"Hangxiety" Is Real, and It's Worse for Certain Personality Types
Scientists validate the worst part of a big night out.
Some parts of a hangover are more easily remedied than others. Feeling dehydrated? Try electrolytes. Feeling sluggish? Exercise seems to help. But for some, the most devastating effects of a hangover are the emotional ones. In that realm, we have far fewer home remedies, but a recent study in Personality and Individual Differences, validating the morning-after ennui, pinpoints the kind of person who most likely has it worst.
The emotional toll of a hangover is sometimes called “hangxiety,” which is an umbrella term for a few different nasty feelings that plague the hungover brain. If you’ve experienced it, you’ll recognize the feeling as soon as you read the word. It might be a relentless stream of “What did I do last night?” fueled by spotty memories of the night before. For others, it’s a persistent over-analysis of the events of the previous evening, driven by the nagging, unanswerable question: “Did I make myself look stupid?”
"“Anecdotally it resonates a lot with people."
However it manifests, Beth Marsh, a research assistant at University College London’s clinical pharmacology unit, explains to Inverse that her most recent paper adds credence to the idea that hangxiety is a real phenomenon that plagues some people more than others. Marsh, working with University of Exeter psychopharmacologist Celia Morgan, Ph.D., to design a study on 97 individuals, found that people who tended to be more shy reported more intense feelings of anxiety after a night of social drinking.
She doesn’t have a firm explanation for why this correlation exists, but she has a working theory, based on the concept of “post-event processing.”
“This is a characteristic of social anxiety where people have characteristic rumination or dwelling after a social event,” Marsh tells Inverse. “Almost really re-running the experience in their mind with the kind of negative bias that comes from being shy or socially anxious. Thinking, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t have said that,’ or ‘Oh, that made me look stupid.’”
Socially anxious people already feel this way, but Marsh believes that mixing alcohol into the equation exacerbates this type of rumination the next day. When it’s hard to remember what happened the night before, there are more “gaps” in the narrative for the anxious mind to constantly re-run. When in doubt of what actually went down, a naturally self-critical person might assume the worst, thereby increasing the feelings of anxiousness that accompany a hangover even more.
“If you’re a shy person who tends to fill those gaps in with negative things about yourself you might do that even more because there are more gaps,” Marsh adds.
At this point, however, this explanation remains speculative. Hangovers in general are understudied, says Marsh, but their emotional and social dimensions are even trickier to pin down. Previous studies have tried to do this through interviews with hung over people. But Marsh’s experiment, a “naturalistic study,” investigated the emotional toll of one night of drinking and that of a night spent socializing in the participants’ own homes.
This experimental design, she explains, gave her study a window into the social reasons that people drink in the first place and how that might play into the feelings of anxiety the next day. Here, she found that getting drunk only “marginally” decreased anxiety in her shy individuals in the moment, but their anxiety was significantly higher the next day.
“Anecdotally, it resonates a lot with people,” Marsh says. “Is that tradeoff of that brief reduction in anxiety once you’ve had the drink worth it the morning after?”
Going forward, Marsh will try to find a way to test her theory about alcohol’s effects on post-event processing. But the key to a good experiment, she says, is to try to replicate all the aspects of drinking — from the actual alcohol consumption to the social dynamics at play. Only then might we one day find a hangover cure that deals with the emotional struggles as well as the physical ones.