Ep #135: Anxiety & Hangxiety with Alcohol

By: Dr. Sherry Price

Drink Less Lifestyle with Dr. Sherry Price | Anxiety & Hangxiety with Alcohol

Do you get anxious?

Yes, most people do.

A better question to ask is, how do you manage yourself when you experience anxiety?

A lot of women turn to alcohol for relief.

We’ve been conditioned to think that turning to alcohol is normal.  At least for that first drink.

While alcohol can ease your anxiety in the moment, it makes it much worse long term.

And you get hangxiety on top of it.

Tune in this week to discover how alcohol creates anxiety, and even panic attacks. Drinking alcohol can seem like a good idea in the moment due to its effects but it’s not the answer that effectively helps managing this condition. In fact, drinking intensifies your triggers and heightens your anxiety hours to days later.


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What You’ll Learn in this Episode:

  • Why, as a society, we think looking to alcohol to ease our anxiety is normal and acceptable.
  • Everything you need to know about how alcohol affects the brain and increases anxiety in the long term.
  • How to see where you’re using alcohol as a coping mechanism for your anxiety and hangxiety.


Featured on the Show:

Full Episode Transcript:


You are listening to the Drink Less Lifestyle podcast with Dr. Sherry Price, episode number 135.

Welcome to Drink Less Lifestyle, a podcast for successful women who want to change their relationship with alcohol. If you want to drink less, feel healthier and start loving life again you’re in the right place. Please remember that the information in this podcast does not constitute medical advice. Now, here’s your host, Dr. Sherry Price.

Well, hello my gorgeous friend. How are you today? I am doing fantastic. I have so much energy today because I’m so excited about IF45 for women and all of the goals of the ladies in the program. I’m also very excited for the retreat happening at my house this coming weekend. And it’s just such a delight to help people on their health and wellness goals.

And for those of you that are listening that are in the San Diego area I think we have one more spot open for the retreat this weekend if you want to get in on that. I will put a link in the show notes where you can find more information about how to register.

Alright, so today I want to talk about something that is super, super, super common amongst the women that I help, and that is dealing with anxiety, hangxiety and how it relates to drinking and alcohol. So I’m going to dive into all those things on today’s podcast. And before we begin I just want to ask you, do you get anxious? And of course the answer’s going to be yes. I don’t think there is a human on the planet that doesn’t get anxious about something. We worry. We have fear. We have concerns. And we can experience awkwardness or anxiety.

And so I’m just going to address that in one big bucket today. So it’s not necessarily the question, do you get anxious, do you get nervous, do you sometimes feel socially awkward or not know what to do? Or do you sometimes worry? The better question is how do you manage when you get anxious, what do you do? And for a lot of women I know they turn to alcohol. And as a society we’re conditioned to even think that that is normal because we call it a social lubricant.

How many of us have talked about alcohol in a way that it’s liquid courage or it’s a social lubricant. Or it’s going to help me not feel so anxious when I show up to a party or go somewhere where I don’t know a lot of people and maybe have to engage in conversation or small talk that I don’t think I’m the best at. And we call it a social lubricant or liquid courage because we know it works that way. We know that it has pharmacologic properties on our biology that actually create the results that we want which is less anxiousness.

Now, I wanted to sidestep a bit because as I was preparing for this I’m like, “Wow, alcohol does this. Alcohol does that. Alcohol does this. Alcohol does that. And my brain just went into a tizzy. I’m thinking of how many cultures where we just think about alcohol as being relatively harmless. My Australia friends tell me, there is a big drinking culture in Australia. Here in America we have a big drinking culture. We know our friends in London and the UK, the big pub culture. And we know many cultures who drink.

And you know me, I’m not against drinking. I am not anti-alcohol. I just want to be able to use it in my life where it doesn’t create any harm. And so when we look at how alcohol affects the body, there is no litany of things that could go wrong when we overindulge. And I was just talking to one of the ladies inside of EpicYOU because we were kind of talking about how in medicine that we focus so much on the liver. We focus so much on cirrhosis. We focus so much on maybe needing a liver transplant and our liver enzymes and all the things that can go on with the liver.

But there is so much more damage that can happen when we over-imbibe. And I think the one that doesn’t get recognized the most is our brain, how it impairs our cognitive function, how it can give us early Alzheimer’s and early dementia. And the way it shrinks the prefrontal cortex, which means we have a harder time making decisions, good decisions, logical decisions and we become more emotional. We amp up that part of our brain that focuses on the amygdala, that focuses on all the negative emotions and then that can override our logic brain.

And then I think about how it damages our cell mitochondria which is the powerhouses of our cells. That gives us and generates ATP and gives us energy throughout the day and throughout the evening and when we drink we lose energy, we lose motivation, we lose zest for life. We don’t really feel like doing anything. We turn into sloths on a couch. We get tired. We get sluggish. And then we start blaming ourselves thinking what has happened? And then of course the liver.

If we keep drinking and the liver has to keep breaking down this alcohol, this poison, it prioritizes this poison over other substances that need to be broken down in our body. And so there is damaged cells that need to be cleared by our liver so they don’t turn into cancer. There’s hormones that need to be broken down in our liver and there’s cholesterol and fats and things that need to be broken down in our liver. But our liver gets congested when we give it a lot of alcohol.

And then we wonder why we hit weight loss plateaus and why we don’t feel normal and why we become constipated, because we become backed up. There are just so many things. And then we could go into the wrinkles because alcohol causes glycation, causes more wrinkles, causes more redness in our face, more puffiness, more inflammation. So then we need more Botox and more fillers and all of the things. And I just have to laugh because I just went on a rant.

So it’s no surprise, coming back to anxiety how alcohol creates anxiety and I’ll talk about this buzzword we hear a lot which is hangxiety and then what to do about it. So first and foremost let’s look at alcohol because we know it can cause anxiety. So for those of you out there that don’t have a pre-existing diagnosis of anxiety or maybe you have low level of anxiety, if you drink alcohol you are more likely to develop anxiety. Now, if you do have anxiety and you drink alcohol you are actually making it worse.

And we know that alcohol can lead to the most severe form of anxiety and that is panic attacks. So we know that when we rely on alcohol, that’s kind of a dysfunction in the brain. It’s the way we’ve trained our brain or programmed our brain to think about alcohol as a solution and so we keep doing it. And anxiety is a way that the brain feels it can’t handle the emotion of anxiety. So both of these brain disorders can coexist or feed one another.

So as I mentioned, alcohol can cause new onset anxiety, it can worsen pre-existing anxiety symptoms. It can cause increased worry, dread, especially in the long term. Now, people use alcohol as an unhealthy coping mechanism to reduce the symptoms of anxiety in the short term. Because if you’re very familiar with alcohol as was I, alcohol does work in this temporary but unhealthy way to relieve anxiety so we just forget about our underlying stressors.

However, we know that alcohol doesn’t erase those or take away those underlying triggers, those things that lead us to drink, those root causes, they do not take away those underlying triggers. So if your anxiety is related to a past trauma, no amount of drinking is going to erase that past trauma. If your anxiety is due to financial stress, job stress, marital issues, issues with your kids, untreated depression, alcohol will just act as a temporary band-aid in the short term, allowing us not to feel it and allowing us to numb.

But in the long term it’s actually setting you up for developing an alcohol use disorder, a substance use disorder and also making the anxiety worse. Not only that, when you drink because of anxiety it also makes the triggers more anxiety producing over time. So maybe that trigger of financial stress was like, if you were to rate it a seven out of 10, the more you drink the more that financial stress will be more intensified, so jump to an eight out of 10, then a nine out of 10 and then a 10 out of 10. And then when we get those 10 out of 10, that can manifest as a panic attack.

So I just mentioned three ways in which alcohol worsens any type of anxiety, whether it’s pre-existing, whether it’s a one off event that you are experiencing due to an underlying trigger or an underlying stressor in your life. So three different ways that anxiety actually becomes worse. And to add insult to injury, let’s just talk about how chronic alcohol use then begins to affect our ability to respond to stress in a healthy and effective way. And if we can’t respond to stress in a healthy and effective way, what do we feel? We feel anxious, we feel worry, we feel dread, we feel nervousness.

And this goes back to what I started the episode on is that alcohol has these profound effects on parts of the brain that help us manage stress and parts of the brain that help us be logical, on parts of the brain that create us to be more emotional and can amp up that amygdala response. And we’ve seen this on spec exams. You could go get your brain MRI’d and you can actually see this on diagnostic tools. And a lot of this information is available at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

They want to publicize the status so that we know what we’re doing to ourselves and we know what’s going to help us and what’s not going to help us. And so if you follow the Center for Disease Control dietary guidelines about alcohol, it’ll say that women should not be drinking more than one drink a day, should not be drinking more than one drink a day. So you should be having less than seven drinks a week. Otherwise what happens, we get compulsive drinking. We get the inability to control our alcohol use.

And we can develop over-consumption and over-imbibing which means we’re engaging in excessive drinking. And all of this can set you up for an alcohol use disorder. So we know people have anxiety. We know anxiety can be an appropriate response to certain situations. And we know people can develop anxiety disorders, generalized anxiety, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder and other types of anxiety disorders. And so if we have anxiety, I don’t want us to think about anxiety as a bad thing because it can be a normal emotion.

And of course if it becomes debilitating in one’s life there are pharmacological agents that one can try to lessen the anxiety. But I just want to highlight how alcohol can make anxiety even worse. So some of these effects I’ve talked about on the podcast before. So when we look at drinking and when somebody drinks, particularly excessive or over-imbibes, it does produce physiological changes in the brain which means our brain chemistry changes.

So if we get a big dump of alcohol, we flood our system with dopamine. I have talked about this on the podcast. I have a great resource and a great schematic up on my website under resources that talks about how alcohol releases dopamine in the brain. And it gets dumped into the pleasure center of the brain or the reward center of the brain so the brain feels so good when this happens. And so this feel good chemical swirls around in your head and the rush only lasts a short while.

So you get this huge surge of dopamine and then what happens it will come down, it will crash. And when it does that’s when anxiety comes back because we didn’t actually treat the anxiety, we just numbed ourself from feeling the anxiety. There’s another brain chemical change and that is when we drink alcohol there is an influx of GABA which is called gamma aminobutyric acid. And this causes one to feel relaxed and calm. So, while small amounts of alcohol can stimulate GABA, making us feel relaxed and calm.

Heavy drinking can actually deplete GABA, causing increased tension and fear of panic. So any time you elevate or increase neurotransmitters in your body. The natural thing is that they can’t stay up there, they have to come down. And so while you may experience temporary bliss, temporary enjoyment, temporary relaxation, temporarily not feeling the anxiety. After the alcohol wears off we are going to get those symptoms back, they will come back, they will rebound.

Now, what usually happens though is that that rebound effect can be so much worse because our levels have stayed low for much longer, because they went so high in the beginning. Now you add in another brain chemical that gets altered and that’s melatonin production. Alcohol lowers melatonin production and most people have experienced this, that when they over-drink, it’s easy to fall asleep, it’s easy to pass out but they don’t stay asleep. They wake up in the middle of the night usually around 3:00am staring at the ceiling, wondering why they are awake.

And we also know that alcohol prevents getting that deep restful REM sleep so when you do wake up later that morning you aren’t as rested. And so when you aren’t as rested you are more irritable, more cranky and more anxious the next day. So there are more neurotransmitters that alcohol interferes with but these are the big ones. And so alcohol dysregulates this, meaning that they are not acting according to their normal biological way.

And we get dramatic rises and dramatic falls and then this can cause the cycle of wanting more alcohol because those negative feelings come back with such a vengeance. And because of alcohol’s effects on these neurotransmitters, there is this phrase called hangxiety where we have hangover anxiety. And that’s when you feel anxious after drinking the next day because you’ve over-imbibed, you’ve overdone it. And so the next day you have feelings of embarrassment, insecurity, uncertainty about things that may have happened while you were intoxicated or while you had too much alcohol onboard.

And so this alcohol hangover can make your symptoms of anxiousness be even worse or feel like you have an anxiety disorder. And how many of us have had that dreadful feeling that comes the next morning after a night of over-imbibing? You may be replaying the evening’s conversation or maybe you’re scrolling through your text messages, making sure you didn’t send out something or say something you regretted. Or maybe you start making apologies to friends and family for what you said or how you acted.

Or maybe you’re just apologizing because you don’t know because you don’t remember parts of the night. And what I want to point out is that if someone suffers from depression or anxiety they are more likely to experience anxious feelings after a night of over-imbibing. And they are more likely to experience depressive feelings the night after over-imbibing. So this rebound effect can be even greater in people that have these underlying issues or are more predisposed to these types of conditions.

And you can see how feeling that low or feeling that anxious can drive the hair of the dog where you want to drink again because that’s the only time you feel good or you know that drinking again is going to make you feel good. So I wanted to do a podcast on this, really describing what’s going on inside your body, really understanding what’s going on inside your brain so that you can choose different ways to manage anxiety, healthier ways.

Because if you’re using alcohol to soothe anxiety we know that over time you’re going to need more alcohol to do it. And it’s going to become this vicious cycle and it becomes a red flag. And we know once this cycle starts, that’s how one becomes more and more dependent on alcohol to function and to feel ‘normal’. And when we become more reliant on it, it becomes harder and harder to give it up unless we know the right tools and the right ways to do that.

And I have yet to meet somebody who says, “I want to use alcohol as my coping mechanism.” I don’t think any of us want to use alcohol as our coping mechanism because we know that there will never be enough. And we know that that type of drinking doesn’t make us feel good about ourselves and it lowers our self-esteem and our sense of self-worth. And whenever I’m coaching a client on how I might be seeing that they are using alcohol as a coping mechanism.

I know that I have to point that out for them because that is a red flag that you will not be able to control your alcohol intake long term if this is what you are doing. And so notice for you, do you use alcohol as a coping mechanism in this way? Do you experience hangxiety? And we do know that drinking leads to ongoing anxiety which is sometimes called substance induced anxiety disorder. And alcohol is not the only substance that leads to substance induced anxiety disorder.

So I wanted to talk about this because the risk of this happening for individuals can be very great. And I just want us to be educated so that we know the risks involved when we choose to do certain things. And I think perceiving the risk is such an important part of deciding if and when you choose to drink because drinking alcohol is a risky behavior. However, big alcohol companies work so hard to make us feel like drinking is fun, it produces connection, it allows us to act more silly and be part of the crowd. And sometimes it could be more sophisticated.

And so those commercials and then advertisement is a way that they seduce our brains to think that, hey, there’s no risk to doing this, a few drinks is fine, but there is risk to your health. There is risk to your body. There is risk to your brain. And what I want to offer on this podcast is there are other ways to lower anxiety and ways to treat chronic anxiety should you have that diagnosis. And because so many women struggle with this which is why I created a whole module around how to manage anxiety inside of EpicYOU.

So we can get off that hamster wheel of drink, not drink, feel worse, want to drink because you feel worse. And so you’re back to drinking and then the anxiety is getting worse so the depression is getting worse. And just to get out of that cycle. And there are more naturopathic or herbs that you can take to lower one’s anxiety like ashwagandha, like L-theanine. And there’s some calming teas. And these have all been shown to be very effective plus the other tools and techniques that you can use while your anxiety is getting elevated.

Because I know the last thing you want to do is turn to alcohol or some substance that’s going to make the anxiety even worse. And not only will it make it worse, it will intensify it in the future and it will make us less likely to be able to manage these stressors and these triggers when they do come which actually makes us weaker in terms of managing stress in our lives.

Alright my beautiful, gorgeous friends, that’s what I have for you today. And if you are loving this podcast I’d love for you to rate and review it. And until next time my friends, go and live epically and powerfully.

If you want to change your relationship with alcohol and with yourself then come check out EpicYOU. It’s where you get individualized help mastering the tools so you And become a woman who And take it or leave it and be in control around alcohol in any situation. EpicYOU is the place for women who want to be healthy, confident and empowered to accomplish their goals and live their best life. Come join us over at epicyou.com/epicyou. That’s epicyou.com/ E-P-I-C-Y-O-U. I can’t wait to see you there.

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