Depression is one of the most common mental health issues in the United States, and it can sometimes mix poorly with the most common recreational substance—alcohol. Alcohol is often used to drown your sorrows after a tough week, but adding alcohol to depression could lead to serious co-occurring issues. Substance use disorders and mental health issues often occur at the same time. In fact, around half of the people who will experience a mental health issue in their life will also experience a substance use disorder. But what is the link between alcohol and depression? Is depression a risk factor for alcoholism? Below, you can learn more about the link between alcohol and depression and what you can do to manage depression without alcohol.

Understanding Depression

Depression is a mental health disorder affecting millions of Americans each year. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 21 million adults experienced at least one major depressive episode in 2020.

Depression isn’t a single disorder. Rather, it can describe several mental health problems that fall into the category of mood disorders. Mood disorders with depression symptoms can include the following:

  • Major depressive disorder (MDD). This disorder is characterized by significant depression symptoms that last for at least two weeks before going away. The symptoms may come and go throughout the year.
  • Bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder characterized by a severe rise and fall in mood. You may experience a depressive episode followed by a week of positive moods. You may also experience a manic episode followed by a low mood.
  • Persistent depressive disorder (PDD). This describes a low mood that lasts for as long as a year or more. Symptoms are usually less intense than major depressive symptoms, but they last longer with little to no change.
  • Perinatal depression. Perinatal depression has to do with depressive symptoms during or after pregnancy. It includes postpartum depression and may be related to hormonal changes that occur with pregnancy.
  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This refers to depressive symptoms that center around a particular season and occur around the same time for at least two years in a row.

Does Alcohol Have a Depressive Effect?

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. When it comes to drugs, depressants are substances that slow down central nervous system activity in the brain. Ideally, they don’t always make you feel depressed. They are often used to treat people with problems that cause their nervous systems to be overactive. Anxiety, insomnia, muscle spasms, and seizures can all have to do with abnormal excitement in the nervous system.

Alcohol works with a natural chemical in your brain called gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA). This neurotransmitter is designed to help you relax and rest. It binds to its receptors and opens up a channel to a negative change that slows down the chemical communication in your brain and body. This can help you release worries, relax tight muscles, and rest your body and mind. Alcohol, and prescription depressants, also bind to GABA receptors but on a different binding site than GABA.

When GABA binds to its receptor, alcohol will keep the channel open for longer. Alcohol and other depressants can cause you to feel sedated and relaxed mentally and physically. It can also cause motor impairment, memory loss, slow reaction times, and other effects. With heavy drinking, alcohol’s depressant effects can lead to serious impairment of important functions of the brain, which can be dangerous.

Alcohol’s Psychological Effects

Alcohol’s acute actions in your body can lead to psychological effects. Depressants are often used as anti-anxiety medications. Alcohol is often used as a social lubricant because of its ability to relieve anxiety. It can also cause increased risk-taking and poor judgment for similar reasons. Even though it’s a depressant, alcohol can often cause paradoxical effects when your blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) is rising. The euphoric effects and anxiety release can cause feelings of excitement, despite the increasing depressing effects on your nervous system. But as your BAC starts to fall, your mood may start to fall with it. You may feel sedated, introspective, spaced out, or depressed.

Alcoholism and Psychology

If you drink heavily for a period and become dependent, alcohol can start to have significant psychological effects. Alcoholism is associated with anxiety and depression. Active addiction is the cycle of seeking, using, and recovering from substance use. Dependence occurs when your body relies on the presence of alcohol in your system. Without it, you’ll start to experience withdrawal and symptoms like insomnia, paranoia, panic, and anxiety. As alcohol damages your physical, psychological, and social health, you may experience depression.

Does Alcohol Worsen Depression?

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) can grow out of a mood disorder, but can alcohol make depression worse in general? If you have a mental health problem like major depressive disorder, should you avoid alcohol? Heavy alcohol use has the potential to worsen depression. If you’re going through a major depressive episode, drinking may provide temporary relief, but you will soon return to a low mood as the alcohol wears off. Heavy drinking can lead to worsened depression within a few hours after you stop drinking or during the following day. Of course, developing a substance use disorder can also worsen your depression symptoms as it creates more overwhelming challenges in your life.

If you deal with depression but don’t have a substance use disorder, an occasional drink may not worsen your depression. But it’s important to pay attention to why you are drinking. If it’s to deal with depression, you may be risking substance use problems. It may be best to avoid alcohol during major depressive episodes. When in doubt, speak to your doctor or therapist.

Substance use disorders and mental health disorders often occur at the same time. Depression is one of the most common mental health issues in the United States, second to anxiety disorders. According to the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 29.3% of people aged 12 years and older experienced a mental health issue along with a substance use disorder within the past year. That accounts for more than 73 million people. Around 18% experienced a severe mental illness along with a substance use disorder. That could include severe depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other issues. More than 30% of adults had a serious mental illness and engaged in binge drinking within a month of the survey.

Does Depression Cause Alcoholism?

Substance use disorders are usually caused by a complex mix of genetic, environmental, and developmental variables. However, mental health issues like depression can be a significant risk factor for addiction. Alcohol use disorder can occur when alcohol is used as a way to cope with uncomfortable emotions. Depression can cause a low mood and a loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed. Depression can also come with painful emotions. Alcohol is often used to provide temporary relief from these painful symptoms. Since it can relieve anxiety and cause euphoric feelings, someone with depression may use alcohol as a form of self-medication.

Self-medication is the use of a drug to treat or mask uncomfortable psychological or physical symptoms without approval from a medical or clinical professional. Alcohol is one of the most common substances used in self-medication, but other prescription and illicit drugs may also be used. Self-medicating with alcohol can quickly lead to psychological and chemical reliance on the substance.

Addiction is rooted in the reward center of your brain, which works with natural “feel-good” chemicals like dopamine to facilitate reward and motivation. Drugs like alcohol can manipulate those chemicals to create a powerful, rewarding effect.

Does Alcohol Cause Depression?

This is a harder question to answer because it’s hard to tell if depression is worsened by addiction or caused by addiction. It’s clear that people with alcohol use disorders often experience depression and other health issues that didn’t bother them before they developed a substance use disorder.

Managing Depression Co-Occurring Alcoholism and Depression

If you have a substance use disorder and depression, you must address them both at the same time. Treating depression and ignoring addiction, or vice versa, may not lead to positive results. Because the two disorders often feed off each other, they should be addressed at the same time. Treatment for mental health and addiction is called dual diagnosis, which involves therapies that can be useful in treating both issues. Individual and group therapy sessions can be helpful. Plus, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be used to treat both issues. In most cases of substance use problems that also involve depression, it’s important to seek help. Speaking to a doctor or therapist is a great first step toward recovery.

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