It's the silly season which means social function after social function - trying times for those who experience social anxiety. But while you might cope by downing a few extra drinks to get through your work Christmas party or friend's BBQ, new research suggests that doing so could leave you with more than just a hangover the day after.
According to the study, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, very shy people are more likely to experience anxiety during a hangover - also known as "hangxiety" - than their more extroverted mates.
As part of the research, almost 100 participants were divided into two groups. Half were instructed to drink, while the other half were asked to stay sober. Participants' levels of shyness, social phobia and scores on a measure of alcohol dependence were all recorded. Anxiety levels were tested during the evening and again the following morning.
When they analysed the findings, the team observed that drinking about six units of alcohol slightly decreased anxiety in highly shy people. But that wasn't the full story. The following day, this slight relaxation was replaced by a state of hangxiety among shy drinkers.
"We know that many people drink to ease anxiety felt in social situations, but this research suggests that this might have rebound consequences the next day, with more shy individuals more likely to experience this, sometimes debilitating, aspect of hangover," said Professor Celia Morgan, of the University of Exeter. "These findings also suggest that hangxiety in turn might be linked to people's chance of developing a problem with alcohol."
Adds co-author Beth Marsh, "While statistics show that, overall, people are drinking less, those with lower levels of health and wellbeing – perhaps including people experiencing anxiety – are still often doing so."
Professor Morgan advises that rather than drinking too much to get through social events, it's more important for individuals to embrace their personality type. "It's about accepting being shy or an introvert," she says. "This might help transition people away from heavy alcohol use.
"It's a positive trait. It's OK to be quiet."
While the study is only small, it's not the first time the existence of hangxiety has been confirmed by science. One previous study, published in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism, found that nearly half of the 1400 participants reported agitation the day after drinking, while another, published in the same journal, found high levels of anxiety in 48 hungover but otherwise healthy students.
According to Beyond Blue there's a reason why hangxiety (which isn't a formal diagnosis or clinical term) occurs post a big night out. "When you consume alcohol the chemical balance in your brain is disrupted," they say. "Everyone is different, but most people feel more relaxed and less inhibited after a few drinks. The 'feel-good' chemical called dopamine is released in greater supply into your brain – resulting in a greater sense of satisfaction than you had before drinking."
And yet, Beyond Blue explains, "alcohol is effectively tricking your brain".
"You pay little regard to the age-old fact that what comes up, must come down," they say. "The next day, your brain is trying feverishly to correct the chemical imbalances from the night before and what do you know – anxiety arises."
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