Can alcohol cause anxiety?

Samir Kadri
Author: Samir Kadri Medical Reviewer: Morgan Blair Last updated:

Alcohol can negatively impact your brain’s chemistry, increasing the risk of feeling anxious, depressed, or both.

If you’ve been suffering from a low mood, giving up alcohol may help. Research shows that people who were depressed and consuming alcohol started to feel better a few weeks after abstinence. [1]

Alcohol abuse disorders and anxiety disorders

Many people suffer from alcohol abuse disorders (AUDs), chronic cerebral conditions that cause a person to incessantly drink alcohol in spite of the harmful impact it has on their life.

AUDs are characterized by compulsive alcohol consumption, an inability to manage drinking habits, and damaging withdrawal symptoms when not consuming alcohol. [2] In 2019, 14.5 million people had an AUD across the United States. [3]

An AUD can exacerbate a pre-existing anxiety disorder, such as generalized anxiety disorder or social anxiety disorder, worsening symptoms of stress and worry. In turn, an anxiety disorder can cause people to abuse alcohol, seeking its numbing effect.

How does alcohol increase anxiety levels?

Alcohol binds to surface receptors in the brain linked to GABA (Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid), a neurotransmitter thought to play a major part in dampening anxiety and stress in humans. [4]

This has a dulling effect on neural activity for as long as you continue to imbibe alcohol. When you stop, withdrawal symptoms can occur, as your body longs for the artificial calming effects of alcohol.

Often you experience greater symptoms of anxiety during the withdrawal stage than prior to the initial consumption of alcohol. This is known in popular culture as ‘hangxiety’. [5]

This negative effect is particularly pronounced in people with social anxiety disorder (SAD), with studies showing alcohol misuse causing greater anxiogenic effects among people affected by SAD than general population. [5]

Symptoms of hangxiety

  • Fatigue
  • Lethargy
  • Thirst
  • Nausea
  • Body Aches
  • Headaches
  • Palpitations
  • Shame
  • Guilt
  • Sleep problems
  • Concentration issues
  • Restlessness

How to tell if your ‘hangxiety’ is a sign of an AUD

Regular use of alcohol to temper feelings of anxiety is a telling sign you could be developing an alcohol use disorder.

If you feel yourself becoming reliant on alcohol to cope mentally with daily life, or you experience physical side effects such as shakes, sweats, or disrupted sleep when you are not drinking, then you could be developing an AUD. [6]

In this case, its advisable to speak to loved ones and seek medical help to determine what steps to take toward recovery.

How long does ‘hangxiety’ last?

Withdrawal symptoms, including hangxiety, can last between three and seven days in people suffering from AUDS.

The first 48 hours are often the most difficult, and some people may experience anxiety symptoms that last longer than 7 days.

If you are suffering from alcohol-induced anxiety, there are some steps you can take to make your experience less uncomfortable. [1]

  • Reassure yourself the symptoms you feel are just temporary feelings and will go away in time.
  • Stay well rested.
  • Ask a loved one to check in on you or watch over you while you experience withdrawal symptoms. They can provide emotional support and ensure you don’t reach for the bottle.
  • Participating in a self-help group, like Alcoholics anonymous (AA), can prove therapeutic. Sharing experiences with others can feel grounding, instructive and gratifying.
  • Educate yourself about anxiety, alcohol use disorders, and consider whether your anxiety is exacerbated by alcohol use.

If alcohol withdrawal symptoms become severe, or you are a high-risk drinker, then consider withdrawing under medical supervision as it can be life threatening.

How do doctors treat hangxiety?

There are a range of effective treatments for anxiety related to alcohol use disorders. These include cognitive behavioral therapy, psychotherapy, and prescription medications targeted at reducing anxiety.

Take medication exactly as directed by your doctor or mental health professional and do not obtain any medication on the black market.

Resources
  1. Smith, J. P., & Randall, C. L. (2012). Anxiety and alcohol use disorders: comorbidity and treatment considerations. Alcohol Research : Current Reviews, 34(4), 414–431. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3860396/
  2. Co-Occurring Alcohol Use Disorder and Anxiety: Bridging the Psychiatric, Psychological, and Neurobiological Perspectives | Alcohol Research: Current Reviews. (n.d.). Arcr.niaaa.nih.gov. https://arcr.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-use-disorder-and-co-occurring-mental-health-conditions/co-occurring-alcohol-use-disorder-anxiety
  3. Alcohol Use in the United States. (n.d.). https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/sites/default/files/publications/NIAAA_Alcohol_Facts_and_Stats_0.pdf
  4. The role of GABA in anxiety disorders. (2003). PubMed. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12662130/
  5. Marsh, B., Carlyle, M., Carter, E. A., Hughes, P., McGahey, S., Lawn, W., Stevens, T., McAndrew, A., & Morgan, C. J. A. (2019). Shyness, alcohol use disorders and ‘hangxiety’: A naturalistic study of social drinkers. Personality and Individual Differences, 139, 13–18. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2018.10.034
  6. Hangxiety: The Link Between Anxiety And Alcohol. (n.d.). Henry Ford Health – Detroit, MI. https://www.henryford.com/blog/2019/03/hangxiety-link-between-anxiety-alcohol
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Samir Kadri
Author Samir Kadri Writer

Samir Kadri serves as our accomplished writer, dedicated to raising awareness about mental health and providing support to those in need.

Published: Jun 19th 2023, Last edited: Sep 22nd 2023

Morgan Blair
Medical Reviewer Morgan Blair MA, LPCC

Meet Morgan Blair, our accomplished medical reviewer. Morgan is a licensed therapist with a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling from Northwestern University.

Content reviewed by a medical professional. Last reviewed: Jun 19th 2023