Many people turn to alcohol to lift their spirits or ease their emotional pain when they feel depressed. But if you consistently rely on alcohol to improve your mood, you may be defeating your own purpose. In fact, you could actually be making your depression worse.
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, which slows down vital functions like respiration and circulation and impairs your neuromuscular activity. Alcohol can also have a negative effect on your moods and emotions. While you might initially feel a surge of euphoria when you sip a glass of wine or take a shot of whiskey, prolonged drinking can lead to feelings like sadness, anger, hostility and depression.
Alcohol and Depression: What’s the Link?
Does drinking cause depression, or does depression occur as a result of drinking? The medical community has debated this question for generations. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcoholism and depression may be related in three basic ways:
- Chronic alcohol abuse may promote depression. Alcohol affects the way your brain processes serotonin and dopamine, two neurotransmitters that play an important role in regulating your moods. When levels of these neurotransmitters are disturbed, you may become depressed. Drinking alcohol on a regular basis can upset your brain chemistry, making you vulnerable to a mood disorder.
- Depression may lead to alcoholism. If you self-medicate with alcohol as a way to handle depression, you may be setting yourself up for a serious alcohol problem. Alcohol is a highly addictive substance, and continued use of this drug leads to tolerance and dependence. If you experience frequent episodes of depression and you are treating your symptoms with alcohol, you’re increasing your risk of becoming addicted.
- Both alcoholism and depression may have the same hereditary factors. Alcoholism and depression both tend to run in families, which suggests that there may be a genetic connection. This connection may be a result of natural imbalances in brain chemistry that promote both alcohol addiction and depression.
Abstaining from alcohol may reduce your risk of developing depression. A study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry indicated that people who did not drink were less likely to become depressed or to have anxiety than those who drank heavily. In the same study, binge drinking and alcohol dependence were associated with a higher risk of being depressed. However, the study did not indicate that normal, moderate alcohol consumption was a serious risk factor for depression.
Recognizing the Signs of Depression
Depression is a mental health disorder that often goes undiagnosed, especially in people who are struggling with alcoholism. Because alcohol abuse can cause many symptoms that resemble depression, it’s easy to overlook the possibility that you may have a serious psychiatric condition as well as a problem with alcohol. Here are a few ways to recognize the signs of depression in yourself or others:
- Look for unintentional physical changes, like weight loss, weight gain or a decline in physical appearance.
- Listen for repeated statements of hopelessness, guilt, remorse or the desire to commit suicide.
- Watch for frequent episodes of heavy drinking, which often follow the onset of a depressed mood.
- Be aware of the tendency to isolate from others in order to spend more time drinking alone.
For a healthy person who has the occasional case of “the blues,” having a casual drink with friends could be an uplifting experience. But for someone who suffers from depression, heavy drinking could be life-threatening. When you’re drinking, the chances of acting on negative thoughts are much greater. You are more likely to harm yourself, either accidentally or intentionally, when you’re drunk and depressed. In addition, you’re more likely to have longer, more severe periods of depression when you drink heavily.
Help for Depression and Alcoholism
If you’re using alcohol as a medication for depression, finding real help for your problems might seem impossible. Alcoholism can make you feel hopeless, unmotivated and antisocial, making it even harder to get the treatment you need. Fortunately, both alcoholism and depression can be treated successfully through a rehab program that includes both psychosocial recovery services and medication therapy. Antidepressant medications combined with counseling, self-help groups and behavioral modification can make all the difference in the world in the way you perceive your future.
No matter how dark your days might seem at the moment, hope is available when you reach out to compassionate professionals. At Axis, we recognize the urgent need to help people who are struggling with mood disorders find help for alcoholism or drug addiction within the same recovery program. If you’re ready to make that first important phone call, we’re here to help you create the fulfilling, sober life you deserve.