We feel it fair to say that there is a strong causal link between alcoholism and depression.
However, it may be difficult to determine which condition arose first.
In some cases, you may drink alcohol to self-medicate the symptoms of anxiety and depression, whilst in others, it’s possible that your depression might have arisen due to your drinking. Alcohol is a depressant after all.
No matter which condition arose first, it’s important to correctly diagnose these co-occurring conditions before alcoholism treatment is embarked upon. This ensures you are treated for both conditions simultaneously for maximum effectiveness.
The causal link between alcohol and depression is well established. It’s possible that you drink alcohol merely to stop feeling depressed, whilst others may develop depression as a direct result of their drinking.
Studies indicate that those who suffer from depression are twice more likely to also experience alcoholism.
Before your alcoholism treatment begins, the assessing doctor will help to determine which condition arose first. A robust treatment plan will then be designed to ensure both conditions are treated at the same time.
Any drug or substance that changes your brain chemistry can almost always fit into one of two main categories: depressants or stimulants. Depressants are substances that slow down or reduce the functioning of the nervous system.
These substances are known to relax you, but they can also worsen systems of depression. On the other hand, stimulants are substances that excite the nervous system. Stimulants make you feel more energetic, alert and can improve your mood.
Today, it is common knowledge that alcohol has many qualities of a depressant, but it does not fit solely into that category. When alcohol first enters the system, it acts more as a stimulant.
Alcohol triggers an increase in neurotransmitters associated with positive emotions such as dopamine as it enters the bloodstream.
Due to this increase, people have a greater sense of pleasure and feel freer to “let go” and have fun. This is why so many people believe self-medicating with alcohol works.
Unfortunately, the positive effects stop before long, and as soon as someone stops drinking and their blood alcohol content begins to decrease, the depressive qualities start to kick in.
Alcohol lowers the functionality of neurotransmitters that regulate energy, causing your overall energy level to drop, but this alone does not necessarily make depression worse. Alcohol also has the ability to mimic GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter.
This means that it can bind to GABA receptors and stop (or inhibit) signalling between neurons. These two things combined results in an increase of depression symptoms and an overall worse mood. People will then want to feel good again, so they end up drinking again.
Whether someone is just grabbing a drink at the end of a particularly bad day or suffers from a mental disorder, the most common reason given for drinking is ‘to take the edge off.’ In other words, they are trying to feel better. And the truth is, at least at first, it does.
While this may be an okay choice for some people, for others, it is a slippery slope that can lead to drinking copious amounts of alcohol regularly. The later is considerably more likely to happen to those who suffer from MD (major depression), which makes every day feel like a bad one.
The more people suffering from AUD (alcohol use disorder) drink, the more they feel they have to drink. Eventually, they start to build up a tolerance and have to drink larger amounts to successfully ‘take the edge off’ and achieve the pleasure they are seeking.
At this point, most alcoholics feel as if they cannot stop because it is the only thing in their lives that gives them relief from the symptoms of their depression or other mental disorder.
This can be true even if they do not realise they are suffering from depression, which they often do not.
It is usually not until the fear of drinking outweighs or at least equates to the fear of not drinking that someone will stop self-medicating. When an alcoholic wants to get sober and seeks treatment themselves, they are more likely to be successful.
When they get sober, no matter what treatment method they use, they can work to recognise if they were self-medicating and start to treat the underlying mental disorders healthily.
It is easy to become dependent on alcohol and not even realise it. The more people turn to alcohol, the more their body develops a tolerance to it, and the more of it they have to drink to get the effect they are seeking.
As tolerance develops, usually, so does the dependency, and the challenge of getting sober becomes increasingly more difficult.
So what exactly is a dependency? Dependency is when a person shifts from wanting a drink or choosing to have a drink every once in a while to feeling an intense urge or need to have one.
If anyone feels they need any substance, that is not required for survival, to feel good or function, they are dependent on that substance. Furthermore, when that need or desire for alcohol take precedence over relationships and work, the person is dependent on it.
At the point of dependency, recovery becomes so much more difficult because the person is less likely to want to give it up, will often feel like they cannot give it up, and will most likely experience withdrawal if they try to stop.
Often the physical and emotional turmoil of withdrawal stops someone from getting sober.
Depression is described as ‘a low mood that lasts for a long time, affecting your everyday activities’. This definition of depression was offered by the mental health charity MIND.
Whilst it is perfectly normal to experience bouts of unhappiness, it’s not normal to feel like this for more than a few days. If you feel immensely unhappy for more than a few days, you could be suffering from clinical depression.
Depression has the potential to have a significantly detrimental impact on your everyday life.
It’s thus not difficult to understand why so many people who suffer from depression ultimately begin to self-medicate with alcohol or other substances.
Doing so often provides these people with a means of escaping their current reality that’s tearing them apart from the inside.
Depression may bring a combination of both mental and physical symptoms. The severity of these symptoms is influenced by the type of depression you are experiencing. We shall discuss types of depression below.
Psychological symptoms caused by depression include:
Physical symptoms caused by depression include:
There are many forms of depression and we shall outline the most common forms of depression below:
There are two ways that the cycle between alcohol abuse disorder and major depressive disorder can happen. It is a debate amongst researchers which one is more likely, but no matter which one someone experiences, it can be tough to get out of it.
The first possibility is that the cycle starts with MD. A person will develop major depression first and then discover that in the short run, drinking alcohol takes the edge off of their disorder/what they are feeling.
Unfortunately, when they turn to alcohol because it seems to make them feel better, their depressive symptoms will end up worsening because of how alcohol affects inhibitory neurotransmitters like GABA.
When their depression symptoms worsen, they will turn back to drinking to seek the pleasurable/happy feelings they felt at first.
Eventually, they will start to depend on alcohol to make them feel better (even just for a little while), and thus, they will develop AUD.
The MD results in the AUD, which makes the MD worse, which in turn makes the person turn more towards alcohol, develop more severe AUD, and the cycle continues like that—usually, until they hit rock bottom and want help.
The other possibility is that the cycle starts with AUD. According to certain researchers, people are more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder first.
They try alcohol, and their bodies and minds become addicted to the substance and its effects.
Unfortunately, along with the positive effects they feel, they are more likely to go through a depressive episode and develop MD.
When the person develops MD, they turn more and more to alcohol to avoid the negative feelings, and their AUD worsens. Of course, the vicious cycle continues back and forth, one disorder worsening, and then the next, until they seek help for themselves.
Unfortunately, depression is still largely stigmatised and much misinformation surrounds this often-serious mental health condition.
Below, we list some of the misguided beliefs that empower the stigma surrounding depression:
Antidepressants definitely play a major role in treating depression, but you must not use medications as a crutch. If you suffer from alcoholism, it’s important to understand that alcoholism is itself a depressant.
It, therefore, does not make logical sense for you to consume an antidepressant if you also consume a depressant simultaneously. A much better idea is to treat the alcoholism before you look to tackle the underlying depression.
Whilst antidepressants may be effective for treating depression for many, not everybody will benefit from their use. If your antidepressants are not working, your GP may be able to increase your dose.
It may take up to two months before the symptoms of depression begin to improve whilst taking antidepressants.
Further, it’s always a good idea to analyse your life and look at ways of promoting your happiness in natural ways such as taking up a hobby or some form of physical activity.
Many people suffering from alcoholism began to drink as a means of self-medicating the symptoms of depression.
Whilst alcohol may temporarily relieve the symptoms of depression, these symptoms will rebound as the effects of alcohol wear off. Thus, you must continuously drink alcohol in order to alter your reality in this way.
This psychological addiction to alcohol will eventually develop into a physical dependency. This is because alcohol is itself a physically addictive substance if abused on a daily basis. In the end, the pain caused by alcohol will certainly outstrip any benefits you could possibly derive from its consumption.
The dangers of drinking can be divided up into several categories. The first of which is the physical dangers while the alcohol is actually in the person’s system.
During this time, someone may have vision and hearing problems along with memory issues as their brain is not functioning and processing as well as it does when sober.
They also may have a delayed reaction time and poor decision-making skills. While these symptoms may not be dangerous alone, they can be very dangerous depending on what decisions the person makes (such as getting behind the wheel.)
Next is the dangers, or discomforts, that someone can experience after the alcohol leaves their system (usually the next morning.) These symptoms are known as a hangover.
A hangover can include nausea, headaches, dizziness, fatigue, extreme thirst, sensitivity to light, and many other unpleasant symptoms. A hangover is not usually dangerous in the long-term.
The final category is the long term effects that come with excessive drinking. First, drinking too much can lead to nerve damage that results in a loss of balance, inability to walk well, failure to sense things, and even dementia.
Next, one of the more commonly known dangers is liver damage. Because the liver is where most of the alcohol gets processed, breaking down all the toxins can cause severe damage.
If liver disease is not stopped or fixed (it can be hard to get a transplant as an alcoholic,) it can lead to death.
Furthermore, alcohol can raise blood pressure and cause someone’s heart to beat faster, which increases the likelihood that they will have a heart attack or stroke.
Additionally, excessive alcohol can increase the chances someone will get cancer, cause severe damage to the digestive system, and even result in infertility.
First of all, before you start to drink, be honest with yourself why you are drinking.
If your answer is to ‘take the edge off’ or make yourself feel better, you should reconsider and find something else to do as drinking will make you feel worse in the long run.
Of course, there are other activities you can try to help cope with a bad day or bad feelings (and they do not worsen your feelings in the long term.)
There are techniques such as exercise, yoga, meditative breathing, and meditation that can refocus you and improve your mood.
It is understandable if there are times when techniques and coping mechanisms are not enough.
At that point, the best course of action is to talk it out with someone. You can talk to a friend, mentor, or go see a therapist.
Sometimes, getting the feelings and thoughts out is enough to improve your mood enough to make alcohol feel less like a necessity.
The best way to avoid self-medicating with alcohol is to limit yourself (even when you are in a good mood) or avoid it altogether (a good option if you are in a bad mood or struggle with mental illness.)
Of course, you can use the above methods to turn away from alcohol even if you have started self-medicating. It will be easiest if you turn back before you develop a dependency.
Below, we briefly outline some effective treatment options that assist in helping you overcome alcoholism and depression:
When depression and alcoholism arise together, you are said to suffer from a dual diagnosis disorder.
To overcome a dual diagnosis disorder, it is vitally important for you to undergo specialist treatment.
This plan will be tailored to your needs. You will begin your treatment by undergoing a medically assisted detox. You will then benefit from psycho-therapeutic therapies, meditation and complementary therapies.