Despite alcohol being legal, alcoholism and alcohol addiction are huge problems in the United States. Alcoholism can often be overlooked because alcohol is a legal substance. However, similar to illicit and prescription drugs, alcohol affects the brain’s chemistry. Ideally, once the effects of alcohol wear off, the brain returns to functioning regularly. But that is not always the case.
The signs and symptoms of an alcohol use disorder and depression are similar, so it can be difficult to determine one from the other. Each disorder by itself can cause various problems in someone’s life, but when they are co-occurring, someone may experience enhanced issues with finances, legal problems and maintaining employment and relationships.
In American culture, it’s common and accepted to use alcohol to wind down after a long day. People are sometimes encouraged to go out for a drink after work or binge drink at a party if they’re feeling down.
Because alcohol is a depressant, it relaxes the body unlike a stimulant, which can speed up processes in the body. In other words, alcohol can make depressive symptoms worse and can cause depression in some instances. The body can build a tolerance to alcohol which creates the need for more alcohol to be consumed to experience the same feelings of intoxication. This development can create a cycle where someone with depression drinks to cope with their symptoms but the alcohol ends up making them feel even more depressed and they tend to drink more.
Drinking more alcohol more frequently can worsen depressive symptoms because alcohol can interfere with neurotransmitters in the brain that can affect mental health. Several studies found that about 60 percent of people with an alcohol use disorder who experience symptoms of depression meet the diagnostic criteria for a co-occurring disorder diagnosis. The other 40 percent of people with alcohol use disorders who have had symptoms of depression are likely to have an independent depressive disorder, which means that they were likely already living with depression before the development of an alcohol use disorder.
Binge drinking is a pattern of drinking that raises blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels to 0.08. A BAC level of 0.08 usually occurs after four alcoholic beverages for women and five alcoholic drinks for men within two hours.
People usually binge drink to get drunk, whether they’re trying to get drunk to have fun or to numb their emotions. Despite being a depressant, people often use alcohol to help alleviate depressive symptoms. The initial feelings of euphoria and pleasure may make someone experiencing feelings of depression feel better for a little bit, but after those effects wear off the depressive symptoms usually return.
Conversely, depression can develop after frequent binge drinking. Alcohol can trigger depressive symptoms and people with a mental health history or family history are at a higher risk of developing depression after binge drinking.
Alcohol, like other substances, affects the chemicals in your brain called serotonin and dopamine. When drinking, someone will feel an initial boost of happiness but the next day they often feel anxious, low or depressed. The same chemicals that make people feel happy are deficient the day after drinking.
After drinking, the altered brain chemistry is usually why someone feels more anxious or depressed following a night of drinking. Drinking can also hinder the development of healthy coping mechanisms. Coping mechanisms can help people with mental health conditions manage their disorder so if they aren’t developed, it can worsen a disorder. Instead of using coping mechanisms, people who drink heavily are more likely to choose alcohol to cope with anxiety, depression or another mental health disorder.
People living with mental health disorders are at a higher risk of developing an addiction, but that doesn’t necessarily mean abusing alcohol will cause depression definitively. While alcohol consumption isn’t a direct cause of depression, it does influence the development of mental health disorders because of the changes in brain chemistry. According to NIAAA, depression can emerge during a struggle with addiction and if someone already has depression it can worsen if they start drinking frequently.
People who have an alcohol addiction or are drinking heavily have a higher chance of developing depression compared to someone who doesn’t drink. Co-occurring disorders like alcohol use disorder and depression can have a cyclical relationship, someone with depression may drink to escape their symptoms and when their depression worsens they drink more alcohol.
Co-occurring disorders are typically diagnosed when someone seeks treatment or recognizes symptoms of one of the disorders and their treatment provider recognizes symptoms of the other. The symptoms of a substance use disorder and depression are often similar, some signs of the co-occurring disorder include:
- An inability to maintain employment
- Difficulty maintaining healthy relationships
- Financial problems
- Legal issues
- Difficulty controlling emotions
- Extreme mood swings
Alcohol use disorders and depression can have a cyclical relationship, that’s why important to treat both of them at the same time. If only one disorder is being treated, the patient may experience setbacks in one or both disorders.
There’s no catch-all treatment for alcohol use disorder and depression. And unfortunately, not all doctors are experienced in identifying and treating co-occurring disorders. When seeking treatment, it’s essential to find a doctor or treatment center that can create an individualized treatment plan for a patient’s specific situation.
Some important facts to remember regarding alcohol and depression include:
- The relationship between alcohol and depression is often co-occurring
- It’s important to recognize that drinking alcohol can cause depression to worsen
- People with depression are at a higher risk of developing a substance use disorder
- It’s important when seeking treatment for one disorder that patients treat both disorders at the same time to avoid setbacks.If you or someone you know struggles with an alcohol use disorder and co-occurring disorders, like depression, know that help is available. At The Recovery Village®, a team of professionals can create an individualized treatment plan to suit your needs. Call and speak with a representative to learn more about which treatment program could work for you.