“I need a drink to relax.” We’ve all heard it before. Many people say that a drink at the end of a day helps them to relax, unwind, or ease into a restful weekend. But just as many people feel bad the next day. I’m not talking about the usual hangover, sickness and headaches you generally get (although that’s pretty unpleasant already). Often people feel more anxious and tired than before they started drinking. It’s as if you get a temporary break from anxiety, but you pay it back the next day with hefty interest! It has been nicknamed “hangxiety”.
So how does alcohol affect our mood?
We need to look at something called gamma-aminobutyric acid (or Gaba for short). The Gaba receptors in your brain calm your brain down, reducing your overall energy levels by causing fewer neurons to fire. Alcohol targets this area of your brain with surgical precision. The first couple of drinks have a calming effect. You feel calm, less anxious, less stressed, quicker to laugh and smile and get along with everyone. Sounds great. By the third drink, your brain starts blocking glutamate. Glutamate levels correspond roughly to your anxiety levels. The more glutamate, the more anxiety, and vice versa. The reduced inhibitions of drunk people are explained by this reduction in glutamate. In your blissed-out state, you will probably feel that this is all good… but you will be wrong.
Your body doesn’t like things to be imbalanced. Once your glutamate is blocked, it will notice the drop and will work to increase levels back to what it perceives as “normal”. When you are drunk, your body goes on a mission to bring Gaba levels down to normal and turn glutamate back up. When you stop drinking, with a low Gaba function and your glutamate levels skyrocketing, you have a spike in your anxiety.
Another key cause of hangxiety is being unable to remember the mortifying things you are sure you must have said or done while inebriated – another result of your compromised glutamate levels. Alcohol also messes with your noradrenaline levels, known as the fight-or-flight hormone.
Alcohol-related anxiety affects all of us differently. Some are more prone to the effects of an anxious hangover than others. Shy, introverted people tend to be more adversely affected by all this than those who are more outgoing. This might suggest a correlation between those who drink to relax and the development of problems with alcohol.
It’s not uncommon for people to say they started drinking just to relax, calm down, or be more sociable, but as time went by, and their alcohol consumption increased, so too did their issues with anxiety and shyness. That’s why it’s critical that people always be mindful of their substance use, so you can honestly self-monitor your alcohol consumption, and ask yourself if it really is helping you to relax.
So, if you have issues with anxiety, medicating yourself with alcohol is definitely the wrong way to go. We can help you develop new and healthier ways to deal with your anxiety, learn to manage it efficiently and regain control over your life.