Why Drinking Can Make You Feel Extra Anxious Over the Holidays
By Julia Ries
- Alcohol activates the GABA system causing us to feel less anxious and relaxed. If you stop drinking, your GABA system is still overcompensating and gets mixed up, leading to a spike in anxiety.
- Drinking can also impact your ability to get REM sleep, which can affect mood.
- Alcohol can help trigger a chemical that impacts the "flight or flight" response leading to anxiety
For many people, drinking and the holidays go hand in hand.
Between the work parties, festive get-togethers, and influx of family members, there are plenty of opportunities to get caught up in a whirlwind of drinking.
And all the alcohol-infused cheer going around often comes with a painful aftershock.
Yes, there are the standard hangover symptoms — pounding headaches, bouts of nausea, and an uncompromisable need for total silence — but many people also experience heightened levels of anxiety, a term the internet has dubbed "hangxiety."
So, in light of the upcoming holidays — and, therefore, all the champagne and spiked eggnog you're about to serve up — we wanted to get to the bottom of why drinking can give us more anxiety in the days that follow.
It Messes With Our GABA System
The mood fluctuations we feel after a couple of days or even a night of excessive drinking can be traced back to gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain.
Alcohol activates the GABA system (which, remember, is inhibitory), causing us to feel less anxious and relaxed (if you drink, you know the feeling).
"By activating an inhibitory neuron, [alcohol] makes you uncoordinated, it makes you disinhibited — so you're a little more talkative — and that happens immediately," said Dr. Stephen Holt, a Yale Medicine addiction medicine doctor.
However, if you drink multiple days in a row, and therefore activate the GABA system for an extended period of time, the GABA system starts to cool itself down.
"Your brain starts to say, 'Oh! There's this whole new thing in our brain now, we should make some changes,'" Holt said.
When you eventually stop drinking, your GABA system is still overcompensating and gets mixed up, leading to a spike in anxiety.
"When you take alcohol out of the system — it's four days of binge drinking and now you're not drinking alcohol — that [GABA] system is now revved up in such a way that you start to feel anxious if you don't have alcohol in your system," Holt said.
On top of that, alcohol releases a surge of endorphins — our bodies' natural opiate — which gives us a feel-good buzz.
When we drink for days in a row, our brain starts to expect this pleasurable substance all the time. And, without it, we can start to feel a bit blue.
"We use the term dysphoria, which is kind of the opposite of euphoria," said Holt. "It's just this feeling of emptiness and feeling a little hollow — there's just something missing — because that alcohol was providing this pleasurable, reinforcing effect."
Alcohol Can Also Be Stimulating
Alcohol can also be stimulating, according to Dr. John Krystal, the chair of the department of psychiatry at Yale Medicine.
Some people may find that a glass of wine or beer will cause them to feel more stimulated. Krystal says this may be due to alcohol's ability to increase norepinephrine levels in the body, which is a chemical involved in our body's "fight or flight" response to fear or stress.
This rush of norepinephrine can play out in a couple of ways.
"While some people may find the effects of norepinephrine to be pleasurable, others — particularly people with symptoms associated with panic disorder or PTSD — may be very sensitive to the ability of norepinephrine to trigger anxiety," Krystal said.
It Interferes With Our Sleep
Alcohol also disrupts the quality of our sleep and can completely deregulate our sleep-wake cycle.
"People may find that drinking alcohol helps them to relax and to fall asleep. However, alcohol reduces the restful quality of sleep and when their blood alcohol levels drop, they may experience more difficulty getting back to sleep or maintaining sleep," Krystal said.
And when we don't get the sleep we need, our mood can take a hit.
When we drink alcohol, our rapid eye movement, or REM sleep, is reduced. This matters because it's the most important, restorative part of our sleep.
Research shows that poor REM sleep has been linked to a higher risk of depression and anxiety. On the flip side, a deep, restorative sleep may actually calm an overactive brain and mitigate feelings of anxiety.
"Sleep is important in mood regulation and being thrown off suddenly can increase feelings of anxiety," said Jessy Warner-Cohen, PhD, a senior psychologist at Northwell Health.
Here’s How Long It’ll Last and What to Do About It
According to Holt, whereas a hangover will usually stick with you for a few hours, that post-drinking anxiety may linger for a couple of days.
However, if you struggle with anxiety or have an anxiety disorder, that anxiety may last longer and end up being more severe than it was before drinking alcohol.
If you start to feel more anxious after drinking, it's probably worth taking a break from it. Give your GABA system a rest and find a healthier way to soak up those endorphins.
"There are natural ways of reducing anxious feelings. Exercise is a great one. Even if you're feeling sluggish, going for a brisk walk can naturally uplift your mood," Warner-Cohen said.
Sleep is another big one: Take a nap if you can or aim for an earlier bedtime.
"Getting an actual full night's sleep that includes REM sleep is very important to help people feel restored the next day, less anxious, less depressed, and more capable of getting done what needs to be done," Holt said.
Deep breathing exercises can also help soothe your nerves. There's plenty of evidence pointing to deep breathing's ability to boost feelings of comfort and downplay symptoms of anxiety, arousal, and confusion.
Many health experts recommend the 4-7-8 method, in which you slowly inhale for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds, and gradually exhale for 8 seconds.
Listen to your body — you know it better than anyone else.
If you feel the anxiety building, or strong, persistent urges to drink, reach out for help. There are a lot of treatments available for both anxiety and alcohol use disorders that are worth looking into if you sense an issue unfolding.
The Bottom Line
With the holidays upon us, you may notice that all that spiked eggnog and champagne toasts may not only give you a painful hangover, but severe symptoms of anxiety as well.
This is because alcohol can have a very powerful effect on the systems that regulate our mood and mental health.
Though the anxiety may linger for a few days, sleep, exercise, and deep breathing exercises can help you overcome the anxious aftershock that follows a few days of heavy drinking.
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