Woman drinking wine alone in the dark room

Dry January: 2 women on why they gave up alcohol to combat their hangxiety

With a new year comes new goals  and for some, giving up alcohol is at the top of their list.

Who has made an oath to cut back on drinking this year? I, for one, have. After a particularly boozy Christmas, the desire to go on a cleanse and reduce my alcohol consumption is at the top of my list – and as many have thrown themselves into Dry January, it’s clear that I’m not alone.

According to a survey of over 6,000 Dry January participants in 2019, 86% said they saved money by participating, while 81% felt more in control of their drinking. 70% also said they were sleeping better, 67% had better concentration, 66% had more energy, 65% had better overall health and 54% had lost weight.

The benefits of cutting back on drinking are clearly endless – but for some, the results are even more life-changing if they experience an increased level of anxiety while drinking alcohol – something which is also known as hangxiety.

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“Hangxiety is the negative feeling we get after a session of drinking alcohol,” says registered dietician and Together Health expert Lola Biggs.

Biggs says hangxiety can be amplified by excessive drinking, but for others, even a little tipple can lead to increased anxiety.

“We often feel it the next day, or sometimes even through the next couple of days.”

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Alcohol affects how we feel, by altering our brain chemistry quickly and temporarily, leading to feelings of heightened relaxation and lowered inhibitions, often described as ‘Dutch courage’ or ‘taking the edge off’. However, Biggs says this euphoria is just a short-term measure that masks how we are really feeling and how we cope with situations – something that many women can relate to.

“I only started to suffer from hangover anxiety in the last five years,” says Michelle Shulman. Shulman grew up in a family where drinking lots of alcohol was “seen as the norm” – but her anxiety around drinking increased as she got older. 

“When I was younger and the previous evening was a bit of a blur, it was fun. It was almost like a badge of honour at 18/19 to have gaps missing from a night out,” she says.

“But the older I’ve become, the more self-conscious I get the next morning. I often re-run events in my head and think: what did I do? What did I say?”

This fear of doing or saying something she’d regret continued to fester over the years.

“I didn’t immediately put two and two together, but when I was anxious about seeing certain people again it took me a while to realise why. And ironically when I saw them, I would have a glass of alcohol and then I would have the same anxiety the next day. And of course, when it came to seeing them again the anxiety would return.” 

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“The real turning point for me was after a day out with people I really respected,” she continues.

“I felt anxious and embarrassed the next day and I just said to myself ‘enough’. I didn’t want to do that anymore. I didn’t want to be worried anymore that I had said or done something embarrassing.”

This moment changed something that had been the norm for Shulman and she decided to cut out alcohol to curb her post-drinking anxiety.

“The first few weeks were hard. Not in a withdrawal sense, but because I had a lot of events and occasions to attend where I would normally drink. I had the same questions over and over. ‘Why are you not drinking?’ ‘Will you never drink again?’ That was draining but I knew it was coming from a place of curiosity rather than judgement, and ultimately, cutting out drinking worked for me.

“Over the last year I have been a different person,” she admits. “Cutting out drinking has given me the clarity to think more strategically and eased my anxiety.

“I was using alcohol as a security blanket in social situations and now I’m very comfortable not drinking.”

For Alexandria Walker, co-founder of non-profit organisation Bee Sober, she began binge drinking at a young age and it became a coping mechanism to deal with her anxiety.

“When I first started drinking, I was as a teenager getting drunk on weekends with my friends, drinking a two-litre bottle of cider on a Friday and Saturday. This pretty much set the precedent for my drinking and I became a typical binge drinker.  

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“I drank every Friday and Saturday night, then functioned all week looking forward to the weekend. I didn’t even realise it but I have always been an anxious person, worrying about meeting deadlines and writing out endless to-do lists,” she says.

“I actually believed I worked well under pressure and would get the job done – whatever the job was. However, I was diagnosed with severe anxiety following a personal trauma in 2018, which also coincided with an increase in my drinking both in terms of volume and frequency.”

Walker found that drinking appeared to “settle her anxiety” but it was really a continuous cycle of anxiety, drinking, post-drinking anxiety and then more drinking that never seemed to end.

“I didn’t realise until I stopped drinking that alcohol was actually exacerbating my anxiety and I was stuck in a cycle of feeling anxious all week, trying to medicate it with alcohol on the weekend, then starting the cycle again after the weekend,” she says.

Walker decided to take a 30-day break from alcohol after a recommendation by her friend and Bee Sober co-founder Lisa, who was also sober at the time.

Within 30 days, Walker said she “knew this would be a forever thing” as her anxiety started to feel manageable and less associated with drinking.

“In the first two weeks, I felt even more anxious than before I stopped.

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“I started to experiment with different ways of self-soothing like exercise, reading, playing my guitar and walking and I realised that with true self-care, you can work through any emotion without the need to numb it.”

Walker says she no longer has anxiety, and only feels anxious at times.

“I can now work through whatever is making me anxious rather than trying to numb the symptoms. Giving up alcohol gives you clarity and the self-development you have to do in order to be successful in sobriety means you start to become very self-aware of how you feel and how to deal with the problems you are facing.”

If you are dealing with alcohol anxiety, visit Drinkaware for advice and support.

Image: Getty

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