Alcohol and Depression (5 connections)

This blog post primarily investigates the link between alcohol and depression. The blog outlines the symptoms of the two disorders, following which it will help you understand the effects of alcohol on your brain, the dangers of alcohol abuse and depression, and the management of the two disorders. 

Alcohol and Depression

You may have used alcohol to beat the blues or at least know somebody who has. It has become common for people to turn to alcohol and other substances when they are met with stressful situations.  

It is not wrong for people to consume alcohol. Alcohol can relieve stress when consumed in moderation. However, when you choose to drink every time there is an issue, you could start abusing it. 

There is an association between alcohol abuse and depression, but which disorder leads to the other? Read on to find out. 

Symptoms of Alcohol Abuse and Depression

Before understanding the link between alcohol abuse and depression, let us know the symptoms of the two conditions. 

Symptoms of Alcohol Abuse

If you experience at least two of the following symptoms within a year, you will likely have an alcohol use disorder.

  • Consuming more alcohol than planned;
  • Undergoing withdrawal symptoms after stopping consumption;
  • Experiencing tolerance, as in you need more alcohol to derive equal pleasure as before;
  • Engaging in risky behaviors after drinking, like driving under the influence;
  • Tried to reduce or stop drinking but failed;
  • Drinking despite its leading to familial conflicts;
  • Drinking despite worsening of emotional or physical concerns;
  • Not engaging in previously enjoyable activities;
  • Unable to accomplish familial and occupational responsibilities;
  • Most of the time goes in recovery after drinking; and
  • An intense craving for alcohol consumption

If you experience any of these symptoms, reach out to your physician immediately.

Symptoms of Depression

If you experience some of the following symptoms for at least a couple of weeks, it is possible that you are depressed. The symptoms include:

  • Extreme sadness;
  • Fatigue;
  • Irritability;
  • Feelings of emptiness, worthlessness, and hopelessness;
  • Erratic sleep changes;
  • Excessive guilt;
  • Difficulty concentrating;
  • Feelings of anxiety and worry;
  • Suicidal ideations or self-harm 

If you experience suicidal ideations, contact the national crisis hotline for help. Otherwise, reach out to your primary care physician or therapist immediately.

What Is the Moderate Intake of Alcohol?

The short answer is that people should not consume more than 14 units of alcohol in a week and must have days completely free of alcohol. 

Alcohol abuse is not the only means of consuming too much alcohol. One unit of alcohol equals eight grams or ten ml of pure alcohol. A standard drink includes 25 ml of spirits (40% alcohol), 100 ml of wine (12% alcohol), or a half-pint of beer (4% alcohol).

As per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one-fourth of men consume at least five drinks, and 15% of women consume at least four drinks in a couple of hours. Such heavy consumption is known as binge-drinking. 

Ideally, men less than 65 years of age must not take more than 14 standard drinks in a week. Men over 65 years and all women should not consume more than seven standard alcoholic beverages in a week.  

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How Depression Fuels Alcohol Abuse?

Depression fuels alcohol abuse as some people try to cope with their depressive thoughts and feelings and numb their emotional pain by turning to alcohol and other substances. 

Research shows that teenagers who experience depression are two times more likely to begin consuming alcohol than those who do not. Moreover, women with depression are two times more likely to develop a drinking problem. 

Alcohol abuse can worsen depression as the more you drink, the more often and severe are your depressive episodes. You are also at a higher risk of developing suicidal ideations. It also comes in the way of the effectiveness of antidepressants. 

How Alcohol Abuse Fuels Depression?

Alcohol is a depressant, which indicates that the more you drink, the more likely you are to feel depressed. As per the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), when people are dealing with alcohol abuse, they are more likely to develop or worsen depression. 

Depressive symptoms are likely to fade upon cessation of alcohol consumption. However, the withdrawal symptoms that come with stopping alcohol once dependence has occurred can be severe. So, medical supervision is advised when you decide to stop drinking.

One study reported that each of the two disorders is likely to lead to the development of the other condition. The findings reported causation and not a mere correlation.

How Alcohol Affects the Brain

Alcohol is a depressant that mixes with your bloodstream, and eventually, your brain. It evokes pleasure. Initially, alcohol stimulates you and makes you feel good as it activates the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine acts on the pleasure pathways in your brain. Therefore, in the beginning, alcohol may seem beneficial in treating a depressed mood.

As the alcohol content in your blood begins to go down, its depressant qualities surface. It suppresses the activity of excitatory neurotransmitters, such as glutamate, and activates inhibitory ones like GABA, thereby depressing the system. This process leads to the downer that you experience. 

Therefore, although alcohol activates dopamine initially, making you feel good, it also amplifies depressive feelings by altering other neurotransmitters, worsening your depression.  

Why Alcohol Abuse and Depression are Dangerous

Alcohol entails effects that diminish inhibitions. You can come out of your shell, which makes you socialize, dance, engage in impulsive sexual intercourse, and other potentially risky behaviors. 

Such uninhibition stems from the reduced prefrontal and temporal cortical activity. The prefrontal cortex is involved in decision-making and analytical thinking. Therefore, when you consume alcohol, your judgments are likely to be clouded and not driven by rationality.

This loss of inhibition can increase the likelihood of engaging in risky behaviors, including self-harm and suicide. An article in 2010 reported that heavy drinkers are at an increased risk of suicide than social drinkers by five times. The SAMHSA reported that 30% of the deaths by suicide involve alcohol.  

The coexistence of alcohol and depression is dangerous, as the decreased inhibition that comes from alcohol increases the risk of suicide. Initially, it makes you feel good, but it leads to the consumption of more and more alcohol, worsening your depression to the point of suicidal ideation.

Managing Alcohol Abuse and Depression

Medication

Antidepressants can be useful in the treatment of depression. These medications alter brain chemistry to improve your mood, motivation and regulate your biological clock. They are also non-addictive and highly unlikely to be misused. It is ideal for people with depression and alcohol abuse, as they are likely to try and abuse medications.

Medications for depression take a couple of weeks to improve symptoms of mood and motivation. Within several weeks, the complete effectiveness of the drug begins to show. You should not discontinue the medication without consulting your physician. Typically, you will be asked to stay on medication even after your symptoms improve.  

The FDA has approved the following medications for treating alcohol abuse. 

  • ReVia (naltrexone)
  • Antabuse (disulfiram)
  • Campral (Acamprosate)

Antidepressants should not be mixed with alcohol. There may be dangerous consequences. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most commonly prescribed antidepressants, which can lead to a loss of movement, coordination, alertness, and even response time when mixed with alcohol. 

Consuming alcohol while on monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) can increase blood pressure to harmful extents. Benzodiazepines are commonly prescribed for alleviating symptoms of anxiety. When taken with alcohol, it can lead to dangerously low levels of heart rate and can suppress the respiratory system. 

Therapy

Medication alone does not suffice in the treatment of depression and alcohol abuse. Along with medication, psychotherapy is provided to foster healthier habits to cope with your problems. 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is beneficial for treating negative patterns of thinking and behaving. It is also useful for treating alcohol abuse and is commonly used to prevent relapse. CBT enables you to learn adaptive skills and coping mechanisms to deal with life stressors upon identifying triggers.

It prepares you to react to adverse situations when they occur. Moreover, the therapist will encourage you to practice these skills outside of the sessions to ensure you are able to cope even after termination of therapy.  

Other effective therapeutic options include Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), support groups, and holistic therapy. 

Group Therapy

Group therapy is useful as it allows people with similar problems to share their experiences with a facilitator’s help. It fosters a sense of belongingness and unity. Most sessions are hosted once or twice a week. 

Group therapy allows people to express their problems with addiction openly and without any fear of judgment. It also enables people to share their coping mechanisms that were effective while dealing with their issues.   

Wanting to seek help for depression and alcohol abuse is the initial stage of your path to recovery. Although rehabilitation facilities help with substance abuse treatment, not every facility provides the amenities you require for dealing with your problems. For instance, some places may cater only to specific issues, while others offer an array of services to many forms of substance abuse. 

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Conclusion

This blog post investigated the link between alcohol and depression in detail. The article outlined the symptoms of the two disorders, following which it helped you gain insights into the effects of alcohol on your brain, the dangers of alcohol abuse and depression, and the management of the two disorders. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): Alcohol and Depression

Is alcohol effective for depression?

No, alcohol is not effective for depression. It worsens depression in the long run despite bringing temporary relief. Many people find the sedative effects of alcohol appealing and consume alcohol to numb their emotional pain.

How does alcohol worsen anxiety?

Alcohol alters brain chemicals, including serotonin, which can worsen anxiety. When the alcohol content in your blood begins decreasing, you are likely to feel more anxious. The stress caused by alcohol can stay for a while. It can remain for a few hours or even a day after drinking.

Can alcohol lead to psychiatric problems?

Alcohol can lead to the development of symptoms of depression, psychosis, antisocial behavior, anxiety. It can occur during the period of intoxication and withdrawal. Sometimes, you can experience these symptoms for several weeks. Alcohol-induced syndromes are brief periods of psychiatric disorders mimicked as a result of the consumption of alcohol. 

What happens when you quit drinking?

When you quit drinking, you may feel intense sadness and hopelessness initially. These feelings are because of the reduced dopamine receptions and a consequent lack of dopamine release. When you consume alcohol excessively, the brain is overloaded with dopamine, but the dopamine receptors are diminished. 

What we recommend for depression

Professional counselling

If you are suffering from depression then ongoing professional counselling may be your ideal first point of call. Counselling will utilize theories such as Cognitive behavioural therapy which will help you live a more fulfilling life.

References

Fabian, R. (2018, April 24). Is Drinking Making You Depressed? The Talkspace Voice. Retrieved from https://www.talkspace.com/blog/is-drinking-making-you-depressed/.  

Holland, K. (2019, June 25). Understanding the Link Between Alcohol Use and Depression. Healthline. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/alcohol-and-depression.

Walker, L. K. (22020, July 13). Alcohol & Depression. American Addiction Centers. Retrieved from https://www.alcohol.org/co-occurring-disorder/depression/.  

Wasson, A. (2016, January 26). Alcohol Worsens Depression; Depression Worsens Alcohol Abuse. AFMC HealthSpot. Retrieved from https://afmc.org/afmc-healthspot/alcohol-worsens-depression-depression-worsens-alcohol-abuse/

Watkins, M. (2020, February 03). Can Alcohol Induce Depression? American Addiction Centers. Retrieved from https://americanaddictioncenters.org/alcoholism-treatment/depression

WebMD. (n.d.) Alcohol and Depression. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/alcohol-and-depresssion#

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Sara Quitlag is an Applied Psychologist, with a deep interest in psychopathology and neuropsychology and how psychology impacts and permeates every aspect of our environment. She has worked in Clinical settings (as Special Ed. Counselor, CBT Therapist) and has contributed at local Universities as a Faculty member from time to time. She has a graduate degree in English Literature and feels very connected to how literature and psychology interact. She feels accountable and passionate about making a "QUALITY" contribution to the overall global reform and well-being. She actively seeks out opportunities where she can spread awareness and make a positive difference across the globe for the welfare of our global society.