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Alcohol and Depression: A Cycle

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Jordan Kadish

July 5, 2022

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For many people, alcohol acts as a coping mechanism for underlying mental health issues. Perhaps a person numbs the pain of a recent breakup or eases the anxiety of work stress by drinking. Although alcohol use may seem harmless at the moment, associating negative moods with drinking can be a slippery slope. Research has found that people with alcoholism or alcohol use disorder (AUD) are 3 times as likely to also experience major depression. This is an alarming number, especially because alcohol and depression have a relationship that can tremendously worsen mental health. Why is there a link between drinking and depression? Does alcohol have a depressive effect? Keep reading to learn more.

Types of Depression:

Like many mental disorders, various types of depression have different causes. Here are the most common types of depression and how they can appear: 

Situational Depression: This type of depression does not count as disordered depression or sadness. Situational depression refers to the melancholic mood all people get into after a distressing event. The depressed mood you feel in situational depression is in direct response to an event and typically subsides over time. For example, it is typical for someone to feel depressed after the death of a family member or a divorce. Through the passage of time and/or support from loved ones, situational depression becomes manageable and eventually passes. 

Major Depressive Disorder (MDD): People who suffer from major depressive disorder feel persistent depressive moods the majority of the time. Common symptoms are the loss of interest in what once was exciting, feeling sluggish and unmotivated, and trouble making decisions. People with MDD may also experience physical symptoms like weight loss/gain, lack of energy, and slowed body movements. 

Seasonal Depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): People with SAD feel the same symptoms of major depressive disorder, except only within particular seasons. For most people, symptoms of SAD flare up in the winter months. This is explainable by the wealth of research finding a strong association between shorter days/lack of sunlight and depression. 

Persistent Depressive Disorder: Previously called “dysthymia”, this disorder is classified as experiencing depression symptoms for two consecutive years. Although people with this disorder may have periods of major depression, their typical symptoms are usually less severe, although long-lasting. 

Postpartum Depression: Postpartum depression is the depression a person may experience after childbirth. This is not to be confused with “baby blues”, which have similar symptoms to postpartum depression, but only last for about a week after birth. Postpartum depression can start during pregnancy and last many months after giving birth. Symptoms like severe mood swings, feelings of hopelessness, difficulty bonding with the baby, and severe anxiety make this disorder extremely difficult to deal with while caring for a newborn. 

 

The Alcohol and Depression Cycle

For people experiencing clinical depression, especially if it is undiagnosed/untreated, numbing sadness through drinking alcohol use can certainly be tempting. Feeling helpless and alone can make people self-medicate in an effort to get a break. Although self-medicating may seem effective in the moment, it can create a vicious cycle of alcohol use to deal with negative emotions whenever they arise. This is a cycle that over 30% of people with AUD are currently experiencing. 

Can alcohol use cause depression? Or, can depression cause alcohol use?

In short, the answer to both of these questions is “yes.” Research has shown that depressive disorders and alcohol use disorder often co-occur, increase the risk of each other, and worsen the symptoms of one another. The overarching cause of this relationship is that people with a depressive disorder often gravitate towards drinking to minimize their symptoms. In turn, they often end up using alcohol long-term and developing a dependency and AUD. 

Likewise, drinking can exacerbate depression symptoms. This has to do with the fact that alcohol is a depressant that reduces brain activity and slows functioning. The brain relies on the balance of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine to function properly. Because alcohol use disrupts this balance, an increase in drinking can negatively impact the way we manage emotions. This leads to an increase in depressive feelings when the effects of alcohol wear off. 

The connection between drinking and depression symptoms has affected so many people that the DSM-V includes a new subsection of depressive disorders. This subsection is called “Substance/Medication-Induced Depressive Disorder” and is characterized by a prominent and persistent disturbance in mood caused by the use of substances and/or medications. 

An infographic showing the Alcohol and Depression cycle

Breaking The Cycle

No matter how much of a dependency you have on alcohol or how bad your symptoms of depression are, it is never too late to break the cycle. There are plenty of coping mechanisms and resources available to help you on this journey. Here are some tips on how to get started: 

Know your resources. There are a multitude of therapy options, specific programs, and treatment plans available that focus on clinical depression and AUD. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is designed to help you become aware of feelings that cause depression and a desire to use alcohol. It also helps teach coping skills that you can use to live a healthier lifestyle. Medication-assisted therapy may combine talk-therapy tactics with prescribed medications like naltrexone that help alleviate withdrawal and reduce the risk of relapse. 

Research has attested to the positive impact that peer-support groups have in the treatment of AUD and depression.  Support groups can help remind you that you are not alone in your journey to recovery. They also offer you access to new perspectives and skills you may not have thought of before.

Along with support groups, there are also inpatient/outpatient recovery programs for both AUD and depression. These programs allow you to connect with others with similar experiences and professional support who will help you throughout your recovery. 

Make changes in your lifestyle. Along with treatment, smaller-scale lifestyle changes can make all the difference in improving your mental health. Here are a few examples of healthy lifestyle alterations: 

  • Exercise regularly. Research has shown that exercising daily is an effective way of boosting your mood while recovering from depression. Moving your body releases endorphins in your brain that naturally make you happy. So, whether it is yoga, weight lifting, or a simple jog, get moving!
  • Get a healthy amount of sleep. Depression can cause people to sleep too much or too little. Getting back to a healthy sleep schedule of about 8 hours per night will help improve your mood. 
  • Develop stress-reducing and relaxation skills. Because people with AUD tend to drink more in times of stress, learning these skills will help suppress this desire. Meditation is typically a helpful practice for those who have trouble managing stress. 
  • Surround yourself with people who care. Making sure that your inner circle has your best interest in mind during your recovery is extremely important. Having a support system that helps lighten your mood and refrains from drinking alcohol around you will ease you into your journey. 
  • Consider Eleanor Health! Here at Eleanor Health, we help anyone concerned about their mental health or affected by substance use live amazing lives. We offer care and treatment that takes into account the whole individual, meaning that we focus largely on one’s life experiences, cultures, and values when offering assistance. With resources available in medication-assisted treatment, therapy & counseling, psychiatry, recovery coaching, and more, we are dedicated to helping you get to a place where you feel happy and healthy. 

 

If you are seeking help with your loved one’s addiction, contact us today or complete our quick contact form below, to speak with an addiction treatment specialist.

If you need help with your substance use disorder, we are here to help you build your confidence and momentum towards the future you want. We provide treatment services for adults with alcohol, opioid, and other substance use disorders. We are currently located in LouisianaMassachusettsNew JerseyNorth CarolinaOhio, Texas, and Washington.

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