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The Science Behind the ‘Sunday Scaries’

Charles Bukowski wisely once said, “Sundays kill more men than bombs.”

Bukowski may have been a violent drunk, an incorrigible womanizer and an unabashed misogynist, but even he was sympathetic to the existential dread that washes over you on a Sunday afternoon.

Some people call it the “Sunday Scaries.” Others, the “Sunday Blues.” One of my colleagues refers to it as “The Fear Cage.” Another personifies the experience as “Mr. Scary,” a Grim Reaper-like creature who whispers terrible nothings in your ear as Sunday gives way to Monday. My dad terms it the “Heebie Jeebies.”

Whatever the name, the experience is universal: It’s Sunday, and panic creeps in as you come down from the weekend and contemplate Monday and another week in your banal, meaningless existence.

You lie on your couch all day, questioning not only the choices you made the night before, but all the life decisions that led to this point and what you should’ve done differently: If only I would call my mother more often, then maybe God wouldn’t be punishing me like this. But no amount of bargaining can lift the pall. Your world is nothing but angst, depression and regret.

The Scaries aren’t limited to Sundays, per se. You can suffer a bout of the Scaries on a random Tuesday, sitting at your desk, wondering how you ended up at such an unfulfilling job. But there’s something about Sundays that makes the experience more acute.

The question is why. What happens to us — physically and psychologically — that makes some Sundays so unbearable?

Your Brain Has a Hard Time Regulating Your Mood During a Hangover

You don’t need to be hung over for the Scaries to set in, but they certainly exacerbate the experience.

A weekend of heavy boozing depletes your brain of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), glutamate and serotonin, neurotransmitters vital to our brain’s natural mood-regulation process, according to Carl Hart, chair of the psychology department at Columbia University and author of High Price andDrugs, Society & Human Behavior. And low levels of these neurotransmitters leave us susceptible to sorrow and self-loathing.

Combine the low serotonin and GABA levels with heightened levels of glutamine and you have a volatile mix, one that can turn your Sunday into a runaway train of hopelessness and despair.

Same if You’ve Been Doing Drugs All Weekend

The aftereffects of drug use are much the same: They weaken the neurochemical processes we rely on to keep an even keel, effectively lowering our natural defenses against feelings of anguish and worry. The specific neurotransmitters affected vary by drug, however.

  • Cocaine: Coke leaves us bereft of serotonin (see above), dopamine and norepinephrine. Dopamine is at the center of brain’s reward pathway, and is stimulated by all of life’s greatest pleasures: food, sex and all recreational drugs. Low dopamine levels when hung over account for the lack of joy, and might also be why we engage in dopamine-enhancing behaviors, like spending your entire Sunday alternately overeating and masturbating. Meanwhile, norepinephrine helps control our sense of motivation, which would explain why simply walking to the bathroom feels like an accomplishment during the Scaries.
  • Molly/Ecstasy (MDMA): The after-effects are similar to cocaine, Hart says, except less intense and over a longer period of time. Downside: Your hangover might persist into Tuesday.
  • Ketamine: As with alcohol, the major neurotransmitters at play are GABA and glutamate. “Glutamate is important for helping us engage in activities we want to do, and quickly,” Hart says. Ketamine decreases glutamate levels, making it hard to just think, let alone go on that run you had planned.
  • Psychedelics (mushrooms, LSD, etc.): Psychedelics leave your body at a more gradual rate, making the come down relatively chill, Hart says. That said, they play upon your body’s serotonin receptors, and can cause feelings of depression after use.

You’re Letting the Man Get You Down

“The sun comes up and you’re still doing cocaine? That’s depressing, man,” says Hart, accurately summing up the guilt felt by anyone who’s ever blown rails until 7 a.m. on a Monday.

Not that Hart judges. He’s open about his own substance use: “I’m a drug user, man. I know this stuff inside and out.” And as an academic he’s intimately familiar with the Scaries and the role societal expectations play in inducing them.

The guilt we feel during the Scaries is rooted in our cultural demonization of drugs, Hart says. When we internalize the idea that drug use is inherently bad, even in moderation, we feel shame about our own use, and whatever personal, professional and relational responsibilities we may have neglected to get drunk or high. “You think, Man, I fucked up,” Hart says. “And that’s not a good feeling.”

Or Maybe There Really Is Something Wrong With You

L.A.-based psychiatrist Michael Franzblau says the Sunday Scaries are common, but for him, they’re not necessarily a function of drinking and drugging to excess. Any paranoia we feel on Sunday, drug-induced or not, is a deeper dissatisfaction coming to the surface, he says.

You don’t need to have had 12 drinks and an eight ball of coke on Saturday night to feel blue on Sunday night. Whether it’s your dead-end job, your loveless relationship or a general feeling of loneliness and depression, the gloominess we experience on Sunday night is indicative of a larger psychological problem. The hangover merely amplifies it.

Not to mention, the substance use itself is usually proof that there are some mental or emotional issues not being tended to, he says: “On Friday, you’re thinking, Now I get to go to my favorite place, see my favorite people and drink and dance and be merry. Then the weekend passes and everything comes back to ground zero. The hope is lost. And the feeling is, I’m back at square one, and I have to deal with what I’ve done.

Franzblau likens this behavior to the proverbial tale of Sisyphus, the man condemned to an eternity of pushing a rock up a hill, only to have it roll down to the bottom just before reaching the summit. Like Sisyphus, people compensate for their unhappiness by getting wasted every Friday and Saturday night, only to feel depressed on Sunday, and never confronting the true cause of their discontent.

The Best Treatment is Food, Sleep and Time

Hart has a more reassuring message for anyone in the throes of the Scaries: “Sometimes people think, I killed all these brain cells this weekend. They get freaked out that they did some irreparable damage, and anxiety and guilt take over,” Hart says. “But that’s not permanent. You can replenish them simply by your diet.”

His advice for keeping the Scaries at bay: “Just chill, get some rest, eat well and you’ll be fine.”

At least until next Sunday.