance to chat, gossip [and] debrief on a regular basis in a controlled office space,” she says. “But now, these conversations are concentrated into less frequent, alcohol-fuelled socials, making me more likely to say something I may feel anxious about later.”

What happens during a hangover that causes our minds to spiral so wildly? “When our body breaks down alcohol, it produces acetaldehyde,” explains Dr Craig Gunn, a lecturer in the school of psychological science at the University of Bristol, whose current research explores how hangovers impact the thought processes behind everyday behaviours. “This is more toxic than alcohol itself and our body needs to deal with it as it strives to get back into balance (something we call homeostasis). To reinstate homeostasis, the immune system, stress system and other systems that are important for regulation are all activated. These, in turn, have various effects on our brain, including impacting our thoughts and emotions.” 

The hormone cortisol is part of that stress system. It “causes an increase in your heart rate and the sensation of a ‘racing heart’, which is also what happens during a panic attack or an anxious episode”, adds Dr Elena Touroni, consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic. “And so, it easily becomes a vicious cycle – the physical symptoms lead you to feel anxious, spurring on negative thoughts, and so on.” Throw in the fact that “alcohol drinking correlates with going to bed later, waking earlier and suffering fragmented sleep in between”, as clinical psychologist and Kove co-founder Dr Jenna Vyas-Lee puts it, and you have the perfect cocktail of self-loathing.

Gunn’s research has found that hungover people tend to “perceive stimuli more negatively”. When they are “shown a pleasant image (eg fluffy bunnies), they may perceive this less positively during a hangover relative to a non-hungover state,” he explains. If fluffy bunnies seem bad, no wonder drunk texts or less than flattering photos can feel so catastrophic the next day (“It’s worse when looking at Instagram stories,” one friend says of her hangxiety experience).

There’s some evidence to suggest that hangxiety might be more pronounced among certain personality types, too. A 2018 study by researchers from the University of Exeter and University College London found that shy people reported more intense anxiety after a night out drinking with others. “Shy people with social anxiety feel worried about their performance in social situations,” notes Vyas-Lee, so they are both more likely to be careful with their words, and “more likely to later interpret what they do say… in a negative way”. 

Adding alcohol into the mix, she adds, might initially alleviate the anxiety that that shy people feel relating to other people’s judgments as it “blocks disinhibitors and [the] sense of being watched” (which explains the Uber karaoke), but if we’ve not been in control, then we essentially “increase the amount of uncertainty we have around our memories of the events we experienced, leading to over-thinking patterns and negative interpretations of our own behaviour”.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, many of us have been left feeling “socially out of practice”, as Vyas-Lee puts it. “I felt my social skills had been affected by the lockdowns, and with it, I had increased feelings of anxiety around socialising in general,” Meg says. “I would use alcohol to make me feel more at ease, which just led to worse fears the next day.” A survey of 648 participants published earlier this year found that poor mood was associated with increased hangover severity. Heightened social anxiety plus the first no-holds-barred party season in years, then, feels like a sure-fire recipe for hangxiety.

“I’m already worrying about the potential anxiety spiral when it comes to December,” Lily admits. “I know that’s counter-productive – worrying about worry – and there’s part of me that thinks, ‘God, you’ve barely been out for the past two years; go and make up for it.’ But the worrying voice is the louder voice.” She is planning on cutting down on booze in the run-up to Christmas as a direct consequence of her recent booze-induced anxiety, while Meg has already discovered the joy of a sober night out every so often. “I have in the last year identified that I really do not enjoy being drunk,” she says.

Drinking less is, of course, the best way to assuage any festive hangxiety. Social pressures, especially at this time of year, make this much harder than it should be, so if you do decide to go sober or just have one, Gooch recommends having “a solid plan” in place to pre-empt those eye-rolling comments. She notes that being really honest about why you’re not drinking, or drinking less, can be helpful – if you feel like you can do that. “If we joke about it, people often think they can too, but having an honest conversation means people are usually quite respectful.”

On the night, if you’re hopping between events, nutritionist and Food For Thought podcast host Rhiannon Lambert advises using your travel time to hydrate. Opting for a vodka soda over, say, the obligatory flute of prosecco will allow you to “get a balance of alcohol [and] hydration”, she adds – and make sure your fruit bowl is stocked with avocados and bananas for the morning after. “Foods containing potassium can help your body to recover lost electrolytes from a night of drinking.”  

Above all, though, treating your post-party self with kindness is crucial. “Notice and call out the shaming voice in your head and commit to showing yourself compassion instead,” says Touroni. “Do nice, nourishing things for yourself – order some nice food, run yourself a bath, call a supportive friend.” We can certainly get on board with that.

*Names have been changed

Images: Getty

Source: Read Full Article