This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Hangxiety is a very millennial term, isn't it? Trust Generation Snowflake to take that seemingly straightforward ailment – the hangover – and shoehorn it into a portmanteau about mental health.
Except there's a well-researched history linking alcohol use and social anxiety, with 28 percent of those with social anxiety disorder (SAD) said to suffer with alcohol use disorder (AUD). Shyness is a subclinical analogue of SAD. This means you can experience similar symptoms – perhaps aversion to social situations, or blushing and getting a dry mouth when meeting people you don't know – but they don't develop into the most debilitating anxietal forms.
A recent study has found that hangxiety – that's hangover anxiety: the acute sense of dread or guilt on a hangover that, in its own way, is more affecting than a bruising headache or being wildly ill in the work toilets – in highly shy individuals could be linked to AUD. In short: if you're shy and getting crushing hangxiety every weekend, it's possibly because you're drinking unhealthily to alleviate your shyness.
"Alcohol produces an anxiolytic effect on the brain," says Beth Marsh, who designed the study and is a clinical psychopharmacology researcher at UCL. "So when under the influence of alcohol, chemicals in our brain make us less inhibited and anxious. This is the same whether you're a shy or anxious person or not."
A personal example: when I was about 14, I hated school. I was an awkward vegetarian – it was the 1990s, so the plant-based lifestyle wasn't cool yet – with few mates, insomnia and a face like a Pollock painting. I spent lunchtimes on the computers, often alone. I fell in with a group with whom I'd drink Merrydown cider on weekends, and I'd be loud, play the clown and very occasionally get to second base with girls. One day I asked them if they thought I was funnier drunk or sober, and they replied drunk.
We all create fairytales about our past, but that stuck with me. Twenty years later, I still feel less confident – and certainly less funny – when I'm not drinking. For years, I put on club nights and had the reputation as a gadabout while trying to pretend I was some kind of alpha. In reality, I was 7/10 pissed a lot, and it's only been in the last couple of years that I've become comfortable with the fact that I'm basically a quiet, introverted man. What drove me to cut down on my penchant for booze and intoxicants was the increasingly anxiety-ridden nature of my hangovers, and the fact they were jeopardising a writing career I'd somehow got off the ground.
"It's easy to slip into patterns," says Celia Morgan, professor of psychopharmacology at the University of Exeter, and chief investigator of the study, "and alcohol does make socialising easier if you feel slightly uncomfortable. There's also an interesting two-way relationship. In the majority of cases where social anxiety leads to AUD, the alcohol is a coping mechanism. But in some people it goes the other way."
A common thread between everyone I spoke to for this article was a feeling of awkwardness or disconnection. Simon, a 34-year-old comedy director, relied socially on alcohol in his teens and during university to help him forget about his stammer: "It made me very shy. When I was drunk, I stammered less." He grew to realise that he couldn’t use alcohol as a coping mechanism, especially as his hangovers became "full of self-loathing: 'Do people hate me? Why doesn't she like me?'" He now drinks rarely as a result.
Brodi Snook, a 27-year-old comedian, was moved around constantly as a child at home in Australia. "I had about ten schools before I was five and was just a nervy, terrified little thing from a young age," she says. She discovered booze at 14 and it helped her make friends and meet guys. She describes her hangovers as existential, generally relating to fears about her chosen careers and life choices, as opposed to, "Oh fuck. I was such a mess last night."
There are some situations a highly shy person might fall prey to on a particularly hangxious morning after. Take the Christmas work-do: an explosion of forced bonhomie where they're put into a social arena with people they don't know outside of email threads and pointless morning stand-ups, while seniors look on and – thanks to a robust British drinking culture that values this kind of behaviour – encourage getting blackout drunk.
"There's a lot of anticipation for something like this; this could be either excitement or anxiety. When you're stressed, blood moves away from your stomach and to your muscles," says Celia. This means alcohol will be absorbed faster. "Then maybe you start drinking really fast." Add in the fact you forget to eat after getting full on free prosecco and you’ve got a recipe for a dark morning of the soul as you remember grinding your boss to ‘"Last Christmas".
One interesting facet of hangxiety as A Thing is the fact that drinking rates are going down. Ten million UK adults now report being teetotal, while 29 percent of 16 to 24-year-olds don't drink. So surely hangxiety's days should be numbered?
"While alcohol use is actually going down, there are still 600,000 dependent drinkers in the UK," says Beth Marsh. "And 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."
So, in an age of anxiety where – according to 2017 findings by the UK Council for Psychotherapy – rates of moderate-to-extreme anxiety and depression among UK workers rose 30.5 percent since 2013, the thread between anxiety, shyness and alcohol seems likely to endure.
One thing younger generations have in our favour is the fact that there's perhaps more acceptance of being shy. Susan Cain's book, Quiet: The Power Of Introverts in a World That Cant Stop Talking, explores the benefits of being introverted, and sold over 2 million copies. The goalposts on masculinity are also slowly moving: men and boys who drink heavily to play alpha might now feel more comfortable in their own skin, and not reach for those hangxiety-inducing shots of tequila.
"It's about accepting being shy or an introvert," says Celia. "This might help transition people away from heavy alcohol use. It's a positive trait. It's OK to be quiet."