When it comes to alcoholism, there is another diagnosis that often accompanies it— depression.
But the relationship between alcoholism and depression is a bit like the chicken and the egg, in that it’s hard to determine which came first. Some believe that depression leads to alcoholism, while others think that alcoholism leads to depression. In a way, both are probably true to an extent. It depends on the person and the situation.
Though not all alcoholics have struggled with depression, it is a common dual diagnosis for many. In fact, according to Web MD, one-third of people with severe depression also have issues with alcohol.
But to understand the connection between alcoholism and depression, it is essential to understand each as their own entities
What Is Depression?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, depression (also known as major depressive disorder or clinical depression) is a common but serious mood disorder that affects how you feel, think, and handle daily activities, such as sleeping, eating, or working.
Such symptoms can include feeling empty, hopeless, irritable, worthless, decreased energy, lethargic, difficulty concentrating, trouble sleeping, and appetite or weight changes. These symptoms vary for everyone, and some may experience all of them, while others may experience only a few. To be officially diagnosed with depression, symptoms have to be ongoing for two weeks or more.
For some people, depression can be brought on by a particular event, such as a severe illness. For others, it may be a result of genetic, biological, environmental and psychological factors.
What Is Alcoholism?
Alcohol use disorder is defined as a pattern of alcohol use that involves problems controlling your drinking, being preoccupied with alcohol, continuing to use alcohol even when it causes problems, having to drink more to get the same effect, or having withdrawal symptoms when you rapidly decrease or stop drinking.
It isn’t always easy to tell if someone is or is not an alcoholic, at least not early on in the disease. As time passes and their drinking increases, they will likely begin to face more consequences due to drinking. Alcoholics will typically make excuses for these types of events, all of which have nothing to do with alcohol. By doing this, they are justifying the decision to continue drinking.
How Can Alcohol Affect Depression?
Alcohol is a depressant, meaning it lowers neurotransmission levels or disrupts the balance in the brain, which is problematic for people who are already feeling depressed. The feeling of relaxation that occurs as a result of drinking alcohol is because chemical changes are occurring in the brain. At first, it may feel as if alcohol is helping a person with depression to feel less depressed. But as time passes and they continue to drink, it can begin to go downhill and make their depression or anxiety worse. Drinking regularly actually lowers the amount of serotonin in the brain, which is a chemical that regulates a person’s mood.
According to Web MD, “Drinking will only make depression worse. People who are depressed and drink too much have more frequent and severe episodes of depression and are more likely to think about suicide. Heavy alcohol use also can make antidepressants less effective.”
If you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts or tendencies, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
How Can Depression Lead To Alcoholism?
When a person feels depressed, they often are so desperate that they’d like to do whatever they can to take the pain away or take the edge off of that pain. Often drinking alcohol leads to a feeling of relaxation, and for some, it also allows them to enter a state of oblivion where they forget about their problems and sadness. For those struggling with depression, this oblivion can be the most accessible escape from their feelings. This can lead to continued drinking to escape depression.
In a recent study by The Recovery Village, 44% of respondents used alcohol to cope with mental health symptoms like anxiety or depression.
It’s easy to see how depression and alcoholism become a cycle for many, difficult to break. But with the proper treatment that focuses on dual diagnoses, it is possible to get sober and treat depression the right way, without self-medicating.
Find the Help You Need
At The Recovery Village, we have a proven track record of treating dual diagnosis substance abuse and mental health. If you’re wondering if it’s time to seek help, get started with one of our free and confidential alcohol quizzes.
If it’s time to take the next step towards your recovery, contact us today. The Recovery Village operates a network of alcohol detox centers nationwide, including our Palmer Lake center in Colorado. Call our caring alcohol recovery experts today to learn more about how we can help you learn to live an alcohol-free life.
Lovinger, D M. “Serotonin’s role in alcohol’s effects on the brain.” Alcohol health and research world, 1997. Accessed August 27, 2021.
NIAAA. “Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2020. Accessed August 27, 2021.
NIH. “Depression.” National Institute of Mental Health, February 2018. Accessed August 27, 2021.
The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.