Co-founders of the Love Sober community and authors of Love Yourself Sober, Kate and Mandy explain how we're making our anxiety worse with alcohol
Have you ever had that feeling of dread when you wake up after a night out? Or woken up at 4am after a couple of glasses with your heart racing? Perhaps you have, out of the blue, 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’, ‘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 and 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.
This is why so many people cite drinking to cope with social anxiety or to relax at the end of the day: in the short-term, it does have a calming effect.
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, your brain in order to counteract this surge of GABA will decrease its production so the next day your brain will be imbalanced and you can end up feeling more anxious.
The danger with this is that it can lead to a vicious cycle of us then having a drink to calm down again, which further depletes our 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 you are at risk of more regularly drinking and 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 ill mental 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 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 of 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 all great tools to help you stay calm and manage stress. Unplugging, taking tech breaks and generally trying to be mindful of our energy levels help your overall wellbeing and taking a break from the booze is a power ball of a tool in your wellbeing toolkit.
Love Yourself Sober: A Self Care Guide to Alcohol-Free Living for Busy Mothers by Kate Baily and Mandy Manners is published by Trigger Publishing, priced £12.99, available online and from all good bookstores. To find out more about Kate, Mandy, and the Love Sober community, visit LoveSober.
If you are worried you might have a drinking problem and want to find out more about getting help, visit Counselling Directory or enter your postcode in the search bar below to find an experienced, qualified therapist near you.