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Content warning: this article contains mentions of alcohol consumption and anxiety. For support, you can contact CAPS at 847-491-2151.

When Communications third-year Christina Warner first started drinking, she genuinely believed she was allergic to alcohol, she said.

She would wake up the morning after a night out with an unshakeable feeling of anxiety that stretched on throughout the whole day, with her worrying about anything and everything relating to her life. Rather than feeling common physical symptoms of a hangover, like nausea or a headache, Warner said she felt an overwhelming sense of stress that no one else around her in her hometown of London – where the drinking age is 18 – seemed to talk about.

“Mentally, I would feel like I had just been dragged through the mud, and I couldn’t figure out what it was,” Warner said.

However, after she started college, she heard a term that seemed to match what she had experienced: “hangxiety,” a combination of the words “hangover” and “anxiety.” Hearing it come up often in conversation the day after a night out, Warner realized that she was not alone. In fact, it seemed common among all of her friends who drank alcohol.

According to the Newport Institute, between 12% and 22% of people experience hangxiety, defined broadly as feelings of worry during the hangover period.

Northwestern Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Reesha Patel said alcohol directly penetrates your blood brain barrier, acting on every part of your brain, with especially important implications for the amygdala, which manages emotional and stress responses like anxiety. Alcohol increases gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) transmission in the amygdala, as well as the production of feel-good chemicals like dopamine and serotonin, getting rid of anxiety in the moment.

“But there are these homeostatic effects in the brain. If you push something up, it’s going to go the other way before it returns back to the set point,” she said.  

So once alcohol leaves your system, this opposite effect might materialize in heightened anxiety during the hangover period, Patel explained. Any genetic factor that affects the metabolization of alcohol, such as your body mass index or whether you lack a specific enzyme, can play a role in how alcohol gives rise to hangxiety.

A 2012 study on over 1400 Dutch students found that out of the half that reported having a hangover in the past month, 7% of respondents experienced anxiety the next day. With an estimated 50% of American college students reporting in 2021 that they drank alcohol in the past month, it is likely that hangxiety impacts a portion of the students that engage in the drinking culture at Northwestern.

The experience of hangxiety

Warner said she saw hangxiety as a result of feeling embarrassed about her actions during the night before, when she might not have been in full control of her behavior due to alcohol-induced impairment.

“You look at yourself way more critically than other people do, so you’re going to look back at the night and think, ‘Oh, I was the drunkest one there,’” she said.

This anxiety latches onto all her other worries that pile throughout the week, weighing down that pit in her stomach, she said.

Weinberg third-year Antonia Green also said that she feels nervous about her interactions after a night of drinking.

“When you first wake up and feel that regret, it’s definitely mental. You have to check your texts and make sure nothing went wrong,” she said.

Green also noted physical symptoms of anxiety, like her heart racing, which disrupt her ability to focus on tasks that she needs to get done the next day, as her mind drifts off to what happened the night before.

Green said being in Greek life and mostly going out with what she sees as a relatively limited Greek life population on campus heightened her experience of hangxiety since “everyone knows everyone.” She said that a lot of her stress also comes from her interactions with men during a night out.

“The people who you know of and know of you but aren’t really your friends are definitely more judgmental,” Green said. “If they see you doing potentially embarrassing things, the next day you’re like, ‘Ugh, I did that in front of them, and they don’t know me like that.’”

Both Warner and Green said they tend to feel some degree of hangxiety every time they drink; for Green, it is specifically when she had more than a couple drinks.

McCormick fourth-year Jake Gallardo said he only experiences hangxiety when he blacks out from alcohol and forgets large blocks of the night (thankfully not a common experience for him).

He recalled waking up this past New Year’s Day lying face down, not quite sure of how he got into the bed he was in, and experiencing considerable gaps in his memory.

“My shoes were off though, because I was really polite,” he quipped.

He immediately checked his text messages, phone logs and Instagram direct messages and reached out to people he was with to ease the stress of wondering, “Did I say something I didn’t remember saying? Is there something I’ve done that I need to undo, or try to?”

“I don’t go hard often enough for [hangxiety] to be a regular thing, but when I do experience it, it’s not great,” Gallardo said.

Communications fourth-year Eli Civetta also said that he does not experience intense hangxiety very often, but rather a more mild sense of stress where he wakes up feeling unmotivated to complete his itinerary for the rest of the day.

“I get worried about if it was worth it for last night to impact the whole next day, which then could make it actually impact that day if I’m stressed about it,” he said.

Boys vs. girls

Research shows that it is more common for women to experience hangxiety than men. Women have more of a propensity to develop an alcohol dependency than men, and in general, women tend to have higher prevalence of mood disorders, Patel said.

Green said that from her observations, it seems like men either don’t experience anxiety after drinking that often, or are just less vocal about it.

“I think girls are generally more emotionally responsive than guys. We think a lot about how we make other people feel and their reactions, which could be good and bad,” she said.

Gallardo also noted that his friends who are female tend to think more about how their actions are received or if their words came across as intended, and these stressors paired with the foggy memory or lack of self control that comes with drinking can contribute more to hangxiety.

“I don’t think guys are as reflective of the things that they do,” he said.

Civetta said he could not say for sure if hangxiety is less common in men because “guys are less prone to share things like that.”

The normalization of hangxiety in college

Patel said that the college-aged group, in contrast to older adults, faces a relative inexperience with alcohol, as well as specific social pressures intertwined with drinking in the college party setting which could drive increased risk for hangxiety.

“Experience is key,” she said, “To know, ‘I can have this number of drinks before I feel all these bad feelings the next day.’”

The term “hangxiety” bounces around often amongst the population at NU that drinks alcohol, with many students saying that the majority of their friends have mentioned feeling hangxiety or have heard of the term.

“Out of my friends who I’ve gone out with or at least talked about going out with, I can’t think off the top of my head a single person who hasn’t experienced [hangxiety] before,” Green said.

Civetta recalled hearing the word for the first time and immediately being able to pin the term to his past experiences. Yet for how universal the term seems to be, some say that hangxiety and what it entails is not talked about enough.

“The more people that can genuinely understand that everybody has this, and it’s literally because of the alcohol, not because there is something internally wrong with you or that you’re an embarrassment, then the less people will feel alone in the experience,” Warner said.

Hangxiety can be a deeply negative or troubling experience that is easier to manage when you can put a name to what you are feeling. Talking with supportive friends who can understand your experience and provide reassurance can also help, Warner said.

Gallardo only first learned of the word this year. While he said it is helpful to have a name to label the experience, he does not think hangxiety should be normalized, especially since he mainly associates it with drinking to the point of blacking out.

“It makes those experiences that come along with binge drinking seem like they’re regular enough to have a term associated with it. No one calls it ‘binge drinking’ or ‘alcoholism.’ You say ‘going hard’ or ‘blacking out’ or ‘hangxiety,’” he said.

Indeed, some experts refer to hangxiety as a “mini withdrawal,” with symptoms representing less intense versions of symptoms of clinical alcohol withdrawal, such as restlessness and sweating.  

“You have all this alcohol in your system, and then you have this withdrawal, which causes these changes in physiological responses,” Patel said.

Managing hangxiety

The negative experience of hangxiety was enough to reduce how often Green goes out, she said.

“I hate that feeling of being embarrassed, and even more, being unproductive. We go to such a hard school that it’s not an option to take the entire weekend off,” she said.

Patel also emphasized that the only way to get rid of hangxiety is to stop drinking, and if you are drinking due to stress, to find alternative ways to cope.  

However, there are still ways you can manage your hangxiety if you choose to continue going out – the obvious one being to limit and monitor your alcohol intake.

In preparation for a night of drinking, Warner emphasized eating food and drinking a lot of water, which can respectively help slow the absorption of alcohol and avoid dehydration. She also said she makes sure that she is going into the night with a good mindset, with the goal of having fun with friends instead of avoiding work she has to get done, for example, so that she wakes up feeling less anxious.

On a similar note, knowing when to cancel your plans if you don’t feel up for them is important, Gallardo said.

“Being a flake is a little bit of a skill,” he noted.

The day after drinking, Green found that staying off social media, where she tends to see people showing off their perfect, productive lives, can help her avoid comparing her mental state to others. She tells herself that no one else is thinking about her actions as much as she is and turns to exercise as a way to get her mind off the previous night and take care of her body.

Whether you want to surround yourself with people who bring up your energy or spend some time alone watching TV, Warner suggested remembering that “it will pass – this feeling will not stay forever.”

Words of wisdom

For those feeling especially unmotivated the day after drinking and overwhelmed by the looming tasks of the week, Civetta said to remember: “We’ve all been there. You had a good time, you de-stressed, you were with your friends. Just consider this part of your resting and recharging before you get back to whatever you have to do.”

So if you find yourself with that sinking feeling in your stomach, with your heart racing and thoughts swirling for no real reason other than the fact that you went out last night, keep the following words of wisdom in mind.

“Anything that you did that isn’t worthy of getting arrested for is going to be inconsequential in the next week, so it’s not that big of a deal,” Gallardo said. “Just keep moving forward.”