It’s the morning after a night out, and you can’t stop stressing. Maybe you’re overwhelmed by all the errands you need to run or can’t shake the feeling of embarrassment over your tipsy choices.
This is a common experience ― and you may have noticed this happens more as you age. “I just can’t drink like I used to,” you’ll hear people say.
Case in point: One social media user shared how their anxiety was extra-affected by alcohol as they got older. TikTok creator and therapist Amanda White responded, explaining that as we age, our bodies become less efficient at breaking down alcohol, especially as you hit your 30s, 40s and 50s.
Hello, “hangxiety,” or hangover anxiety. Teri Wilder, a licensed mental health counsellor with Thriveworks in Lafayette, Indiana, who specialises in addiction and anxiety, said there’s a real connection between the two.
“The ability to tolerate alcohol actually reduces as you age, resulting in an increase in anxiety symptoms and the reduced ability for the liver to manage alcohol effectively,” she explained.
What is behind that? According to Josh New, clinical director at Renewal Lodge by Burning Tree in Texas, “this could be a mixed bag of things for different people.” He and Wilder shared a few of those factors below.
We have less muscle mass as we get older
Muscle mass typically decreases over time, and that plays a role in how we break down alcohol, Wilder said. “Adults tend to have reduced muscle mass as they age, resulting in less water in the body overall to help dilute the effects of the alcohol.”
Further, since having less muscle mass can mean having a slower metabolism, your body can’t process alcohol as quickly in that sense, either.
We also experience a decrease in the neurotransmitter GABA
GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that lessens a cell’s ability to receive or create messages, and it’s known for having a calming effect. Unfortunately, GABA levels decline both with intense alcohol use and with age.
“Alcohol is a depressant, which means that as it affects the GABA chemicals within the brain, it results in providing relaxation and stress reduction initially,” Wilder explained. “However, when an individual engages in heavy drinking, GABA levels become depleted and the brain utilises its reserves of the relaxation chemical, resulting in an increase in anxiety, tension and potentially even creating feelings of panic.”
There’s decreased liver function
The liver also doesn’t work as well over time. “The liver’s ability to detox the body and cleanse it of toxins becomes less efficient, which could contribute to more acute withdrawal symptoms, such as anxiety, as we age,” New said.
We see long-term effects on serotonin levels
Drinking too much also affects brain health and mood. According to New, “As we drink excessively and consistently, the body becomes used to the suppressant effect that alcohol produces in the body and can lead to long-term disruption in serotonin production.”
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that affects several factors in your brain and body, like your happiness and mood, ability to sleep and more. A lack of serotonin is often a contributor to anxiety or depression. Data suggests people who excessively use alcohol do experience reduced serotonin levels in the brain.
How to prevent ‘hangxiety’
So, in the midst of the anxiety, what can help you deal? New said, “a lot of the same practices to help in general anxiety would be beneficial for an individual here.” He and Wilder shared some advice to help get you out of that funk.
Take care of your body physically
Besides feeling anxious, you may also feel physically sick the next morning (which can also worsen your mental health). Taking care of yourself is crucial. Wilder recommended resting, rehydrating and eating comfort food that’s easily digestible.
New also encouraged adding nutrient-rich foods to your plate to “help the body restore vital nutrients depleted during a night of drinking.” For example, bell peppers have lots of water content and antioxidants, and strawberries are high in water, fibre and vitamin C.
“Being hydrated is key, as being dehydrated will only worsen anxiety,” he explained.
How else can you help your body chill out? Wilder suggested taking a warm bath, listening to calming music, walking outside, getting a massage, practicing deep breathing, engaging in progressive muscle relaxation, using essential oils and resting your eyes in a darkened room.
New is a fan of breathing exercises, too. “If anxiety persists, one can take time to practice some basic breathing exercises, such as box breathing … or any other breathing techniques the individual may know,” New said.
Here’s a video on box breathing to get you started. “This will help ground an individual and regulate that feeling of panic.”
Reach out to trusted loved ones
Bringing in your support system is often a smart move. “Talk to friends or family about your anxiety or what is giving you cause for concern,” Wilder encouraged. “Allow them to talk you down and help reduce your anxiety as you focus on assessing your current situation.”
New added that talking to others can also help you just feel supported and less alone. If you’ve ever gotten this kind of encouragement before, you know how good it can feel.
Side note: If no one is picking up, consider calling a warmline, which is like a crisis line but for people who just need comfort.
Bring on the self-compassion
While receiving others’ love can be meaningful, receiving our own love and understanding is important, too. “Try not to overthink or focus too much on what is creating anxiety for you,” Wilder said. “Try not to focus on your actions while engaged in using alcohol, and don’t beat yourself up for any mistakes that you may have made during that time.”
This is a tip to try if you can’t stop ruminating. Wilder recommended redirecting your mind. “Using mindfulness to focus on your senses and engage in tuning them into what is happening around you can be a useful grounding tool to help bring you back down,” she said.
If drinking less and these tips aren’t helping — or even if they are — what’s your best bet? “Overall, if anxiety persists and is the reason for continuing drinking,” New said, “you should always seek out professional help to be assessed to see if professional services may benefit you.”
Need help with substance use disorder or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.