Why hangover shame gets worse as you get older

7th September 2018

We’ve all been there. Waking up with a head pounding harder than a kid with a cymbal, while any food bar a couple of bacon sandwiches makes you want to spew the contents of your digestive system. The only water you can find is backwashed and the smell of leftover vodka makes you violently shudder.

You have two options: you can either keep drinking or wait until your head stops spinning for long enough for you to forget what happened the night before.

When you’re young, being hungover can almost be a rite of passage. You’ve got your driving license in your pocket, and there’s no stopping you from getting in that bar with your friends and ordering a cocktail or two. Those first two independent steps after your first vodka shot can make you feel wobbly but invincible. It’s no wonder then that you often learn the hard way of how much you can handle the next morning. It’s not always pretty and you might wake up feeling very embarrassed about the way you conducted yourself. But luckily for you, most of your mates are in the same boat, so at least you can laugh about it when you feel more human.  

As most of us know by now, being drunk has many adverse side effects. Being hungover isn’t exactly a cakewalk either, with symptoms like dizziness, nausea and a general feeling of wanting to crawl out of yourself. Studies have also found that hangovers can lead to workplace absenteeism, impaired job performance and reduced productivity — if that wasn’t obvious. So with all these risks, why would anyone want to get drunk in the first place?

Psychotherapist Adrianna Irvine, who specialises in addictions, says when you’re young, you’re a lot more likely to drink to get drunk. This is because it’s fun. It’s funny to not be in control of your body, probably because it’s a brand new experience. It’s like being a kid again; everything is exciting and you lose all of your anxieties about impending adulthood. Irvine also thinks it may be easier to get drunk when you’re younger and have only just started drinking, because your body hasn’t necessarily got used to large quantities of alcohol yet. On the other hand, when you get more tolerant to it you can handle it better, so you’re maybe able to drink five cans of lager without so much as tossing a hair, even though your younger inexperienced self would have been passed out on the floor. While it’s seen as more common in students and young people, plenty of adults binge drink and still experience hangovers after drinking large quantities of alcohol. But, this could also be when things start to get a bit messier.

Some people stop drinking purely because they can’t handle the shame

It is perfectly socially acceptable to drink in moderation with friends or family, at the end of a busy week. However, Irvine says stress and tension from simply being an adult can make us want to drink excessively. “Life is far from easy and, as we get older, we get more and more money problems, job stresses and relationship issues just to name a few.” It is no wonder then that we use alcohol to numb some of this pain. Part of the reason you feel worse after drinking as you get older is that you simply tend to drink more.

In addition to this, Irvine says people tend to feel more ashamed about their drinking when they get older because of how society judges older people. “When walking down a street on a night out, and you see a young woman passed out in an alley way, it doesn’t look pretty, but you’re unlikely to think that much of it. But if you see a 45-year-old barrister with two kids at home in the same situation, people are more likely to judge them.”

Shame reminds us that we’re human

Psychotherapist Cat Williams thinks it has more to do with internal issues, adding “shame differs depending on someone’s emotional intelligence and maturity”. For some people, the blame for things they’ve done or said rests squarely on the alcohol — after all, their sober self wouldn’t have danced on the table at their office party or got off with their boss. However, some people are devastated to hear about their antics from the night before and dread people remembering them at their uninhibited self.

As well as the psychological causes of shame during a hangover, there are chemical ones too. Low blood sugar and dehydration can both cause anxiety which explains why the negative feelings can be worse when you first wake up, dry-mouthed and uncomfortable, and fade as your body recovers during the day.

Irvine says to remember that “shame isn’t a bad feeling. All it does is remind us that we’re human”.

She adds: “With shame comes empathy which can convert to humility.”

The occasional drink when life gets hard doesn’t make you a bad person. Understanding that everyone messes up occasionally might actually make us more in tune to everyone around us. It actually makes us less likely to judge people for drinking and understand that there is often more behind it than what meets the eye.

Williams also says we should try to focus on “curiosity, not shame”. We should always be willing to understand how our underlying feelings effect our actions. Although it isn’t necessarily an excuse, there is always a reason as to why we act in certain ways, she says. We should always remain open-minded as to these reasons and not beat ourselves up when we occasionally mess up. These things happen.

7th September 2018