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The Connection Between Alcohol Abuse & Depression

Published on October 6, 2021
The Connection Between Alcohol Abuse & Depression

Depression is a serious mood disorder that causes persistent sadness and loss of interest in activities once enjoyed. 

Many people with depression also struggle with alcohol abuse or alcohol use disorder (also called alcohol addiction). 

Alcohol Abuse & Depression

Compared to the general public, people with depression face twice the risk of alcohol use disorder. Similarly, people with alcohol use disorder face twice the risk of depression.

Sometimes, depression leads to alcohol abuse. Other times, alcohol abuse leads to depression. 

How Does Depression Cause Alcohol Abuse?

Depression causes a number of distressing symptoms, including:

  • persistent sadness, anxiety, or emptiness
  • loss of interest or pleasure in activities
  • irritability
  • feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness, or hopelessness
  • problems with concentration, memory, or decision-making
  • low energy
  • restlessness
  • unexplainable pains, aches, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems
  • suicidal thoughts 

Some people drink alcohol to self-medicate these symptoms. Indeed, alcohol may temporarily boost your sense of well-being. 

Over time, though, it makes depression worse. That’s because alcohol is a depressant. It causes or worsens depression symptoms by affecting areas of the brain that regulate emotions. It can also counteract the positive effects of antidepressant medications. 

How Does Alcohol Abuse Cause Depression?

Alcohol abuse doesn’t just worsen depression in people who already have it. It can also cause depression in otherwise healthy people.

Alcohol can trigger depression symptoms by affecting areas of the brain associated with emotions. 

In addition, prolonged alcohol abuse can cause depression by negatively impacting someone’s life. For example, many people who abuse alcohol face job loss, damaged relationships, and health problems like heart disease and cancer. 

To cope with these issues, a person may start drinking even more. This creates a cycle where alcohol abuse worsens depression and depression worsens alcohol abuse.

Signs Of Alcohol Abuse & Alcohol Use Disorder 

There are two main types of alcohol abuse: binge drinking and heavy drinking.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines binge drinking as:

  • consuming 4 or more drinks in about 2 hours if you’re a woman
  • consuming 5 or more drinks in about 2 hours if you’re a man

The NIAAA defines heavy drinking as:

  • consuming more than 3 drinks in one day or more than 7 drinks per week if you’re a woman
  • consuming more than 4 drinks in one day or more than 14 drinks per week if you’re a man

Binge drinking and heavy drinking can lead to alcohol use disorder. Common signs of alcohol use disorder include:

  • drinking more or for longer than you intended
  • feeling unable to stop drinking alcohol despite wanting to 
  • frequently getting into dangerous situations while or after drinking
  • needing increasingly larger amounts of alcohol over time to feel the desired effects
  • continuing to drink even when it causes problems with your relationships, work, school, or health
  • avoiding activities you once enjoyed so you can spend more time drinking
  • experiencing withdrawal symptoms like shakiness, nausea, sweating, or a racing heart when you don’t drink

Treatment For Co-occurring Alcohol Abuse & Depression

If you or a loved one struggles with alcohol abuse and depression, seek professional help. In particular, look for a dual diagnosis treatment program. These programs treat substance abuse alongside other mental health problems.

When you enter the treatment center, a team of healthcare providers will design your personalized treatment plan. Most plans include psychotherapy, support groups, and medication.

Psychotherapy

The most common type of therapy for both depression and alcohol abuse is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). During CBT, a therapist can help you change unhealthy beliefs and behaviors that contribute to your depressive symptoms and alcohol consumption. 

Your treatment plan may also include other types of therapy, such as family therapy. In family therapy, you and your loved ones can learn how to resolve conflicts and support your recovery from both depression and alcohol abuse. 

Support Groups

Many people with depression and alcohol problems feel alone. In a support group, you can connect with other people who are recovering from alcohol abuse, depression, and other mental health concerns. 

You can also share and learn new coping strategies to help maintain your recovery. Popular strategies include exercise, meditation, healthy eating, and creative expression.

Medication For Depression

Not everyone with depression needs medication. However, some people benefit from antidepressants such as:

  • Zoloft (sertraline)
  • Prozac (fluoxetine)
  • Wellbutrin (bupropion)
  • Remeron (mirtazapine) 
  • Viibryd (vilazodone) 

While antidepressants can reduce symptoms of depression, they can also cause side effects like headaches, trouble sleeping, and sexual dysfunction. Your doctor can help you find an antidepressant that works for your body and causes the least amount of side effects. 

Medication For Alcohol Use Disorder

Along with antidepressants, your doctor may also prescribe medications to help you recover from alcohol use disorder. These medications include:

  • acamprosate, which reduces cravings for alcohol 
  • disulfiram, which discourages alcohol use by causing unpleasant side effects like headache, nausea, and chest pain when you drink alcohol
  • naltrexone, which discourages alcohol use by blocking the drug’s pleasant effects

To learn more about treatment options for alcohol abuse and depression, please reach out to an Ark Behavioral Health specialist.

Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
This page does not provide medical advice.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism - Drinking Levels Defined
National Institute of Mental Health - Depression
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration - MAT Medications, Counseling, and Related Conditions
U.S. National Library of Medicine - Alcohol and depression
U.S. National Library of Medicine - Mood Disorders and Substance Use Disorder: A Complex Comorbidity
World Health Organization - Depression

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