Author and journalist Jill Stark asks “What is normal, anyway?" in her myth-busting series offering hope, comfort and practical advice to help people feel less alone
I wake up with a sense of impending doom, gnawing at me, deep in the pit of my stomach.
My heart is pounding so hard it feels like it might burst out of my chest like the screeching beast in the Alien movies.
Thoughts tumble over each other at a million miles an hour.
What have I done? Who did I text? What did I say? Why is there a half-eaten Big Mac on my bedroom floor?
I can’t shake the feeling that last night I set my life on fire.
And now I’m here – pinned to the bed in a white-hot panic, as every questionable decision I’ve ever made repeats in my head in a technicolor, sensory overload of shame and regret. Not for the first time after a big night out, I ask myself — Am I losing my mind?
This is hangover anxiety and it’s the worst.
If you’ve ever woken up with that jumpy, agitated, catastrophic sense that your world is teetering on the brink of the apocalypse, I feel your pain. Most people have suffered through a hangover that has left them feeling physically wretched. The raging thirst, headache, nausea, exhaustion, and eyeballs so dry you want to take them out and soak them in a jug of Powerade.
But what about the emotional debris that’s left behind after a night on the sauce? Is it normal to feel like you’re having a mental breakdown when you’re hungover?
Professor Jon Currie, one of Australia’s most prominent addiction medicine specialists, has some comforting news. “It’s very, very common to feel an emotional parallel with the physical symptoms that you feel when you’re hungover,” he said.
“After a big night of drinking, essentially your body is in withdrawal from alcohol and that brings that dreadful feeling of doom and anxiousness and restlessness and the sense that you can’t settle.”
"But what about the emotional debris that’s left behind after a night on the sauce?
Is it normal to feel like you’re having a mental breakdown when you’re hungover? "
Alcohol targets two receptors in the brain, which send messages to our nervous system. The first, gaba, is an inhibitor, which calms the brain down. Then there’s glutamate, which has the opposite effect, exciting the brain.
When we drink, it stimulates gaba and blocks glutamate, making us feel temporarily warm and fuzzy, prompting us to lose inhibitions and express our undying love to strangers at parties.
For those, like me, who are prone to anxiety, it can temporarily turn down the chatter in an over-stimulated mind. But when we wake up the next morning, the brain registers that this is not the natural order of things and tries to correct itself. That’s when things can quickly start to go pear-shaped.
“The day after drinking we get what we call a glutamate storm – so you’ve got much more glutamate binding and working in the brain and not enough of the inhibitory, calming brain chemical, gaba,” Professor Currie said.
“It’s like a car with a stuck accelerator and no brakes. That’s why you feel so agitated and restless the next morning because too much excitation is not good for the brain.”
Hangovers also stimulate the release of cortisol and noradrenaline – the body’s fight or flight hormones, which can exacerbate those catastrophic feelings, particularly if you’re already prone to anxiety.
And then there’s the way the body metabolises alcohol – breaking it down to acid aldehyde, a nasty chemical which causes much of the physical unpleasantness the morning after.
The longer that process takes, the worse you’ll feel. And everyone responds differently, depending on a range of factors including your genetic makeup.
This perhaps explains why I can have a couple of glasses of wine and still wake up the next morning feeling like my guts have turned inside out and my brain is melting. Meanwhile, my 73-year-old Scottish mother can knock back nips of whisky like a war’s coming and will be blissfully singing in the shower at 6am the next day as if her bloodstream’s impervious to booze.
On top of the haywire hormones and chemical firestorm, hangovers also interfere with our sleep patterns. A big boozy night may make us feel like we’ve fallen into a coma-like slumber, but we often don’t reach the REM stage of the sleep cycle – the period required to rest and rejuvenate the brain for the next day.
So how do we best manage hangover anxiety when it hits us? The most important thing you can do is recognise that the feelings you’re experiencing are not permanent.
Professor Currie suggests you acknowledge it’s a “transient chemical poisoning”, take a deep breath and accept the fatigue and anxiety will pass.
For me, these days I do my best to avoid hangover anxiety by no longer drinking like I’m competing for gold in the 100 metre sauv blanc sprint at the Booze Olympics. And if I do end up waking up with a raging hangover and a mind racing with regret, I try to be kind to myself and remember that there’s a difference between making a mistake and being a mistake.
So, for any of you struggling with the morning after horrors, try not to fixate on what you did or what you said the night before. Instead, give yourself some love and rest up.
And don’t forget that just because hangover anxiety is the worst, it doesn’t mean you are.
3 top tips for coping with hangover anxiety
- Accept that your body and mind are dealing with a chemical storm, and like every storm, eventually the clouds will clear.
- Stay hydrated and rest up.
- Avoid hair of the dog. Resist the temptation to have another drink to take the edge off the awfulness of your hangover. It will only prolong the recovery process.