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The Science Behind the Fear

Updated: Oct 20, 2023

It’s the morning after a big night out. Feelings of anxiety and irritability start to cloud your brain. Harrowing and hazy recollections of the night before slip in and out of your mind as your quest for sleep proves ineffective. The rising guilt that maybe you overdid yourself last night lures in your mind. This fusion of stress and sleep deprivation sends you into the frantic damage control mode to message anyone whom you might’ve made eye contact with the night before to apologise for your behaviour. If these symptoms seem familiar to you the night after drinking, then you can blame the common feeling of hangxiety.


Though not an official medical diagnosis, hangxiety describes the emotional and psychological plunge that occurs after heavy alcohol consumption. A deep dive biological analysis of hangxiety is explored in an article by the Alcohol and Drug Foundation which outlines how the ethanol molecules in alcohol target the brain’s Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) receptors, which control nerve cells. It sends chemical signals to these receptors which induces feelings of increased tranquillity and enjoyment. As the night continues and the alcohol-induced bliss fills your senses, your brain starts to restrict access to glutamate, a neurotransmitter that controls cognition and mood regulation. This describes the growing uninhibited feeling you may experience as the alcohol absorbs in your bloodstream.


As the alcohol levels decline, Shawarma is munched, and the first rays of sunlight appear on the walk back to your flat, your brain will try to repair the chemical imbalance. Through increasing glutamate levels and decreasing access to GABA, symptoms such as anxiety, memory loss and restlessness can start to develop. There is also a spike in noradrenaline, commonly known as the flight or fight hormone, which can make you feel jittery and on edge.


Much of the research surrounding hangxiety is undertaken by Professor David Nutt a Neuropsychopharmacologist at Imperial College London. Professor Nutt and his co-workers at Imperial College, London are currently developing a synthetic alcohol substitute known as the Acosynth drug or Hangover-free alcohol. In a similar fashion to regular alcohol, the molecules in Alcosynth bind to human GABA receptors in a more chemically safe way. This essentially mimics the beneficial feelings of relaxation and social ease that regular alcohol creates but without the negative consequences. Though Alcosynth is still unleashed in the market, it represents the breadth of scientific curiosity surrounding alcohol and its effects on the human brain



“It is the pre-anxiety of going to events and the heavy drinking that makes up for it, so the morning after creates massively exacerbated anxiety”, says Elsa, a fourth-year student at the University. In a study published by the Frontiers in Behavioural Neuroscience journal, estimates suggest around 12 per cent to 22 per cent of people often experience hangxiety when they consume alcohol. Given its prevalence, hangxiety can become a feeling many of our friends and peers are familiar with. So how can we ease its after-effects and support friends who might be going through something similar?


Psychotherapist and Counsellor Rachel Buchan recommends basic breathing and meditative exercises. Meditation reduces the level of the human stress hormone known as cortisol and helps to fight feelings of uneasiness experienced during hangxiety


To counter the cortisol, light movement and exercise promote the release of endorphins also known as happy hormones. The release of endorphins is biologically proven to reduce stress, boost moods and counter pain. This makes them a powerful hangxiety tackling technique. So take yourself on a walk or sweat off that hangover at the gym - if you can stomach it


​​Debriefing and chatting with your friends in the morning can reassure feelings of overwhelming anxiety from the night before, arguably better than any other remedy. It boosts the endorphins, calms nerves and makes it easier to just laugh at the embarrassing moments that happened. Hangxiety does not have to be a solo struggle, but one that is easier to overcome with friends around you (and perhaps one less drink next time).


Illustration by Aimee Robbins

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