Alcoholism and Depression

Depression and alcohol use disorder are two of the diagnosable mental illnesses that are described in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” or DSM-5. They often occur together. Up to 68% of people with alcohol use disorder also suffer from depression. In some cases, depression causes people to cope by using alcohol. In other cases, heavy, frequent or consistent alcohol use leads to depression. Understanding how alcoholism and depression work together helps addiction specialists treat patients in a holistic manner to achieve the best possible outcomes.

What Is Depression?

Depression is a mental health disorder that affects about 5% of adults around the world. Major depressive disorder can be mild, moderate or severe and is marked by episodes that present with some of the following symptoms:

  • Low mood
  • Loss of interest
  • Loss of pleasure
  • Hopelessness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Suicidal thoughts

But there are other types of depression, which present with different symptoms. Some of these include:

  • Persistent depressive disorder – Depressive symptoms are milder than with major depressive disorder but can last up to two years
  • Postpartum depression – Occurs during pregnancy or up to one year after giving birth
  • Seasonal affective disorder – Seasonal changes, including fewer daylight hours, cause depressive symptoms
  • Bipolar disorder – Patients cycle through periods of elevated and low moods
  • Psychotic depression – Symptoms occur along with hallucinations or delusions

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What Is Alcohol Use Disorder?

Alcohol use disorder is a pattern of unhealthy alcohol consumption that causes routine distress in your daily life. Different people have distinct relationships with alcohol. Therefore, alcohol use disorder is diagnosed using symptoms that go beyond the number of drinks that you have a day. Some indicators of alcohol use disorder include:

  • Trouble controlling your drinking
  • Developing a tolerance
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you don’t drink
  • Continuing to drink even though it is negatively impacting your life
  • Thinking about alcohol excessively
  • Binge drinking or consuming more alcohol than you intended to

Does Depression Cause Alcoholism?

Consuming alcohol can be an escape for some people. Drinking temporarily reduces inhibitions and anxiety. It may help you relax and forget about your worries.

In fact, up to 33% of depressed people also have alcohol use disorder. Some categories of people who struggle with depressive bouts may be at a higher risk of developing substance use disorder than others, including children, teens and women. But anyone who uses alcohol to cope with their depression is at risk of developing an addiction.

If you start drinking alcohol to manage your depressive symptoms, you may start needing to drink more to feel the effects. Heavy or frequent drinkers may not feel normal until they have had their first drink of the day.

In sum, depression doesn’t always cause alcoholism. However, if you use alcohol to self-medicate or manage the distress from your depression, you could set yourself up to rely on it physically and emotionally. Once the addiction takes hold, it can mask or confuse symptoms of other mental health disorders.

Does Alcohol Use Disorder Cause Depression?

Alcohol is a depressant. While that doesn’t mean that it causes depression, it does indicate that the substance slows down your bodily systems. It also changes the brain in ways that influence your ability to think, feel emotions and regulate your mood. Some of the ways that alcohol use contributes to depression are as follows.

Alcohol Causes Chemical Changes in the Brain

Your brain has a highly regulated system of communication that relies on chemicals to relay messages. The body produces its own feel-good chemicals to help manage stress and regulate your mood. Alcohol has a powerful effect on many of these messaging pathways and chemicals.

Initially, drinking alcohol elevates your serotonin levels, making you feel happy and at ease. Over time, however, consuming too much alcohol lowers serotonin levels. You’ll have to work harder to feel good, which can make you feel depressed or exacerbate existing depression symptoms.

Alcohol Increases Stress Hormone Levels

People with alcohol use disorder tend to have elevated levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. Combined with an alcohol-induced reduction of folic acid and vitamin B6, which are calming, the chronic stress can make you feel more depressed.

It can be harder for someone with alcohol use disorder to cope with general levels of stress. But stressors seem to accumulate exponentially the longer you struggle with alcohol use disorder. This combination can make you feel hopeless and compound your depressed feelings.

Alcohol Use Disorder Changes Your Lifestyle

Many people with alcohol use disorder stop doing the things that they used to enjoy or isolate themselves from loved ones. They may withdraw from social situations to hide their drinking. These signs of alcohol use disorder mimic some symptoms that depressed people have. The isolation, health issues, financial problems, relationship troubles and career stress that often accompany alcohol use disorder can also play a role in the development of other mental health issues.

How to Stop the Alcoholism and Depression Cycle

The order in which someone develops depression and alcohol use disorder is not always clear. Therefore, it can take some time to customize the ideal treatment plan for you. But removing alcohol from the equation should always be the first step.

Some individuals are diagnosed with other mental illnesses during periods of heavy drinking. After they detox, their depressive symptoms subside, and their brain chemicals regain their proper balance.

In these situations, quitting drinking affects both mental health disorders. But treating depression won’t necessarily help you stop drinking unless you address the substance use disorder too.

Stopping the cycle of alcoholism and depression involves using a multi-faceted approach that targets multiple symptoms and sources of the mental health disorders. The ideal treatment should incorporate:

  • Learning coping skills that work for you can prevent you from reaching for alcohol when you’re stressed
  • Changing your perspective to help you stay motivated and reach your goals
  • Being aware of your triggers, reactions and behaviors
  • Practicing non-judgment
  • Finding a strong social support system can help you get through the hard times and build healthy relationships.

Medications can help you regulate your mood and support your body as you move through recovery. Therapy is also essential for helping you work through the challenging and life-changing steps of your journey. The right therapist will help you work through intense emotions and learn about your needs so that you can create a meaningful, fulfilling life.

At Renewal Lodge, we strive to create tailored treatment plans for each of our clients. It’s important for you to share your feelings and experiences with your treatment professionals so that they can offer targeted treatment options that work. Some people may benefit from talking about their depression, while others may do best when practicing coping techniques.

Your experience is unique, but you can join a community of like-minded peers and experienced professionals to support your recovery. Contact us to learn more about how to break the cycle.

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