Why we get ‘the fear’ after a night drinking alcohol

We might not have been able to celebrate at the pub this Christmas, but that doesn’t mean people have stayed sober at home.

As is customary, this time of year tends to mean having plenty to drink – with this year surrounded by family in front of the telly or around the dining table.

But, at any time of the year, we have all had that one night were you wake up the next day and been struck by ‘the fear’.

Some people might have no idea what that means, but to others the struggle is real.

Feelings of anxiety, not remembering what happened, and sometimes feeling regret after drinking alcohol is a real phenomenon where we question everything that was said and done.

Punters out in Hull enjoying Mad Friday
Punters out in Hull enjoying Mad Friday
(Image: HullLive)

Some may call it the ‘beer fear’, while others describe it as ‘hangxiety’, according to the Manchester Evening News.

Although the term does not have an official place in the English language dictionary, it is of course in the Urban edition.

“The irrational feeling induced by alcohol after a heavy session” it states.

It adds: “Waking and at first feeling indifferent about the events of the night before but then, over a period of several hours, your memory coming back in small amounts of ever growing embarrassment for yourself and the way acted or what you said to, probably, the wrong person.”

If that sounds familiar then you will be pleased to know you are not alone – and there is a scientific reason for it.

Liz Burns is a lecturer of Mental Health Nursing at Salford University with a specialism in alcohol services.

She chairs research project Communities in Charge of Alcohol (CICA) which is an alcohol health champions project in Greater Manchester.

Liz Burns (kneeling) working with volunteers at an Alcohol Health Champion training event
Liz Burns (kneeling) working with volunteers at an Alcohol Health Champion training event
(Image: Manchester Evening News)

So, what happens when we drink alcohol?

Liz, 42, said alcohol forces the brain to switch off the central nervous system because it is a depressant rather than a stimulant drug.

“Our inhibitions are turned off which is makes us feel relaxed and confident,” she explains.

“Because alcohol is a depressant, our motor coordination becomes slower, which is why we may become clumsy.

“As brain processes slow down, your memory can become impaired.”

Liz explained the liver is the only way alcohol can be broken down and metabolised.

“It can break down one unit per hour, so if you’re drinking above this, your blood alcohol level increases.

“A glass of wine for example has 3.5 units,” said Liz.

“When blood alcohol levels increase with the more we drink, the more ‘switching off effect’ we experience.

“The more we drink, the faster our liver has to work to break down the alcohol and when it exceeds this rate, that is when we become intoxicated.

“But drinking so much in a single episode can be very dangerous.

“It can result in alcohol poisoning and in some instances, the body can become unconsious.”

Why might we feel anxious and have ‘the fear’ the next morning?

Liz said: “Feeling anxious the next day is down to the interaction of chemical compound glutamate.

“We may feel fearful because we can’t remember everything that happened the night before; it’s not at the forefront of the mind.

“We may be able to piece together moments, and memories can sometimes come back to us when we’re stimulated by something.”

Drink Aware, an independent alcohol advice charity, said that after drinking large quantities of alcohol, the brain can stop recording into the ‘memory store’.

An explainer on their website says: “That’s why you can wake up the next day with a ‘blank’ about what you said or did and even where you were.

“This short-term memory failure or ‘black out’ doesn’t mean that brain cells have been damaged, but frequent heavy sessions can damage the brain because of alcohol’s effect on brain chemistry and processes.”

Liz added: “Alcohol makes it also impossible to have a deep sleep as it disrupts it, which isn’t good for mental wellbeing.

“However someone may think they slept because they had their eyes shut, but the liver is working overnight to break down the alcohol so it’s not a restful sleep and affects the quality.

“It’s neither deep and makes you out of sorts.”

Where to get help for problems with alcohol

If you are suffering from problems with alcohol, there are many helplines which may be able to support you.

Talk to FRANK

You can ring FRANK anytime and speak to a friendly adviser who’s professionally trained to give you straight up, unbiased information about drugs and alcohol.

It’s totally confidential – we won’t ask for your name or repeat your conversation with others.

Freephone: 0300 123 6600

talktofrank.com

Drinkline

Offers advice and information for people worried about their own drinking, and support to the family and friends of people who are drinking.

Helpline: 0300 123 1110

She said: “In the longer term, mood problems may occur as people might drink to feel better – but it’s a vicious cycle.

“Feelings of anxiety may initially feel better with drink.

“Others may have a ‘night cap’ to send them off to sleep, but it’ll actually cause disruption and they’ll be awake earlier.”

Liz’s advice is low-risk drinking over binge-drinking, which can be followed by using the limit of 14 units a week, to be spread out across the seven days.

Why do we crave junk food on a hangover?

“The day after drinking, the body will turn back on and try to rebalance after being switched off,” said Liz.

She continued: “When you drink alcohol, because it is so high in sugar, when you stop, the next morning, your blood sugar levels are likely to have dropped to rebalance the body.

“Along with being dehydrated, the body craves carbohydrates, which is why some may want junk food to re-align.

“The body is trying to compensate.”

Watch: The drink-drive limits in the UK

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How many units are in my drink?

It can be easy to lose track of alcohol units on a night out.

The NHS states:

Single small shot of spirits (25ml, ABV 40 per cent) – 1 unit

Gin, rum, vodka, whisky, tequila, sambuca. Large (35ml) single measures of spirits – 1.4 units

Alcopop (275ml, ABV 5.5 per cent) – 1.5 units

Small glass of red/white/rosé wine (125ml, ABV 12 per cent) – 1.5 units

Bottle of lager/beer/cider (330ml, ABV 5 pc) -1.7 units

Can of lager/beer/cider (440ml, ABV 5.5 pc) – 2 units

Pint of lower-strength lager/beer/cider (ABV 3.6 pc) – 2 units

Standard glass of red/white/rosé wine (175ml, ABV 12 pc) – 2.1 units

Pint of higher-strength lager/beer/cider (ABV 5.2 pc) – 3 units

Large glass of red/white/rosé wine (250ml, ABV 12%) – 3 units

Alcohol dependency

“Extra caution is needed if you have developed an alcohol dependency – which includes feelings of anxiety and other symptoms as withdrawals, such as having a mild tremor or shake, or find yourself sweating,” said Liz.

“Some consumers can have a psychological dependency, where they think about alcohol and feel better after a drink.

“If you’re drinking every other day, with only so many hours without, withdrawal affects can create a complex rebound excitation; to the extent of seizures and fits. And if severe, these can be life threatening.”

Liz added: “What’s worse is the more you drink, the higher your tolerance will develop.”

If you think you may have an alcohol dependency, then you can speak to a local alcohol service who can check your dependency and help you from there.

Advice and information can also be found on the NHS website here, which gives contact details of related charities.

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