Culture
Why Are Hangovers Stigmatized If Everyone Gets Them?
The consequences of misunderstanding and stigmatizing hangovers.

Van Wilde

January 10, 2020

It’s not often that when you create a product for a factually universal problem you also have to explain to people that they have that problem, even if you see them experiencing the problem with your own eyes. Some people believe, despite very solid evidence from their own experiences, that they don’t get hangovers.

When they hear that Cheers, our company, makes products that can help with hangovers, most people usually tell us something like, “Oh, that’s cool! But, it’s not interesting to me because I don’t drink enough to get a hangover.”

Their response, though common, is certainly untrue—even if they don’t mean it to be untrue. The truth is, if you drink alcohol, you will have a hangover. Saying you drink and don’t get hangovers is like saying the sky isn’t blue. Many people don’t have a very nuanced understanding of what a hangover is, and therefore hangovers are generally misunderstood and, even worse, stigmatized.

The consequences of misunderstanding and stigmatizing hangovers

Brooks, our founder, often tells our team an experience he had that explains why this stigma and lack of understanding of alcohol and hangovers is a problem. Brooks was once at a conference where he and a new friend, who shared a fitness lifestyle, agreed to work out the next morning before breakfast.

Later that evening, Brooks and his friend had drinks at the bar with other conference attendees—nothing crazy, just 2-3 cocktails over an hour or two. When the morning rolled around, Brooks went to the gym and saw his friend was nowhere to be found.

When Brooks later saw his friend at breakfast, his friend looked disheveled, tired, and seemingly had a headache—all signs of a mild hangover. Brooks jokingly said, “I told you that you should have taken my pills!”

The friend said, “Oh, I’m not hungover, I just woke up feeling really tired and have a small headache.”

Brooks laughed and said to the friend that it sounded like he had a bit of a hangover from the last evening’s cocktails. Brooks offered him some Cheers Hydrate and a sample of a new product Cheers was working on (that could be taken the day after drinking instead of the same night). The friend was adamant that he “drinks responsibly and doesn’t get hangovers” and that he “didn’t need the product.” Brooks had clearly struck a prideful nerve.

An example of hangover symptoms without and with Cheers.

This man was reluctant to admit the reality that the cocktails from the night before negatively affected him today. Because of the wrong perception that only “irresponsible drinkers” get “hangovers,” this man was unwilling to accept free relief. The friend instead opted to suffer through a long day at the conference, with a hangover, for no other reason than to avoid the stigma of taking an alcohol-related health product. He was more concerned with being perceived to be hungover than actually being hungover, worrying about what he would think of himself, and so he had a painful day.

The phenomenon was clear to Brooks. Either get people to have a more nuanced perception of hangovers—showing that even responsible drinking can lead to these unpleasant symptoms—or suffer the consequences of operating in a market that will always be limited to the people that are honest with themselves and don’t care about negative perception attached to hangovers.

People are often reluctant to admit to any next-day negative effects because even the word “hangover” itself is stigmatized.

For the longest time, we fought against even using the word “hangover” in our company’s vocabulary—recognizing that responsible adults saw it as a dirty word and didn’t want to associate with it. However, after a period of time reworking our branding, we realized that the problem isn’t with the word “hangover” itself… but rather with the perception of it.

What people have in mind when they hear the word “hangover”.

It’s clear there is a stigma attached to the word “hangover.” So we decided to give people a more nuanced way of talking about hangovers, and by doing so, started to get rid of the stigma associated with them. By changing the perception of the word “hangover,” people can actually admit the reality of their situation and then deal with it—i.e., such as by drinking less, using Cheers products (or hell, even one of our competitors’ products), or some combination thereof. The first step in fixing anything is first correctly identifying the problem.

Not being willing to recognize that alcohol caused the bout of lethargy and dull headache you experienced a morning after drinking, because you’re too embarrassed to admit drinking alcohol caused you unpleasant symptoms (or your false belief that negative effects only come from irresponsible drinking), is a lot like finding a lump in your breast and refusing to get it looked at because “it’s a bit awkward to discuss” and “not that big anyway.” It just doesn’t make any sense to do nothing about it.

Truth: “Hangovers” are not black and white—they’re shades of gray on a spectrum.

When asked if someone has a hangover, their answer is usually ‘yes’ or ‘no’—as if a hangover is a black or white phenomenon. However, the truth is that hangovers aren’t black or white—they’re shades of gray in between. Because of the nuanced way in which alcohol’s causal effects are relative to the amount of alcohol consumed, it’s impossible to be only either “totally fine” or “terribly hungover” after drinking. A hangover always exists on a spectrum somewhere between 1 (barely noticeable) and 100 (dead).

If you had three glasses of wine and felt 80% fine the next day, you would in fact be 20% hungover. Since feeling only 80% fine isn’t that bad, you would probably explain to others that “you aren’t hungover”—even if, like Brooks’ conference friend, your hangover caused you to change your morning plans—like skipping your workout.

“Do you have a hangover?” is the wrong question to ask—that question assumes a binary response with no room for nuance or scale. Even if you are 99% fine, that still technically means you are 1% hungover. Therefore, the question should not be “Do you have a hangover?” but rather “how hungover are you?” Or, better yet, ask “how do you feel?” and leave the baggage of “hangover” completely out of it.

The facts of the matter are:

  1. Alcohol’s negative effects can affect you with different levels of severity.
  2. Your individual hangover severity is going to be relative to the amount of alcohol you’ve consumed and the conditions surrounding your consumption (e.g., over how much time? and was food involved?, etc.).

For example, this could be the “Alcohol Comfort Level Curve” of someone that had five drinks in one night:

And this could be the “Alcohol Comfort Level Curve” of someone that had only two drinks in one night. The discomfort is understandably less pronounced because fewer drinks were consumed.

As you can see from the chart, a hangover is ultimately relative to the amount of alcohol consumed and the conditions in which it was consumed. For example, taking shots on an empty stomach would lead to a much spikier curve than slowly drinking through a few glasses of wine with dinner.

This type of cause-and-effect relationship between alcohol and hangover severity or duration should be intuitively obvious, but unfortunately it’s often not. This is the type of education we are striving for, as it’s critical that someone understands what a hangover is, how the severity is tied to different factors, what to expect the next day when consuming alcohol, and how Cheers’ products work within that equation.

Not understanding the relationship between alcohol and hangovers is a lot like not understanding the relationship between sex and babies. The reason that children are taught about sex is to give them an understanding of how sex works, what the consequences of sex are, and what options they have at their disposal for preventing or treating some of those consequences if and when they choose to have sex.

Because 70% of Americans drink alcohol, it’s problematic that so few people understand even the simple relationship between alcohol and hangovers, let alone understand it with any level of nuance. 

Addressing the stigma allows people to be objective about the relationship between alcohol & hangovers and know their options

We believe that understanding hangovers as being on a spectrum (i.e., “shades of gray”) and not a binary of “yes” or “no” (i.e., “black or white) is critical to removing their stigma. When the hangover stigma is removed in someone’s mind, they can be honest with themselves, understand the causal effect between alcohol and hangovers, and take the steps necessary to feel their best after drinking.

Once you realize that you can admit to being “hungover” after even moderate alcohol consumption, then you are free to seek strategies to prevent or treat hangovers without any guilt or stigma.

Should there be shame in having a massive hangover after a three-day bender? We’re not advocating for or defending binge drinking. But should someone feel guilty after waking up with a headache from moderate drinking like sharing a bottle of wine or two over dinner? Absolutely not.

Hangovers are as natural as the consumption of alcohol itself. Which, for the record, is estimated to date back to at least 8000 BCE., and exists in every civilization and century thereafter, all throughout human history. If the consumption of alcohol isn’t stigmatized, then why should the relative hangover and its prevention or treatment be?


References

  1. “Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2 Jan. 2020, https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics.
  2. Meyer, J.S. and Quenzer, L.F. (2005) Psychopharmacology: Drugs, the Brain, and Behavior. Sinauer Associates, Sunderland.
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