Why does drinking alcohol increase feelings of anxiousness?

Kate and Mandy, co-founders of the Love Sober community and authors of Love Yourself Sober, explain how we’re making our anxiety worse with alcohol

CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Happiful

Have you ever had that feeling of dread when you wake up after a night out? Or woken up at four am after a couple of glasses with your heart racing? Perhaps you have felt ‘wine shame’, and spent the day after drinking worrying and analysing every word/action of the night before? In other words, you have experienced ‘beer fear’ or ‘gin ruin’, commonly known as ‘hangxiety’.

Hangxiety is actually a chemical imbalance of the neurotransmitters in the brain due to the impact of alcohol. Most of us understand that alcohol is a depressant, and usually associate it with relaxation and decreased anxiety. However, it’s also a stimulant which impacts other parts of the brain – in particular, the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid).  

GABA is considered an inhibitory neurotransmitter because it blocks, or inhibits, certain brain signals and decreases activity in your nervous system. When GABA attaches to a protein in your brain, known as a GABA receptor, it produces a calming effect. This can help with feelings of anxiety, stress, and fear.

In other words, alcohol hijacks and depletes the natural GABA in your brain and mimics this calming effect. This is why so many people cite drinking to cope with social anxiety, or to relax at the end of the day because, in the short-term, it does have a calming effect. However, in order to counteract this surge of GABA, your brain will decrease its production so, the next day, your brain will be out of balance and you can end up feeling more anxious.

The danger with this is that it can lead to a vicious cycle of people then having a drink to calm down again, which further depletes GABA levels – and on it goes. In the short term, you feel dreadful, which impacts your day-to-day life; in the longer term – if you continue to use alcohol to feel better, ‘unwind’ at the end of the day, and self-medicate the cumulative effects of hangxiety –  are at risk of drinking more regularly,developing higher tolerance and, possibly, dependency issues.

Hangxiety was certainly part of the reason why we decided to stop drinking alcohol. The negative effects of alcohol on our mental wellbeing are, thankfully, now being more understood and publicised. And we are not alone, with one-in-four people in the UK identifying as experiencing mental ill health, the most common being anxiety and/or depression. It was an absolute revelation to us that, with the right support and tools onboard, we were mentally stronger, more resilient and so much less anxious without using alcohol.

What can I do to tackle my hangxiety?

Although the marketing of alcohol at women has focused on the fun and relaxing messages, the whole picture is often not so fun and relaxing when we take in to consideration the aftermath of the party. The good news is that there are great alcohol-free alternatives available now, and being sober was named as one of the biggest lifestyle trends of 2020, which puts you in good company with many who are questioning alcohol’s ‘essential’ place at the table.  

Thinking about how you would like to socialise in other ways can help, allowing yourself to recharge and embrace a bit of JOMO (joy of missing out) can help break up your week and social life in a healthier and more sustainable way.

Having a wellbeing toolkit is important for all of us and there are many other ways to self-regulate your nervous system and boost the GABA in your brain. Eating fermented foods, such as kimchi, miso, and tempeh, can boost levels, as can supplements such as inositol. Even 10 minutes of aerobic exercise such as jogging, dancing, swimming or walking can bring down levels of stress and anxiety.

Breathing techniques and yoga are both great tools to help you stay calm and manage stress. Unplugging, taking tech breaks and generally trying to be mindful of our energy levels will help your overall wellbeing – and taking a break from the booze is a power ball of a tool in your wellbeing toolkit.

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