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 serious depression also have issues with alcohol.
But in order to understand the connection between alcoholism and depression, it is important to understand each as their own entities
What Is Depression?
According to the Mayo Clinic, “Depression is a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest.”
Clinical depression, also referred to as major depressive disorder, is a mood disorder that greatly affects how a person feels, thinks and copes with day-to-day life. In order to be officially diagnosed with depression, symptoms have to be ongoing for two weeks or more. Such symptoms can include feeling empty, feeling hopeless, being irritable, feeling worthless, decreased energy, feeling 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.
For some people, depression can be brought on by a certain event, such as a serious illness. For others, it may be a result of genetic, biological, environmental and psychological factors.
What Is Alcoholism?
According to the Mayo Clinic, alcoholism, or alcohol use disorder, is “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 as a result of 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 takes place 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.”
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 in order to take the pain away or take the edge off of that pain. This is where the reason for drinking comes in. Often drinking alcohol leads to a feeling of relaxation, but for many people it also allows them to enter a state of oblivion where they forget about their problems and their sadness. For those struggling with depression, this oblivion can be the easiest escape from the feelings they are having. This can lead to continued drinking in order to escape depression.
It’s easy to see how depression and alcoholism become a cycle for many—a cycle that is difficult to break. But with the right treatment that focuses on dual diagnoses, it is possible to get sober and to treat depression the right way, without self-medicating.
Written by: Beth Leipholtz