It’s a tale as old as time: You had a fun night out. You had a great dinner with friends, stayed out later than originally planned, and woke up the next morning regretting those last two glasses of wine. And also a headache, don’t forget the headache. As if that’s not enough, you can’t shake this horrible, gloomy, out of sync feeling all day. You want to make the most of your day, but are having a tough time getting yourself off the couch.
I call this phenomenon drinking depression; others call it hangxiety—there’s actually an entire subreddit dedicated to it. As it turns out, it’s a real phenomenon (clinically it’s called substance-induced mood disorder) that happens as a result of the physiological and psychological impact of drinking too much.
Alcohol messes with the chemicals in your brain, leaving you feeling depressed and anxious
Alcohol impacts multiple neurological pathways in the brain, as well as the central nervous system, according to a 2014 study in the Indian Journal of Human Genetics. “What goes up must come down,” says George F. Koob, PhD, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). At low doses, alcohol’s effects are stimulant-like—it makes you feel good and disinhibits your behavior because it prompts the production of feel-good chemicals in your brain. You feel relaxed and ready to socialize.
If you continue to drink a second, third, or fourth drink, alcohol eventually will have the opposite effect. “How fast it happens depends on the dose, the person, and what you have in your stomach,” says Koob. After sparking the good chemicals, the brain has to make up for it and ends up increasing the production of feel-bad chemicals to compensate. “Part of it is hormonal because cortisol is activated and can trigger some of these neurochemical cascades as well,” he says.
When you’re hungover, you’re experiencing this rebound effect—the good stuff has tanked and the bad stuff is very present. You feel really out of sync.
Lack of sleep can also contribute
Alcohol may help you fall asleep (pass out) faster, but when you’re drunk, you’re not getting high-quality sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation, alcohol messes with your sleep hormones and interrupts your circadian rhythm, and it prevents you from getting REM sleep, which is the deep sleep we need to feel well-rested. Also, drinking makes you dehydrated, which can also disrupt you in the middle of the night, says Koob. All of these things can make it so you have a poor night of sleep, and wake up feeling exhausted. It’s very normal to feel irritable or just generally “meh” when you haven’t slept—alcohol or no alcohol.
Another contributing factor: Regret
Since alcohol disinhibits us, it can lead us to do things we wouldn’t normally do, says Renee Solomon, PsyD, a Beverly Hills-based clinical psychologist and CEO of Forward Recovery. “People can wake up feeling more depressed and anxious because of what they did the night before,” she says.
Regretful behaviors can run the gamut—social, sexual, or even related to the foods you drunk ate before bed. “Sometimes after a night of drinking, people come home and binge eat, and the shame, depression, and anxiety are fueled even more by that behavior,” Dr. Solomon says. (Eating a bunch of greasy, carby food before bed isn’t going to be great for your sleep either.)
Another thing that can be really anxiety-inducing: You don’t remember what happened the night before. “A blackout is a gap in the tape of our memory, and when you don’t remember what happened, it can trigger some anxiety and all of the physiological changes can add to that,” says Koob.
If you already have anxiety or depression, drinking can make it a lot worse
“People who have an anxiety disorder and then drink are going to have even bigger effects,” says Koob. If you’re being treated, he suggests asking your doctor to make sure it’s OK for you to even drink at all—it may be contraindicated for some depression and anxiety medications.
And if you do have anxiety or depression, it’s important to make sure you’re not turning to booze to self-medicate. “Some people drink alcohol and use drugs to escape their feelings but it becomes a feedback loop: One drinks to escape depression and anxiety, and then those feelings make you want to drink more,” says Dr. Solomon. It’s important to not try and medicate drinking depression with another drink. It’s just going to make things worse.
Of course, not drinking too much is the number one solution
“Your best bet is to drink moderately, space out your drinking, drink a lot of water while you’re drinking, drink on a full stomach, not an empty stomach, and have non-alcoholic drinks available,” says Koob. Unfortunately, despite all the strongly marketed products out there, there’s no scientific evidence that any hangover remedies will actually work, he adds. Really, the best way to not have to deal with any hangover symptoms, whether that’s nausea, a headache, or drinking depression, is to avoid drinking so much in the first place. Your body and brain will thank you the next day.
If you’re already hungover, exercising may boost your mood
So, let’s say the damage is already done. “Don’t spend time beating yourself up for it,” Dr. Solomon says. “Understand what you did and learn from it, but don’t let it sink your ship all day.” What you should do is get up and go for a walk. “To feel better, you want to increase serotonin, which exercise can help do,” Dr. Solomon says. Just a walk should be sufficient—no need to subject yourself to a grueling workout when you’re feeling unwell, she says. Getting a dose of nature may be even better, she adds. “Getting out in a different environment can help clear your head.”
However, it’s not easy, Koob says, because when you’re hungover you probably just want to curl up in bed. He suggests an easy first step: Get out of bed and get a glass of water. Once you’re up, you may feel more inclined to go for that walk.
Doing something productive is good, too
Dr. Solomon also suggests doing things that distract you and take your mind off feeling bad for yourself—no, that doesn’t mean lying on the couch watching a Grey’s Anatomy marathon. Connect with other people, or immerse yourself in an activity you enjoy to help you focus on something else than your bum mood.
It may also make you feel good to do something that gives back to others, she suggests, as it “takes you out of your own head and gives you something else to focus on.” That doesn’t need to mean physically going somewhere—donating online to a charity you support or writing a letter to a friend you haven’t seen in a while can be the easy good-mood booster you need.
Resources to turn to
Koob suggests Rethinking Drinking, and the NIAAA website that provides information on alcohol and how to spot a potential problem and get help.
You can also call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). It’s a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service. The organization’s website can also help you locate treatment facilities in your area.