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Understanding the Link Between Alcohol Addiction and Depression

By: George Lopine

Not scientifically reviewed by Dr. Eeks

The two can seem inherently linked. Depression and addiction usually seem to complement each other. They may be classed as co-occurring disorders, but this is not always the case. Addiction is one of those things that can be a by-product of depression. But what are the links between depression and addiction to alcohol? 

Is Alcohol a Depressant?

Anybody that’s undergoing outpatient alcohol treatment can find themselves more understanding of the fact that alcohol is linked with depression because alcohol is a depressant. Drinking alcohol activates the reward system, which triggers the release of dopamine. This neurotransmitter influences the feeling of reward or motivation. Therefore, for people who have high levels of dopamine after drinking alcohol, this can reinforce our desire to drink more alcohol. But this is where it can impact our nervous system. Neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine, in low levels, can affect our brain chemistry in the long term, which can cause anxiety and depression. 

The Reasons Alcohol Contributes to Depression

Addiction is something where we feel we need to regain a sense of equilibrium, which, in addicts can only be achieved by having a higher dosage of a substance or alcohol. With something like alcohol, which is a widely available drug, it can contribute to depression in a number of ways including: 

Disrupting Your Sleep

Drinking alcohol will interfere with what is known as the sleep-wake cycle. This means we do not get enough REM sleep. REM sleep is important because it allows our brain to process everything that has occurred, and when we wake up feeling refreshed and relaxed, we have a better mood and we can concentrate and, in general, we are more functional. Lack of sufficient sleep contributes to a negative mood, so when you’re not well-rested, you can start to feel more depressed or start with a very low mood. 

Alcohol and Emotions

Alcohol can be mildly effective for people who don’t experience depression. Alcohol can heighten positive emotions in the short term, but in the long term, it can worsen any negative emotions. Anybody who is experiencing signs of depression can feel more intense emotions due to substances like alcohol. Because alcohol works to cloud our brains and lower our inhibitions, we are more inclined to be impulsive. As a result, when we are making more bold decisions when under the influence of alcohol, we can inevitably regret these the next day. What is known as “hangxiety” can occur, when we feel that we’ve done terrible things because we were under the influence. 

 

The solution can either be to drink to forget or to have a far better relationship with alcohol. But it also has an impact on people’s brains by preventing them from seeking solutions to problems. As we can drink to forget, we inevitably feel that we’re not able to cope with the situation. People who have difficulties in everyday life can feel depressed and alcohol is just another way of masking the symptoms. The cliche of somebody wallowing in their emotions is inherently linked with people who drink to forget. But also, many people drink to feel better about their negative emotions. 

Alcohol and Unhealthy Coping Patterns

When we use alcohol as a way to manage issues or feelings in a negative manner this is, in essence, putting a Band-Aid on a situation. Therefore, we’re not addressing our problems in a healthy way. If we rely on alcohol to mask our feelings of anxiety, especially in social settings, we may never understand why we feel anxious within social settings. When we make hasty decisions because we are feeling anxious and are drinking to mask these feelings the outcome is never good. When we use alcohol to escape our troubles, it can also mean the issues get gradually worse. 

Are Addiction and Depression Linked?

Based on the above factors it can seem like a chicken or the egg situation. People who experience depression naturally use substances such as alcohol in order to forget, but also the fact that stimulants like alcohol can contribute to depressive symptoms can make a mental health problem worse. While treatments for depression, such as probiotics, can help to deal with the chemical imbalance aspect of things, it’s important that anybody who is experiencing addictive behaviors address the underlying causes of the mental health condition. 

 

Sometimes, it can be due to genetics but it can also spiral from a traumatic instance. While the symptoms and the signs of dependence can vary depending on the substance and the mental health condition, it is important to remember that it can be a very devastating cycle for the individual, which is why addiction and depression need addressing at the root cause.

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