Why you feel anxiety a day after drinking
It's been a long time since my last hangover, however I still remember the panic attacks that would hit me the morning after a night of drinking. For most of my "social" drinking years (three decades' worth), I never considered the possibility that the anxiety I experienced was actually a symptom of withdrawal.
I'd simply accepted that some mornings I woke up with unease about my life. Like many moms, I had plenty to be anxious about from parenting struggles to marital issues to wondering what the heck I was doing with my life. On any given day, I was juggling varying levels of anxiety so how could I blame alcohol for a few morning jitters?
It wasn't until the final few years of my drinking habit that I started to realize that these Sunday morning anxiety symptoms were a result of alcohol withdrawal. As it turns out, just one drink of alcohol sets off reactions in the body that don't stop until the body has flushed out all the alcohol. Surprise, surprise. Some of those reactions can lead to anxiety and depression.
Alcohol's feel good effect
Why do we grab that first alcoholic beverage?
If it's a get together, we want the social lubricant effect. Nothing's worse than forced conversation at the beginning of a party with people you barely know. One or two drinks in, and you're feeling relaxed and sociable. That's because the alcohol exposure signals the body to release mood boosting endorphins. This helps the body relax as inhibitions decrease with every additional drink.
Just as likely, a stressful day at work or with the kids may spark the desire for a glass of wine. I used to view my glass of wine as a reward for my day's work. I'd think, the day was long and now it's time to relax with a little help from my Cabernet.
But what exactly is happening in our bodies as we sip our bevies and get lulled into a hazy state? Here's the science to explain some of what's going on.
From the first sip of alcohol, your neurotransmitters change course. Neurotransmitters enable the trillions of neurons in your central nervous system to communicate with one another. Neurons are uber important. Without them, we would not have the ability to perceive the world around us. They enable us to smell a fresh batch of cookies, contract our muscles, and remove our fingers from a hot plate.
Two types of neurotransmitters affected by alcohol are inhibitory and excitatory. Inhibitory decreases the responsiveness of other neurons. Excitatory has the opposite effect. Under normal conditions, a beautiful balance exists between them.
Research indicates that when you add alcohol to your system, the body tilts the balance toward inhibition while simultaneously decreasing the function of excitatory neurotransmitters. When inhibitory neurotransmitters increase, you experience a sedating effect along with less anxiety. (This is what we love about our drinks.) Sedative medications, such as Valium, also act in this way by influencing these neurotransmitters.
When you've hit the wall and decide you've had enough to drink (it's 2 a.m. already), things take a turn. The brain now wants to restore equilibrium so it decreases inhibitory neurotransmission and enhances excitatory neurotransmission. Unfortunately, your body is now leaning toward a state of excessive excitation which can be characterized by anxiety, or worse, seizures and delirium.
And, remember that release of dopamine at the start of your evening? With alcohol withdrawal, that is cut back. No more mood-boosting enhancements.
By morning, your body is furiously working on your behalf to rebalance itself, but the effect on you is downright miserable. The relaxed feelings are long gone and your mind is now on high alert, perhaps even panicky. Add a pounding headache and upset stomach and you may be experiencing milder versions of what clinical alcohol withdrawal looks like. Someone who drinks heavily often, and then stops suddenly, would experience more severe symptoms.
All this technical talk leads to the conclusion that those morning after panic attacks may have little to do with your actual life, and more to do with your biology. Of course, if you recall doing something excessively irresponsible or stupid, like passing out on your next door neighbour's front lawn, or worse, driving drunk, then your anxiety is probably related to your actions, as well. That's another topic all together.
The good news is that you can now recognize that the anxiety in the pit of your stomach is not because your life is actually any worse than it was the day before. The questions of existentialism that have you sweating under your bed sheets are more likely a result of your body's over-excited state. Not the sudden realization that your life is one massive disaster (embarrassing actions of said night before, excepted).
The not so good news is that unless you stop drinking, the morning after panic is likely to return the next time your drink too much. Is it worth it?
If you think it may be time to quit drinking alcohol, check out my tips for how to stop drinking alcohol.