Hangxiety: three ways to reduce alcohol-related regret

Beer glasses clinking together

Image: kazuma seki/iStock

Image: kazuma seki/iStock

With the time warp of Christmas and New Years behind us, we can reflect on Australia’s heavy drinking culture and feelings of regret often associated with drinking alcohol.

Results from the 25-nation Global Drug Survey (GDS) 2020 are in – and it showed 27 per cent of Australian respondents regretted getting drunk.

The survey also took a deep dive into how often we’re getting drunk and the consequences of feeling alcohol-related regret.

GDS2020 was conducted in November and December 2019, just before COVID-19 changed our lives. Over 90,000 people from across the world told us about their experiences of getting drunk, including 10,612 from Australia.

So, how was ‘drunk’ defined?

In the GDS2020, we defined drunk as:

having drunk so much that your physical and mental faculties are impaired to the point where your balance / speech was affected, you were unable to focus clearly on things and that your conversation and behaviours were very obviously different to people who know you.

Australians get drunk more than average

Globally, respondents reported getting drunk on average 20 times per year. When comparing respondents from different countries, Australians reported getting drunk on average 32 times per year, coming in third behind people from Scotland and England. Only 5 per cent of Australians said they had not been drunk at all in the last 12 months, the lowest global figure reported (tied with respondents from Denmark).

Hands holding wine glasses
Graph of mean number of occasions in which people reported getting drunk in the last 12 months by country

How often do Australians regret getting drunk, and why?

Drinking should be enjoyable. It is a social and cultural activity for most. Yet on average Australian respondents surveyed regretted getting drunk on a quarter of occasions (for women this was almost a third; 32 per cent).
Graph showing the average percentage of times people regretted getting drunk

Three familiar situations were the most common cause of regret:

  1. Drinking too much too fast (leading to rapid rises in blood alcohol, causing people to be more intoxicated than they wanted and less in control of their faculties);
  2. Mixing drinks (drinking beverages with different % ABV can make it hard to track your consumption and often increases our rate of alcohol consumption);
  3. Hanging out with big drinkers (getting caught up in rounds can leave people ‘forced’ to drink more quickly than they would like). 
The lessons to learn here are clear. If you want to avoid regretting getting drunk, drink slowly, don’t mix your drinks, and avoiding hanging out with big drinkers.

What are the consequences of drinking to the point of regret?

Top of the list, unsurprisingly, was getting a hangover. Hangovers are a sign that our body is struggling to cope with processing all the alcohol that we have consumed. The consequence is that you feel 'blah’– splitting headaches, nausea, and vomiting. Sadly, there is no magic hangover cure; you’ve got to wait it out while your liver processes the alcohol, but rehydrating will help.

Loose lips sink ships. The second consequence is saying something you wouldn’t normally have said when sober. Whether that is sharing what you really think of your mate’s new haircut, spilling a secret or declaring your undying love for someone, it can really make you feel embarrassed the next day – worse if you said it on social media!

The third consequence that made people regret getting drunk was feeling increased anxiety the next day – or ‘hangxiety’ as it has become known.

What is ‘hangxiety’?

The explanation for increased anxiety after drinking is down to the effects of alcohol on the brain.

Most people will be familiar with the idea of alcohol calming your nerves; this happens because alcohol turns up the activity of your brain’s dominant inhibitory neurotransmitter, GABA, while turning down the brain’s main excitatory one, glutamate. It is like putting on headphones (increasing GABA) and turning the volume down (decreasing glutamate, that’s why too much alcohol can make you feel sleepy). Your brain does not like to be knocked off balance, so in the hours following drinking as the muffling of GABA on your brain’s activity wears off, it tries to turn up the volume (increasing the activity of glutamate), leading to anxiety and restlessness. This can lead some people to drink the next day as way of coping with this ‘hangxiety’— something you should not do.  While it’s true that people with underlying mental health conditions are more likely to notice negative effects on their emotional well-being, alcohol (especially getting drunk) is a poor coping strategy for anxiety (and depression) for everyone.

Line of beers in glasses
Lady with hangover

Contribute to more research that helps us to understand alcohol use

Please take part in the world's largest drug survey (open until February 14, 2021).

We think that understanding more about alcohol and regret will help us to encourage people to drink a bit less and change how they drink.  So, in GDS2021 , which runs until mid-February, we are exploring alcohol-related regret during COVID times, and how people sought help for their drinking and mental health worries. So, if you have 20-25 minutes, come and help us understand how to ensure people get the right help and avoid regret after drinking.

For anonymous confidential feedback on your drinking download the free Drinks Meter app (www.drinksmeter.com)

Authors: Dr Cheneal Puljevic1,2, Ms Steffi Cook1, Dr Emma Davies3, Professor Adam Winstock4,5, Associate Professor Jason Ferris1

1 Centre for Health Services Research, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia

2 School of Public Health, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia

3 Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, Oxford Brookes University, United Kingdom

4 University College London, Gower St, Bloomsbury, London, UK

5 Global Drug Survey Ltd, London, UK