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Drinks wash away shy people’s anxiety — but brace for ‘hangxiety,’ study warns

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The California DMV says that having 0.08% Breath Alcohol Content or more means you can't drive. A few journalists from The Sacramento Bee sip on some IPAs to test how many beers it takes to reach the limit.
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The California DMV says that having 0.08% Breath Alcohol Content or more means you can't drive. A few journalists from The Sacramento Bee sip on some IPAs to test how many beers it takes to reach the limit.

Shy drinkers can drown some of their anxiety with alcohol — but self-medicating comes at a price, a new study warns.

By studying nearly 100 drinkers who were either very shy or not so shy, researchers found that shy drinkers could decrease their anxiety levels slightly by downing roughly six units of alcohol a night, according to a University of Exeter news release. A small glass of wine is about 1.5 units.

But those shy drinkers regret it the next day: That’s when “hangxiety” — a steep increase in anxiety the morning after — sets in for very shy drinkers (who are, at that point, possibly very achy and nauseated as well).

“We know that many people drink to ease anxiety felt in social situations,” Professor Celia Morgan, a study author from the University of Exeter, said in a statement. “But this research suggests that this might have rebound consequences the next day.”

Drinkers who were more outgoing didn’t suffer from the same kind of “hangxiety,” researchers found.

The study, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, also found a strong link between hangxiety symptoms and signs of alcohol use disorder in those who are very shy.

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Morgan said that shows that hangxiety “might be linked to people’s chance of developing a problem with alcohol.”

Before the two-day study began, researchers asked the 97 participants — 62 women and 35 men, ranging in age from 18 to 53 — not to drink for a day or to eat for two hours.

On day one, they were all breathalyzed and given a questionnaire at 6 p.m., then split into two groups, drinkers and non-drinkers. All the participants were told to socialize at participants’ homes, either drinking or sober. The study allowed the designated drinkers to pick their own drinks and to drink at their own rate.

At 8 p.m., researchers checked all the participants’ anxiety again, asked how many drinks the drinkers had had in the last two hours, and had them all keep socializing for two more hours.

The next morning at 10 a.m., all of the participants were surveyed again about their anxiety and were asked how much they drank total. Each was given 5 British pounds for their trouble.

There’s been research linking social anxiety disorder to alcohol use disorder in the past, the study said. But until now, little research had been done on the connection between drinking and shyness, which is a less severe and less crippling manifestation of similar symptoms, according to researchers.

The study defined shyness as “a common sub-clinical term used to describe anxiety and inhibition in social situations,” and said the descriptor shares many symptoms with social anxiety disorder, putting shyness on a spectrum with the disorder. Shyness, the researchers said, impacts between 20 and 48 percent of the population, while 4 percent face social anxiety disorder.

To focus solely on shyness, the study didn’t include those who showed clinically significant symptoms of social anxiety, the authors said.

Morgan encouraged shy people to accept being more introverted.

“This might help transition people away from heavy alcohol use,” Morgan said. “It’s a positive trait. It’s OK to be quiet.”

Excessive drinking and alcoholism are problems on both side of the Atlantic.

One in six American adults binge drinks four times a month, according to the National Institutes of Health, which considers it binge drinking if a man has five drinks — and if a woman has four — in less than two hours.

Citing the UK’s NHS health system, researchers said participants in the new study consumed “an average of 3.05 units above the number considered a ‘binge dose’ for males.”

But a “unit” of alcohol is much less than what many would consider a single drink, with half a pint of a lower-strength lager equal to about one unit, according to NHS.

“While alcohol use is actually going down, there are still 600,000 dependent drinkers in the UK,” said Beth Marsh, a University College London researcher and author of the study. “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.”

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