The first lockdown came at a pretty poignant moment for me: the government announcement was made just a few weeks after I decided to quit drinking alcohol, for the benefit of my mental health. People stop drinking for all kinds of reasons, of course, from pregnancy, to being on medication that doesn't mix well, to save money or to lose weight, the list goes on...
But for me, it was the intense, soul-shredding anxiety that accompanied every hangover that made it no longer worth it. Ditto making decisions I never would sober – some of which left me shaken up and bruised when the booze wore off. The regular memory loss after night outs was a big factor too (trying to fill in the blanks with what I might have said or could have done, even if my friends insisted, "Nothing, you were fine!" only further fuelled the panicked brain-fire I experienced most Sunday mornings).
The fact that I could never quite pinpoint which drink had tipped me into memory loss territory either (was it the third tequila, or the fourth?) became cause for concern too. It was that feeling of not being in total control of myself, the cloying regret that I might have majorly overshared, or offended someone, without even being able to remember it the next day, that left me physically picking at my skin. Sometimes I'd cry and just recite over and over that I was a "bad person", immune to any comforting words telling me otherwise.
Whilst I admittedly do have a history of diagnosed anxiety and depression, and it was abundantly clear that alcohol exacerbated those pre-existing tendencies within me, many of my friends (who otherwise don't have any issues with their mental health) could also relate on some level to the feelings of beer fear that come a-knocking the morning after the night before.
So, what actually causes that hideous feeling of toe-curling emotional nausea (that accompanies the physical symptoms of a hangover), and is there anything we can do to avoid it? Is it possible to still drink and not see your mental health nosedive as a result? I asked the experts.
Why do I get hangover anxiety?
According to Nick Davies, a psychotherapist and hypnotherapist, "When we drink, our prefrontal cortex [the part of our brain responsible for executive decision-making] becomes suppressed and the child part of our character comes out to play, sadly without the guidance it needs."
In a nutshell, alcohol encourages people to engage in more childlike behaviour: "Fun, silliness, laughter, tears, anger... it really is like being a toddler," Davies explains. "The next day, our prefrontal cortex begins to assimilate the bits it can remember, and instils anxiety, often by exaggerating what actually happened so we’re less likely to inhibit that part of our brain with alcohol again."
He says it’s important to challenge the negative self-talk with positive affirmations if you can, such as, "It probably wasn’t as bad as I think" and "I can always make amends by apologising".
Sleep also comes into play when talking about hangxiety too, says Dr. Ari Roxborough from Arrow Health, a rehabilitation centre for addiction. "Alcohol disrupts sleep and while someone who was drunk the night before might claim to have had enough sleep, the quality of that sleep is significantly impaired," he explains. "Alcohol is one of the strongest disruptors of REM sleep (when dreams occur) that we know of." And as we all know, fractured or improper sleep can seriously impact on mental health and increase levels of anxiety.
Add into this, says Laura Jarvis, a senior development manager at The Alcohol & Drug Service (ADS), dopamine (known as 'the happy hormone') is also at play when we drink and our mood dips the next day. "Alcohol is a psychoactive substance, so it radically changes how we think and feel," she explains. "Drinking it releases dopamine, which, in turn, can make us want to continue drinking to maintain that feeling."
However, Jarvis adds, that the dopamine high will eventually be pushed aside by alcohol’s less pleasant effects: confusion, nausea, misery and clumsiness – all of which can lead to higher levels of anxiety and depression. This, sadly, is an inescapable fact. If you’re concerned about alcohol's impact on your mental health, she advises taking a break and using that time to examine how it makes you feel and to look for patterns, or reaching out to a service like ADS or your GP.
Pressing pause on booze was my initial plan, only the 'three-month break' has now lasted over a year. Meaning, my lockdowns have been devoid of quarantinis come Friday night and white wines during Zoom quizzes with friends. My first novel was published last April and I celebrated with... a Diet Coke.
That's not to say though, that whenever my boyfriend sits out on the balcony with a gin and tonic, a part of me doesn't want to snatch it out of his hand and down the entire thing. But for now, the other voice that chimes in saying "You know it's not worth it!" is still the loudest – and I no longer sit and cry on a Sunday morning (ideal!).
How else can alcohol impact your mental health?
As well as crippling hangovers that impacted on my mental health (far beyond the initial 24 hours post-party), blackouts were another reason I stopped drinking too: I've lost count of the amount of times I've woken up with memory loss. Frustratingly, it seemed to happen to me more than it would my friends, even if we were consuming equal amounts of alcohol, something I've always been curious about (and whether or not it's related to my already shaky psychological history).
"Researchers have now pinpointed the neurological structure involved in alcohol-induced blackouts; the hippocampus," says Dr Roxborough. "Alcohol disrupts the transfer of short-term memories into long-term memories within the hippocampus, which is involved in the formation of long-term memories. Scientists still don't fully understand what makes someone more vulnerable to blackouts." Darn.
As for the long-term consequences of alcohol-induced blackouts, they're difficult to study as you cannot ethically induce alcohol blackouts in participants, Dr Roxborough adds, but the research that does exist also has links to ill mental health. "Research suggests blackouts are related to higher suicidal ideation, alcohol-related injuries and mental disorders such as depression," he says. "We also know that alcohol use in general is associated with damage to the brain too, which shows up as reduced grey matter in brain scans."
Whilst my initial decision to give up the booze was only meant to be temporary, the wonders it's done for my mental health make it feel like the obvious right choice for me personally. If I were to ever start drinking again, I think it would have to be done in a space where I feel completely safe (so not in a busy club), around people I trust and I'd have to ease my way in by trying tiny, tiny quantities at a time. But right now, I still feel like 'why risk the anxiety'? It's honestly never been worth the night before.
Equally, even if I never reach the stage where I feel ready to re-introduce alcohol and I stay sober for the rest of my life, I'm very happy and comfortable with a non-alcoholic Prosecco in hand nowadays. After a while, you become adept at brushing off any nosy questions ("Nope, still not pregnant, just don't want to be full of self-loathing in the morning!") and just owning asking for a Becks Blue when someone's doing a round and points in your direction.
If anything, I'm probably much better company now too (and I definitely have more stamina – I went to a rave in the woods last summer and solely drank non-alcoholic beer and tinned lattes and danced until 6am, when usually I'd have passed out in a slice of pizza at 3am from too much chardonnay).
My booze-free year has taught me it's never worth sacrificing your peace of mind for anything – and that includes a bottle of house red.
If you're struggling with your alcohol consumption or your mental health, there are lots of places you can find extra support and information – from your GP to mental health charity Mind, or Club Soda, whose 'mindful drinking course' I found really helpful during my early days of living an alcohol-free life.
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