Living with both depression and an alcohol use disorder can be extremely tough - but it is not unusual. Many people struggling with alcohol abuse or alcohol dependence also have another co-occurring mental health disorder which can be a driving force behind addictive behavior.
This blog explores the relationship between depression and alcohol and how you can recover from both to reclaim a joyful and productive life.
What Is Major Depression?
Major depressive disorder (or major depression) is a mental health condition characterized by periods of low mood. While it is normal to feel sad sometimes, people living with major depression find that their mood significantly impacts their ability to function in everyday life.
Every individual experiences depression differently and it can manifest in a wide range of symptoms: in some cases, two people living with the disorder may not share a single symptom. However, there are some common symptoms depressive symptoms to look out for in yourself or a loved one. These include:
- feels of sadness or irritability
- inability to enjoy (or loss of interest in) activities
- low-self esteem
- sleep disturbances
- changes in weight
- slow thinking
- trouble concentrating
- unexplained physical pain
As a mood disorder, recovery from depression often requires support. This may involve therapy, medication, self-care, mindfulness, and other treatment approaches and techniques.
What Are Some Other Types of Depression?
Major depression is the most common type of depression: 8.4% of adults in the United States may experience at least one depressive episode in their lifetime. However, there are also several other types of depression that someone may experience. These include:
- bipolar depression
- seasonal depressive disorder (SDD)
- post-natal depression
What Is An Alcohol Use Disorder?
Alcohol use disorder is a medical diagnosis that encompasses alcohol abuse, alcohol addiction, alcoholism, and other drinking problems. Someone with an alcohol use disorder is unable to control or stop drinking alcohol despite negative consequences for their health, social, work, or family life.
Alcohol use disorders can manifest in different ways and vary in severity. Some signs and symptoms of alcohol use disorders include:
- spending a lot of time drinking or dealing with the effects
- neglecting responsibilities because of alcohol misuse
- experiencing withdrawal symptoms when trying to quit drinking alcohol
- finding that relationships with loved ones are strained due to alcohol use
- continuing to drink despite alcohol-related health issues
- binge drinking or excessive drinking
What Is the Link Between Depression and Alcohol Misuse?
Research has found that people living with major depression are about twice as likely to have a substance use disorder (including alcohol use disorder) than someone without any mental health diagnosis. Those with bipolar disorder are almost seven times more likely. Data suggests that around 1/5 of people with depression may have an alcohol use disorder.
The relationship between alcohol and depression can be complex. On the one hand, depression symptoms can be a driving factor behind alcohol misuse, which may offer short-term relief from emotional distress. On the other hand, excessive alcohol consumption may exacerbate depressive symptoms of depression or even lead to mental health problems.
In some cases, these effects can reinforce each other in a destructive cycle of worsening mental health and increased alcohol abuse. However, effective alcohol and depression interventions can disrupt the pathway of harm and turn it into a positive journey of mental wellness and recovery.
How Can Depression Lead to Alcohol Addiction and Dependence?
Some people may turn to alcohol to seek temporary relief from difficult emotions, low-self esteem, and other symptoms of depression, particularly if they do not have access to adequate support. People may binge drink (drinking large quantities of alcohol in a short space of time) to escape from reality or drink alcohol to improve their mood.
People who use alcohol as a coping mechanism are likely to drink much more frequently, or in higher doses, than the recommended levels, putting them at increased risk of developing alcohol dependence or addiction. A study published in the journal Alcohol, Clinical and Experimental Research found that mood-related drinking motives significantly explained the relationship between alcohol and depression.
How Can Alcohol Affect Depressive Symptoms?
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. This means that alcohol consumption slows activity in the brain. It works by affecting the availability of certain neurotransmitters (the brain's chemical messengers), impacting many important functions including memory, movement, and emotional regulation.
In the short term, these changes are responsible for alcohol's immediate effects, such as relaxation or improved mood. However, prolonged alcohol misuse can cause longer-lasting changes to your brain chemistry, affecting your mood even when you are sober.
Alcohol use disorders often also act as a barrier to effective self-care, disrupting sleep schedules and causing people to neglect things like exercise, healthy eating, and creative activities. It can also strain relationships and cause financial problems which increase anxiety and stress. All these factors may exacerbate symptoms of depression and even cause the onset of the condition.
Common Risk Factors of Depression, Alcohol Addiction, and Alcohol Dependence
Another reason for the high prevalence of co-occurring AUDs and depression is that they share certain risk factors. That means that someone who is at increased risk of developing AUD may also be at increased risk of developing depression.
Some common risk factors may include:
- certain genetic patterns
- exposure to early life adversity, such as childhood abuse or neglect
- using substances as a teenager
- growing up in a home where someone lives with alcohol dependence
Treating Depression and Alcohol Addiction
Dual diagnosis is a term that the medical community uses to describe people with a substance use disorder and another co-occurring mental health condition.
For people living with a dual diagnosis, it's important to treat both the addiction and co-occurring mental health conditions simultaneously. If left untreated, symptoms of depression or other mental health conditions can restart addictive behavior even after long periods of abstinence.
Moreover, it can be difficult for people to engage in depression treatment if they are still abusing alcohol. Alcohol addiction often takes over a person's life, preventing them from having the time, focus, and energy to recover from mental illness. Dual diagnosis treatment helps clients stay sober as they participate in depression treatment modalities.
Dual-diagnosis programs for depression look different for each individual. Both conditions require personalized treatment plans that suit each person's unique needs.
Treatment Options for Alcohol Abuse and Depression
Usually, depression treatment will involve talk therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy or dialectical behavioral therapy. It may also include interpersonal therapy, holistic treatments, and antidepressant medication.
Addiction treatment options may include some of the same treatment options, as well as addiction modalities. Addiction treatment approaches may include:
- talk therapies
- group programming
- support groups
- experiential therapies
- yoga and mindfulness
- relapse prevention therapy
- medication-assisted treatment
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, it's crucial that addiction treatment programs last an adequate length of time. In general, longer treatment programs are associated with better outcomes.
Dual Diagnosis Treatment with Cornerstone
Cornerstone Socal is a premier mental health, drug, and alcohol treatment center in Orange County, California. We offer a diverse range of treatment modalities that address the underlying cause of addiction, ensuring every client achieves meaningful and long-lasting recovery.
At Cornerstone, we pride ourselves on our sense of community. When you join our program, you become part of our family: a close-knit system of caring support that will stay by your side throughout your recovery journey. Our treatment plans incorporate many levels of care, so you can find the best solution for you.
If you are struggling with drug and alcohol dependence, addiction, or a mental health concern, contact us today. We're here for you.