Almost 12 million Americans ages 12 and older struggle with alcohol use disorder (AUD), and more than 16 million American adults struggle with depression each year. While AUD doesn’t always coexist with this psychological condition, there is a strong link between the two mental health disorders.
Underlying genetic factors may contribute to AUD and mental illness. However, there is also evidence that depression may increase the risk of alcoholism, and AUD may increase the risk of being depressed. The influence is bi-directional.
The cycle of a low mood and unhealthy alcohol use can make you feel trapped. It’s important to recognize this sign so that you can get help for both disorders and increase your chances of success in recovery.
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Being Depressed May Cause You to Drink
While many people use alcohol to celebrate or party, others use it to take the edge off or relax. The drug changes the way that you feel, and it can make you lower your inhibitions and care less about the things that are bothering you. If the substance reduces your anxiety and makes you feel less depressed, you might turn to it again to relieve distressing emotions.
For many people who self-medicate, alcohol becomes a common coping mechanism. Because it inhibits your fight-or-flight hormones, the substance can relax you and reduce invasive, hopeless thoughts. If you drink enough to blackout, you can escape from your overwhelming feelings.
However, the escape is never long-lived, and drinking usually makes you feel worse over time. It can weaken your physical health and cause you to do things that you regret.
Plus, even as alcohol makes you slur your speech and stumble over your feet, it elevates dopamine levels in your brain. This reinforces your reward pathways and tricks you into thinking that the drug makes you feel great and that activity makes you want to use it again to feel pleasure. If you consistently drink to cope with psychological or emotional issues, you can develop AUD even though substance abuse was not a problem before.
Alcohol Use Can Lead to Depression
Even though alcohol can make you feel energetic and uninhibited, it’s not a stimulant. It’s a depressant. That means that it slows down your heart rate, respiration, and other bodily functions. The substance also delays reaction time and cognitive and emotional processing. Everything slows down, which is one of the reasons that you feel relaxed when you drink.
Feeling sluggish or groggy doesn’t usually help you improve a low mood. A hangover or withdrawal symptoms can make it even harder for you to get out of bed or maintain your daily obligations.
Another reason that alcohol use contributes to depressed feelings is that it changes your brain chemicals. When you don’t use substances, your body attempts to regulate your emotions, stress, and relaxation using neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin. But if you struggle with a mental health disorder, you might already have an imbalance of chemicals that help you manage your mood. When you add alcohol to the mix, it further disrupts your natural brain chemistry.
Alcohol replaces your natural mood-enhancing chemicals. If you use it regularly, your body will reduce its production of those feel-good neurotransmitters because it’s already getting a hit from somewhere else. While you may find relief while you’re drinking, you start to feel worse when you’re not.
As you develop a tolerance and your body gets used to the amount of alcohol you’re consuming, you’ll need even more to satisfy your cravings.
Dependence and addiction can worsen feelings of depression in many ways. Physically, your body is no longer producing the same amount of mood-regulating neurotransmitters. Psychologically, you may be troubled by the fact that you can’t control your drinking. If substance abuse is leading to problems in your personal life, you may feel even more hopeless.
The Dangers of Alcohol and Depression
Symptoms of AUD and depression often overlap. For example, common symptoms of both disorders include:
- Reduced interest in activities that you used to enjoy; people suffering from AUD may only feel interested in activities that involve drinking
- Isolation from family and friends
- Avoidance of responsibilities
- Making excuses for missing work or other obligations
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Difficulty concentrating
- Fatigue and other physical health issues
While it’s not always easy to pinpoint which issue occurred first, the sequencing may not matter. The fact is that people who have one disorder may be predisposed to the other. Because the symptoms are so similar, one condition can make the other worse.
Substance abuse is only a temporary fix for your other problems. If you don’t get help for your mental health disorder, drinking will only help you feel better for a short time. Eventually, it makes you feel worse. It also takes more of the substance to achieve relief over time. As you use more, your symptoms and problems may seem to multiply. Using alcohol to subdue other mental health issues may even prevent you from seeking professional help.
Depression also increases your risk of suicidal thoughts. Even though drinking may make you feel better for a brief time, it can make you do things you usually wouldn’t do. In someone who is depressed, drinkingcan increase the risk of suicide. Approximately 75% of suicide fatalities involve the use of drugs or alcohol.
One of the reasons that the cycle of alcoholism and depression can be so dangerous is that it’s not easy to get out of. Depression is often a side effect of recovery and can last for weeks, months, or years after eliminating the drug from your system. Moreover, even if you want to stop drinking, you may not do so without help. Quitting cold turkey can be dangerous if you have used alcohol heavily for a significant period of time. When you eliminate the substance from your system, your cravings might make you question whether sobriety is worth it.
The brain changes that addiction and fools you into believing that substance use is the easiest and best way to feel good. Addiction affects your judgment, and depression can make you hold tight to inaccurate and harmful thoughts.
Depression Impacts Treatment Options and Outcomes
If you are depressed, the most beneficial treatment options will address that diagnosis as well as your AUD. Depending on whether you suffer from major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, dysthymia, or another type of depression, you may experience symptoms on and off or for a consistent time. Even if your depression symptoms aren’t severe, they should be considered as you move through recovery.
Accepting and addressing your mental health disorders will help you develop healthy coping skills that allow you to manage stress, regulate your emotions and improve your mood without turning to alcohol. As you practice these methods, you may be less likely to relapse when life gets tough. You’ll have other options. If you don’t develop strategies for managing your depression, you might slide back into using substances to deal with stressful times.
Whether you’re healing from depression or AUD, your goals likely involve finding healthy ways to manage your life. You need the motivation to get up in the morning and follow a healthy routine. It would be best if you had encouragement to be honest with yourself and others. You need to maintain awareness of your emotions and process them appropriately.
The best treatment for AUD and co-occurring mental health disorders involves a well-rounded approach. Working on the psychological aspects of each illness with a therapist provides you with understanding and tools for dealing with uncomfortable emotions. Managing the physical elements may involve improving your nutrition, developing consistent exercise habits, or getting more fresh air. Many people even find reprieve in spiritual philosophies and practices, such as yoga and meditation.
At Allure Detox, we can help you launch a successful recovery by offering addiction treatment and therapy for co-occurring conditions. We provide medically assisted detox, holistic therapies, and evidence-based mental and behavioral health treatment strategies. Contact Us to learn more about how we can help you get out of the addiction-depression cycle and move forward with hope, peace, and positive momentum.