You drank too much. But it's nothing that some Advil, water, and a greasy brunch can't fix—at least until the regret starts to set in. Most drinkers are familiar with the sweet pain of overindulging in alcohol—the headaches, the nausea, the fatigue—and have a vague sense that there's a science-based explanation for all those physical symptoms. But fewer are acquainted with the reasons behind the psychological effects associated with hangovers—namely, guilt—that overwhelm us the morning after having a few too many.
There's even a colloquial term for the phenomenon: "moral hangover," or the nagging feeling that you did something crappy or embarrassing the night before even if, oftentimes, you didn't. Sure, alcohol is known to lower inhibitions, making us more likely to, say, drunk text a crush at some ungodly hour, but that doesn't explain why the doubt persists in the absence of any wrongdoing.
This "hangxiety" harkens back to Paleolithic-era humans, who, theoretically, discovered alcohol by way of fermented fruit. They, too, learned the hard way when it came to drinker's remorse. "Any pleasurable activity, especially one that results later in physical pain or a wasted tomorrow, leads to recriminations," Patrick McGovern, author of Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages and scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania, tells Hopes&Fears. "Paleolithic humans might have enjoyed the welcome relief of a drink or two—or three—after the hunt, but if they couldn't get up the next morning, they might turn out to be the prey. It was always important to have the designated guard at the entrance to the cave."
Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq’s Kitab al-Tabikh ("The Cooking Book") is a 1,000-year-old Iraqi cookbook—the oldest in the Arab world. The 10th-century tome contains perhaps the oldest documented hangover cure, which advises people to eat cabbage before a night of drinking. Cold water should be sipped, not gulped, the next morning, followed by kishkiyya, an ancient meat and chickpea stew. Kashk—a combination of fermented yogurt, milk, and whey—is added to the stew, and acts as the magic hangover ingredient.
Source: The Daily Mail
Roderick Phillips, author of Alcohol: A History, suggests that our boozy feelings of guilt probably have more to do with our actions while drinking rather than the act of drinking itself. "Surely it's because of what you did while you were drunk, not simply because you drank too much," the historian tells us. "Being remorseful is rueing or regretting having drunk so much. But feeling guilty is a sense of having done something bad that involves another person. You might feel guilty if you treated someone badly while you were drunk. And if you'd promised someone you would never drink that much again, you might feel guilty because you let them down. But if it was only yourself that you had promised it to, but did so anyway, I'd say you feel remorse. Is this splitting hairs? I don't think so."
Amanda Schuster, editor-in-chief of the website The Alcohol Professor, agrees that hangover guilt is strongly linked to actions during a night of overimbibing, suggesting that, "a behavioral deal with one's self has been broken." Adding up those brewskis the morning after is enough to make the staunchest partygoer go totally red-faced. "The math can be shameful," Schuster says.
But history may come into play, yet again, when it comes to hangovers—a sense of social conditioning deeply embedded into the human consciousness. Phillips reminds us:
"Hangovers just haven't been of much interest historically, but getting drunk has, and there have often been penalties for it—fines and/or jail time, depending on time and place. Excessive drinking has bothered authorities of all kinds—religious and secular—because drunk people don't have the self-control that social order depends on. Drunkenness has for thousands of years been associated with immorality, crime, violence, and social disruption."
Here are some reasons we get hangovers
Alcohol causes your body to produce
Alcohol triggers an inflammatory response from your immune system.
Alcohol irritates the lining of your stomach.
Alcohol can cause your blood sugar to fall.
Alcohol causes your blood vessels to expand.
Alcohol can make you sleepy.
Alcoholic beverages contain ingredients called congeners, which give many types of alcoholic beverages their flavor and can contribute to hangovers.
Source: Mayo Clinic
Richard Stephens, a senior lecturer in psychology at Keele University and author of Black Sheep The Hidden Benefits of Being Bad, has studied the science of alcohol and hangovers for over 10 years. He elaborates on these possibilities and introduces the findings of one hangover study:
"A few scientific papers touch on issues of whether feelings of shame and guilt are either an element of the alcohol hangover, or whether they actually predict how bad a hangover is felt. These papers start from the interesting position of suggesting that hangover may be in part be explained by psychosomatic factors such as conflict, ambivalence, and guilt related to drinking rather than as a straightforward dose response relationship with alcohol consumption.
Harburg et al carried out a survey of 1,104 adult drinkers residing in the town of Tecumseh, Michigan in the 1970s. Alcohol consumption was only slightly correlated with hangover symptoms and a predictive statistical model including both alcohol consumption and psychological variables such as feeling guilty about drinking was able to explain 19% of men's and women's hangover symptoms. High scores on psychological variables such as guilt about drinking or feeling angry whilst drunk, which collectively indicate 'negative effect,' are correlated with more hangover symptoms.
Of course, as these data are correlational it is not known whether, for example, guilt about drinking leads to greater hangover, or whether people who know they are susceptible to hangover feel more guilt as they drink in the knowledge of their impending incapacitation the next day. Still, it is interesting that this paper acknowledges psychological variables in the aetiology of hangover. This might explain why 23-33% of people don't get hungover—these individuals drink alcohol without guilt or shame."
These drinks are more likely to cause hangovers due to high congener content
Dark-colored beer or beer with a high alcohol content
These drinks are less likely to cause hangovers due to lower congener content
Lighter colored beers and wine
Source: Mayo Clinic
Stephens' insights bring up an important distinction between guilt and shame. If guilt is a private emotion of self-reckoning dredged up when you know that you've done or are about to do something bad or wrong, shame depends on a network of other people to be activated—the idea that a crowdsourced "public" or a "community" is observing your actions and might, conceivably, disapprove of them. So, is what we experience psychologically after drinking too much more adequately described as "shame"?
Another study that may provide some answers about post-drink guilt comes from a group of neuroscientists at the University of Utah. They determined that a part of our brain called the lateral habenula (LHb) is activated by negative experiences—like drinking too much and getting a hangover. When the LHb is inactivated or faulty, these negative outcomes are no longer a factor: "Researchers concluded it is the lateral habenula that helps us associate hangovers with the desire not to drink so much again."
Kingsley Amis—English novelist, Man Booker Prize-winner, and famed drinker—once described a phenomenon he called the "metaphysical hangover" in The New Yorker: "When that ineffable compound of depression, sadness (these two are not the same), anxiety, self-hatred, sense of failure and fear for the future begins to steal over you, start telling yourself that what you have is a hangover. You are not sickening for anything, you have not suffered a minor brain lesion, you are not all that bad at your job, your family and friends are not leagued in a conspiracy of barely maintained silence about what a shit you are, you have not come at last to see life as it really is and there is no use crying over spilt milk." (Amis also believed the opening of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis was the best literary representation of a hangover.)
Despite the fact that getting wasted is a widely accepted part of Western society, psychosocial factors seem to persist. "The hangover—together with remorse and/or guilt—is penalty enough," says Phillips. And yet, that doesn't always seem to quell our guilt. "We're grown adults. We know better. Yet we engage in the self-abuse that causes them anyway," Schuster concludes. Frank Kelly Rich, editor of the magazine Modern Drunkard, blames our "puritanical society." He jokes, "If you can work your way out of that hair shirt, however, it's smooth sailing. Aside from all the money you may have left at the bar."
A 2012 study suggests that smoking may make your hangover worse. For starters, smoking and alcohol can disrupt sleep. And both increase the release of dopamine, during which the brain experiences pleasure. But there may be a "shortfall" of dopamine after the initial rush.
A 2014 study indicates that our genetics play a major role in why nearly half of us have hangovers, while the other half don’t. Those more predisposed to hangovers also drink to intoxication more frequently than people who don’t have hangover genes. Another study from 1996 indicates that some people (largely those of East Asian descent) have a gene mutation that prevents the normal conversion of alcohol into acetaldehyde into acetic acid, resulting in alcohol-induced flush, and possibly increasing the chances of day-after hangovers.