It’s finally Friday, and after a long week of classes, exams, and stress, there’s only one thought on your mind: it’s time to party! You go out and have a great time with your friends, and everything seems perfect—until the next morning. If you’ve ever experienced a hangover, you know the drill: a splitting headache, awful nausea, and exhaustion. But have you ever felt especially anxious or depressed after a night of heavy drinking? If so, you’re not alone. We talked to college women and an expert to find out why these symptoms occur and what you can do if you wake up hungover with the blues.
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Why you may experience anxiety and depression after drinking
Though they are lesser-known hangover symptoms, anxiety and depression can be even more detrimental than that signature headache. Though scientists are unsure about what exactly causes these emotional symptoms, it is known that drinking an excessive amount of alcohol can cause an imbalance of chemicals and nutrients in the body, which in turn can lead to anxiety and depression.
“There’s no way of framing [the cause of a hangover], except that you consumed too much alcohol,” says Susan Scholl, a health and wellness professor at Syracuse University. “At the cellular level, your brain is mad, agitated. And you just feel bad.”
Scholl says hangover anxiety and depression can be especially severe if someone is already predisposed to these emotions. For example, if a student is suffering from depression and they drink alcohol, their depression may worsen.
“Remember, alcohol is a depressant drug,” Scholl says. “Not only does it depress what’s happening for you at a physiological level, but it can also have an emotional after-effect.”
Meghan*, a student at Johns Hopkins University, says she’s only been hungover once, but her anxiety was much worse than normal. Meghan already takes an antidepressant for her anxiety every night, and when she was hungover, she believes she threw up the antidepressant, leading to withdrawal and heightened anxiety. Withdrawal is very common when you miss a dose of an SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor).
“I imagine a lot of girls who take SSRIs and drink alcohol have this problem too,” she says.
According to an information sheet on SSRIs by the Nationwide Children’s Hospital, you should not take another dose of an SSRI even if you vomit after taking your daily dose.
Scholl says some college students who are anxious or sad might use alcohol to self-medicate, which usually makes their mental state even worse.
“In our culture, we have this myth that if you drink and do other drugs and party, you’re life is going to be great and you’re going to be seeing rainbows and unicorns and all your problems will be solved, and you’re going to meet the person of your dreams. A lot of us buy into that myth,” says Scholl. “And then when it doesn’t come true we’re like, ‘Aw, man,’ and our anxiety level is even further increased, and we feel even worse about ourselves.”
Scholl also says students will drink to socialize and escape from the stress of schoolwork, which will just make them even more anxious in the end because they’re neglecting work they know needs to be done.
The morning after heavy drinking can also cause anxiety for people who might have made foolish decisions the night before. Regretting things you wouldn’t have normally done can make you not only anxious but also depressed. “Whether it’s not getting their homework done, saying something stupid to a friend, driving under the influence or getting arrested, all these kinds of potential consequences are hanging out there,” Scholl says.
Don’t forget that hangover symptoms can go beyond just the day after drinking. Heavy drinking over an extended period of time causes a reduction in the size of your brain cells, according to an article by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. This shrinking can cause permanent damage to your brain and can affect things like your mood, motor coordination, and memory.
How to cope
Scholl says the good news is that, with time, these hangover symptoms will pass. The bad news is there’s no definite way to instantly cure them. She says her best advice is to stay hydrated, sleep, take ibuprofen or Advil, and give it time.
“A healthy male will process about one drink an hour, and a healthy female will process about a drink and a half an hour. So time is your friend,” Scholl says.
An easy fix to experiencing hangover symptoms is to try changing your attitude about drinking. If you’re drinking to relieve your stress and worries, there are plenty of more healthy ways to feel better. Try taking a yoga or meditation class through your school’s recreation department; they’re often free or available for a small fee. If you’d rather just relax, simply make yourself a hot cup of tea or take a hot shower when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
If you want to minimize hangover depression and anxiety but still want to party with friends, try to make sure all of your responsibilities are squared away before you go out. It may seem like a pain to get all of your work done by Saturday night, but you’ll be thanking yourself on Sunday morning!
If you find your anxiety or depression is persistent every time you have a hangover, it might be smart to cut back on drinking. Poppy*, a college woman from Syracuse University, says drinking alcohol makes her anxiety worsen dramatically. She says her hangover anxiety has gotten so bad, she has basically stopped drinking altogether.
“It reaches a point where I don’t end up sleeping for more than a few hours most nights that I drink because my anxiety is so bad,” Poppy says. “I usually end up playing a game on my iPhone to distract myself from how I’m feeling, but that doesn’t always work.”
A Telegraph article explains that being a “happy drunk” or a “sad drunk” often depends on your genetic makeup. If you’ve realized that drinking always makes you cry and feel upset, that might be even more of a reason for you to cut back on alcohol.
Cutting back on drinking is not always easy, so make a plan for yourself before going out. Try setting a predetermined limit on how many drinks you’ll have and keeping track in a note on your phone. You can also try alternating one cup of alcohol with one cup of water—that way, you’ll stay hydrated too.
If you still have feelings of anxiety and depression even after you’ve cut back, try contacting the counseling center at your school—many centers offer free consultations for students. Some college health centers also offer safe drinking classes that can teach you how to go out and have fun while minimizing negative consequences. Talking to a friend the night after drinking can also help you manage anxiety. They can comfort you and offer you advice on how to feel better.
No matter what, Scholl says we will continue to be emotionally and physically affected by the stuff we put into our bodies. “Whether it’s broccoli or alcohol, waffles or weed, it doesn’t matter. Everything impacts us,” she says. “We’re neuro-chemical beings.”