9 Minutes

Edited & clinically reviewed by THE BALANCE Team
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People may drink for many reasons: to socialize, commiserate, celebrate, or drown their sorrows. A lot of people drink to change their mood and feel more relaxed, confident, or courageous. But what they do not know is the effect of alcohol is only temporary, and the minute it wears off, they end up feeling worse because of its withdrawal effects on the body and brain.

The connection between alcohol and depression is reasonably complex, but the two disorders feed off one another in most cases. While most people who are battling depression experience significant relief with alcoholism treatment, the reverse is not valid, as depression treatment hardly resolves alcohol use disorder.

While alcohol can directly trigger feelings of depression, it may also contribute to its common symptoms in other indirect ways. Mentioned below are some common mechanisms through which alcohol may induce a depressive disorder in a person.

Alcohol works as a depressant.

Many people may feel depressed after drinking since alcohol acts as a central nervous system depressant. Drinking stimulates the brain’s reward system by triggering dopamine release. As the levels of dopamine rise, it induces a stimulating effect in the brain. This neurotransmitter also produces positive emotions that make a drinker feel good and reinforces their desire to drink more. However, remember that this is not the only way alcohol affects the central nervous system.

Alcohol also interferes with releasing certain other neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and norepinephrine. These neurotransmitters are important for mood regulation, and their falling levels may affect a user’s speech, energy, and coordination. The long-term effects of this phenomenon are much more severe and may force the brain into a state of depression and anxiety with time. 

Alcohol causes sleep disruption.

Many people who drink heavily close to bedtime complain of sleeping poorly with lots of tossing and turning, bizarre dreams, or a racing heart. These unpleasant experiences of troubled sleep relate to the changes in the brain’s chemistry due to alcohol use. Alcohol can also interfere with the sleep-wake cycle and keeps a drinker from getting enough REM sleep, a phase of sleep where most of the restoration and recovery takes place in the body. Additionally, drinking causes certain physical consequences, like dehydration and nausea, that may prevent restful sleep. Having troubled sleeping habits for a long time, in turn, increases the risk of low mood and depression.

Alcohol worsens negative emotions.

Experiencing a low mood after a night of heavy drinking can feel awful, especially for a person who already battles depression, as alcohol can magnify the severity of their emotions. Alcohol also affects specific areas of the brain that regulate emotions and may produce a temporary boost. However, a drinker may feel worse when these positive effects begin to wear off. Alcohol can also easily cloud their brain and keep them from seeing helpful solutions to the problems they are experiencing.

Because alcohol also lowers inhibitions, it may exacerbate specific symptoms that you have been trying to keep under wraps, for example, anger or sadness. This perpetuates a trickly cycle where you keep drinking to feel better and forget about some unwanted memories and emotions but end up getting flooded by them in the long run.

Drinking to cope becomes a pattern.

When someone regularly turns to alcohol to manage their negative feelings and emotions, they may withdraw from every other action that could address these problems more effectively. As a result, any troubles, whether due to a bad relationship or stress at work, may worsen.

People who tend to rely on drinking to ease social anxiety may also find it difficult to address the real cause of their discomfort. For others, drinking can heighten mood states, such as anger and violence, which may lead them to pick a fight with a loved one, further intensifying the symptoms of depression.

No matter how impossible it may seem, depression and alcohol recovery is possible for every person struggling with this complex association. The earlier they seek treatment, the better. Due to the complex nature of these co-existing disorders, it is better to seek treatment from a professional facility specializing in simultaneously managing alcoholism and depression. The programs offered at such facilities are effective and safe and guide people to enter into everyday life in a comfortable way. Many such centers also offer aftercare recommendations to ensure long-term sobriety even after the conclusion of formal treatment.

Mentioned below are the most common therapies a rehab for alcohol and depression treatment may rely on:

Medication-Assisted Therapy

This therapy involves using prescription medicines to ease the withdrawal symptoms of alcohol abuse and reduce cravings. Most professionals use four primary drugs to control the impulse to drink: disulfiram, acamprosate, naltrexone, and benzodiazepines. A mental health treatment provider may also use an anti-depressant to manage mood swings and other depressive symptoms during withdrawals. While medication can genuinely benefit the recovery process, it should be combined with other forms of treatment for higher chances of success.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of psychotherapy that helps an individual learn how to replace negative thoughts and behaviors with positive feelings. This is an essential part of the recovery process, and regular sessions of CBT can significantly help achieve it. CBT helps people learn how to identify potential triggers and find ways to cope with their drinking urges using realistic goals. Cognitive behavioral therapy usually takes place in rehab and may continue even after formal treatment finishes for long-term recovery results.

Group Therapy

Group therapy helps initiate and facilitate productive discussions among peers working to overcome alcohol and depression simultaneously. Depending on the choice of a recovery program, group therapy may occur one to two times every week or more. It provides an outlet for patients to share and discuss the highs and lows of their addiction, seek advice from others regarding their issues, and offer insights to overcome their challenges. Group therapy is a common element of many aftercare programs as it allows patients to continue working on recovery.

Deciding to seek help with using alcohol and depression is the first step towards regaining control of life. While most rehab facilities provide addiction treatment programs, not all will offer services to overcome co-occurring disorders like depression. Hence, always choose a treatment center that simultaneously focuses on both issues for a happier, alcohol-free life.

If you are worried about someone close to you who seems to be relying on alcohol to cope with depression, do not stand by and wait for them to snap out of it on their own. Your loved one needs your help, and mentioned below are some ways to facilitate them:

Know the signs

Notice if your loved one displays the following signs in addition to their usual depressive symptoms. The presence of these signs indicates an urgent need to seek professional help.

  • Drinking heavily and/or more frequently
  • Making risky or rash decisions while drinking
  • Becoming socially withdrawn and preferring to drink alone

Extend your support

It is common for people to only reach out to a loved one once they have hit rick bottom. However, the earlier you intervene, the better. Consider saying the following to show your support to your friend or family member in need:

  • “I have noticed you look more stressed these days. Can I help you out in any way?”
  • “You do not seek like yourself lately. Would you like to share something with me if you wish to?”

Encourage seeking professional help

As someone who cares, your role is not diagnosing their issue or providing treatment. If your loved one has not done so, encourage them to book an appointment with a mental health professional or connect them with local resources for help.

Help them connect with other family members and friends

Depending on how close you are to your loved one in distress, you may or may not be the best candidate to provide ongoing support. If you are not able to deliver it, encourage them to reach out to someone closer, like a partner, close friend, or sibling.  If you know about people who share close bonds with your loved one, it is a good idea to reach out to them and share your concerns.

Educate them

There is a good chance that your loved one depends on alcohol to swallow their depressive symptoms and may not be aware that doing so is only exacerbating them. In such a case, try arranging a session with a mental health professional or someone who is more educated on the subject and encourage your loved one to attend it for clarity and perspective. With the right knowledge and information, they may find the motivation to quit drinking and seek professional help.

Help them find healthier coping skills

Suggest healthier ways to cope with depressive symptoms for your loved one. For example, encourage them to go for a short walk instead of drinking or plan a hiking trip together. If they are not energetic enough, motivate them to perform mild but frequent workouts at home. Simply taking the initiative to plan something can be extremely useful, as most people battling depression do not have enough motivation or energy to do it themselves.

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