Our latest research shows that consuming just 4 units of alcohol, less than most people consider would give them a hangover, increases the likelihood of feeling out-of-control or overwhelmed the following day by 46%.


To understand what’s going on inside your brain when hangxiety hits, you need to familiarise yourself with two key neurotransmitters: GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) and glutamate.

These two chemicals are responsible for keeping the brain’s activity levels in check. GABA is the neurotransmitter responsible for slowing down our brain and making us feel more relaxed, glutamate does the opposite – it keeps us awake and alert.

Among other things, alcohol stimulates the brain’s GABA receptors, which makes us feel relaxed and less socially anxious, but the high levels of GABA also slow down the activity in our brain.

However, too much GABA can put us into a coma, so as the levels start to increase – even after just a couple of drinks – the body tries to counteract this by increasing glutamate production to ‘cancel out’ the excess GABA and crate balance.

The problem comes once you stop drinking and alcohol levels fall - the temporary surge in GABA falls too and you are left with a residual excess in glutamate. This is what makes you feel anxious.

You’re left with less of the anxiolytic [anxiety reducing] transmitter GABA and more of the anxiogenic [anxiety increasing] transmitter, glutamate.


These findings are taken from our wider research into various factors that determine overall cognitive performance. This cross-sectional study uses data from 200 knowledge workers, who along with various measures of cognitive performance, captured how out-of-control or overwhelmed (OOC) they felt on a visual analogue scale 4 times a day for a period of 2-weeks. At the same time, they recorded their consumption of alcohol, among various other factors.

Given our cross-sectional study design, we use odds ratios (OR) - an OR is a measure of association between an exposure and an outcome. The OR represents the odds that an outcome will occur (feeling out-of-control or overwhelmed) given a particular exposure (consumption of alcohol the previous day), compared to the outcome occurring in the absence of that exposure.

Note, our measure OOC is not an explicit measure of how anxious people felt, but it is directly analogous.


Consuming just 4 units of alcohol (2 pints or 2 standard glasses of wine) increases the likelihood of feeling out-of-control or overwhelmed the following day by 46% and this risk increases steadily up to an 88% increase in risk after consuming 8 or more units.

When consuming 10 or more units of alcohol, the effect of exposure accelerates, raising the likelihood of feeling out-of-control or overwhelmed the following day by over 3 times.

The odds ratios (ORs) of feeling out-of-control or overwhelmed the day after consuming differing amounts of alcohol are displayed in the table below, along with the 95% confidence intervals.

Hanhxiety table high res

10 or more units is probably the level at which most people would clearly recognize they are ‘hungover’, but it was surprising how significant the measurable effects were even at lower levels of consumption.


These findings highlight that even at relatively low levels, consuming alcohol as a mechanism to deal with stress can be counterproductive. Although alcohol does provide a very real, strong and immediate relief that makes us feel more relaxed at the time (this certainty of feeling is what makes it so behaviourally appealing), the imbalance it causes to our brain chemistry and excess of glutamate we are left with the following day is measurably counterproductive if our overall goal is to get back on top and feel more in-control of life.

To further compound the destabilising effects, studies have shown that elevated glutamate levels are also associated with increased alcohol cravings1, meaning that the more we drink the more likely we are to drink again the following day.

So, the next time you reach for a drink, don’t forget to factor the cost of feeling more out of control tomorrow into your decision making, and if you are already feeling anxious or overwhelmed, stick to 3 units or less, or even better consider alternative means to help manage your stress.

1 Elevated glutamate level in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex are associated with higher craving s for alcohol, Mark A. Frye et al July 2016

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