The signs and symptoms of an alcohol use disorder and depression are similar, so it can be difficult to determine one from the other.

In American culture, it’s common and acceptable 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. Ideally, the brain returns to functioning regularly once the effects of alcohol wear off. This is not always the case. Alcohol affects the brain’s chemistry, potentially impacting a person’s symptoms of depression.

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. When they are co-occurring, someone may experience greater difficulty with finances, legal issues and maintaining employment and relationships.

How Does Alcohol Affect Depression

Alcohol is a depressant. It relaxes the body. Alcohol can make depressive symptoms worse and can cause depression in some instances. The body can build a tolerance to alcohol, creating the need to consume more alcohol 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 usually drink more.

Drinking more alcohol more frequently can worsen depressive symptoms because alcohol can interfere with neurotransmitters in the brain that affect mental health. Several studies found that about 60% of people with an alcohol use disorder who experienced symptoms of depression meet the diagnostic criteria for a co-occurring disorder diagnosis. The other 40% with both an alcohol use disorder and symptoms of depression are likely to have an independent depressive disorder. They were likely already living with depression before the development of an alcohol use disorder.

Binge Drinking and Depression

Binge drinking is a pattern of drinking that raises a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels to 0.08 or higher. 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, 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. After those effects wear off the depressive symptoms usually return.

Conversely, depression can develop after frequent binge drinking since alcohol can trigger depressive symptoms. People with a mental health history or family history are at a higher risk of developing depression after binge drinking.

Next-Day Depression After Drinking

Alcohol, like other substances, affects the chemicals in your brain called serotonin and dopamine. While drinking, people may feel an initial boost of happiness, followed by feeling anxious, low or depressed the next day. The same chemicals that make people feel happy are deficient the day after drinking. The reason someone feels more anxious or depressed following a night of drinking is usually altered brain chemistry.

Drinking can also hinder the development of healthy coping mechanisms. Coping mechanisms can help people with mental health conditions manage their disorders. If coping mechanisms aren’t developed, it can worsen a disorder. People who drink heavily are more likely to choose alcohol to cope with anxiety, depression or another mental health disorder.

Does Alcohol Cause Depression?

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 changes to the brain’s chemistry. According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, depression can emerge during a struggle with addiction. If someone already has depression, it can worsen if they start drinking frequently.

People who have an alcohol addiction or drink heavily also 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. When their depression worsens, they drink more alcohol, and the cycle continues.

Treatment for Alcoholism and Depression

The cyclical relationship that can occur between alcohol use disorders and depression make it necessary to treat both 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. 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.

How to Know When You May Have a Co-occurring Addiction?

Co-occurring disorders are typically diagnosed during a medical assessment. They may recognize symptoms of one of the disorders while 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

Key Points: Alcohol and Depression

Some important facts to remember regarding alcohol and depression include:

  • The relationship between alcohol and depression is often co-occurring.
  • Drinking alcohol can cause depression to worsen.
  • People with depression are at a higher risk of developing a substance use disorder.
  • It’s essential to 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.

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Editor – Thomas Christiansen
With over a decade of content experience, Tom produces and edits research articles, news and blog posts produced for Advanced Recovery Systems. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Jessica Pyhtila, PharmD
Dr. Jessica Pyhtila is a Clinical Pharmacy Specialist based in Baltimore, Maryland with practice sites in inpatient palliative care and outpatient primary care at the Department of Veteran Affairs. Read more

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Drinking Levels Defined.” Accessed May 11, 2020.

McHugh, R. Kathryn; Weiss, Roger D. “Alcohol Use Disorder and Depressive Disorders.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, October 21, 2019. Accessed May 11, 2020.

Shivani, Ramesh; Goldsmith, R. Jeffrey; Anthenelli, Robert. “Alcoholism and Psychiatric Disorders.” Alcohol Research and Health, 2002. Accessed May 11, 2020.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.