The year we have just left was fraught with anxiety. More people than ever are feeling anxious – levels were at their highest in March but national anxiety remains higher than normal, according to The Times. If you already reckoned with an anxiety disorder prior to the pandemic, it was likely exacerbated by the shitshow of 2020.
People have found many ways to cope with their anxieties, both short and long term. If you're lucky enough to be able to afford private healthcare, that could be in the form of therapy. Others have delved into self-care, mindfulness, fitness or hobbies. Others still – often the same people – found light relief in drinking. This could take many forms: whether it's a few glasses of merlot while cooking a weeknight dinner, making elaborate cocktails on the weekend or an impromptu beer on Sunday afternoon, the temporary release of booze is harder to resist during a literal pandemic.
But just as night follows day, a night of drinking can more often than not lead to hangover anxiety (or 'hangxiety', as it's affectionately known) and any anxiety which dissipated the night before comes back with a vengeance. The after effects on your mental health can last days longer than that initial bottle of wine.
It's no wonder, then, that this Dry January proved more inviting than ever, with the charity Alcohol Change UK reporting that record numbers of Britons planned to take part in 2021. The opportunity to reset your relationship with alcohol – and shake the cycle of anxiety that can follow an evening of drinking – is tempting.
Millie Gooch, who founded Sober Girl Society in 2018, cites the alleviation of hangovers and the accompanying anxiety as one of the many benefits she discovered when she cut drinking out of her life. But in writing her book The Sober Girl Society Handbook, she found that there are so many more ways that mental health problems can be manifested or exacerbated by drinking. Perhaps more importantly, there are more mental health benefits to dropping drinking than simply the end of hangovers.
Whether you're taking part in Dry January or are more broadly interested in reconsidering your relationship with alcohol, there's no better time than now to dig in, and Millie's book (out 14th January 2021) is an ideal guide. The following is a condensed extract from the section exploring the relationship between drinking and our mental health.
I probed my followers on this one too, and asked what hangover anxiety felt like to them. Hundreds of responses hit the nail on the head:
‘It’s like you’re constantly questioning yourself.’
‘It’s a feeling of distress and not being able to cope with how you’re feeling.’
‘It’s pure panic.’
‘It’s a tidal wave of all your fears and worries – all your dreads spring to the surface and erupt.’
‘It’s miserable, like a black hole.’
‘It’s an unwavering feeling of dread and sadness.’
‘It’s an apocalyptic doom of self-hate.’
‘It gets so bad that I can’t answer texts or calls and I’m too anxious to drive.’
‘It’s a horrible, heavy dread and a shame-like feeling in my chest.’
‘It’s utter self-hatred, replaying everything I said or did in the worst light possible.’
‘It’s emotional nausea.’
‘It’s having a bleak outlook on life in general.’
‘It’s like you’ve got a festering hole in your chest that is raw, painful and won’t heal.’
‘It’s feeling like you are/everything is rubbish.’
‘It’s lingering uneasiness for a few days.’
‘It’s a crippling pain of fear that takes over your body.’
‘It’s being in your own worst nightmare.’
‘It’s an internal tornado.’
‘It’s a self-inflicted torture.’
‘It’s a full existential crisis – every time.’
When I asked my followers how long hangover anxiety lasted for them, the range in answers was again pretty varied. At the tamer end of the scale people said a few hours, and at the other end, over a week. The average was about 2–4 days. Personally, I would have said it was around three days before I felt back to normal(ish), so that sounds about right to me.
For those who are now sans booze, I also asked how much of a factor hangover anxiety was in their decision to go sober. Interestingly, hardly anyone said less than 50 per cent. In fact, most answers were around the 80–90 per cent mark, with tons of people adding that it was their absolute number-one reason for ditching drinking.
In 2019, I was interviewed for a Telegraph piece titled ‘Can Giving Up Alcohol Improve Your Mental Health?’ It was based around the new research from this Canadian study but it also included a quote from Priory psychotherapist Peter Klein which, when I read it, summarised what I had been trying to articulate for a while.
"Regularly drinking within the recommended guideline amount can still have a negative effect on one’s mental health. Sometimes people are very busy and drink in order to relax or in order to temporarily brighten up their mood, but essentially they’re replacing an uncomfortable emotional state with a more pleasant one. The problem here is that people then subconsciously start learning to fear their own emotions, which only makes their inner tension stronger. This of course promotes more avoidance strategies and therefore creates a negative cycle that can be very hard to get out of."
Peter’s quote touches on one of the most fundamental things I have learned since being sober, which is good mental health comes from facing and getting through testing times without a drink to ‘take the edge off’. Good mental health comes from the real confidence you build every time you make it through an uncomfortable situation without the aid of booze, so that the next time something equally daunting comes along, you know that you can conquer it because you’ve done so before. The pressure of edges and feelings of discomfort are what cause us to transform and adapt. Edges are a good thing, and the most rewarding experiences always lie just beyond our comfort zone.
So, while units are there to curb the physical dangers of our drinking, are they really taking into account the effect a few glasses of wine every time we’re remotely stressed could be having on our mental health?