Alcohol Use And Depression

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated May 17, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Alcohol and depression have a bidirectional relationship, meaning alcohol use can cause or worsen symptoms of depression, and a depressive disorder can lead to alcohol use. Research shows that someone living with alcohol use disorder may have double the risk of major depressive disorder (MDD) and vice versa.

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This risk can make it more difficult for an individual to manage either condition effectively and may exacerbate symptoms of both conditions. Understanding alcohol use disorder and depressive disorders, the links between them, and how you can reduce alcohol consumption may allow you to further understand these challenges' impact on your well-being. 
What is alcohol use disorder?
Alcohol use disorder is a mental illness and substance use disorder characterized by difficulty controlling the amount of alcohol one consumes. Alcohol use disorder can include the overuse of alcohol, dependency on alcohol, and other potentially harmful symptoms of substance use.  
People may start using alcohol for several reasons. For example, it may happen during social settings to unwind with friends. In other scenarios, people drink wine with dinner or to celebrate special occasions. When someone regularly drinks and has a substance use disorder, they may continue to drink more significantly each time or start to depend on the substance to feel well. 
Drinking itself is not inherently problematic in moderation or on occasion. However, frequent or excessive consumption or drinking as a coping mechanism can signal the existence of an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. 

Symptoms of alcohol use disorder

Symptoms of alcohol use disorder may include but aren't limited to the following: 
  • Difficulty stopping drinking once started 
  • Problems with cutting down on consumption 
  • Frequent alcohol cravings 
  • Functional difficulties in one's career, relationships, or personal life
  • Physical illness 
  • Shakiness 
  • Irritability
  • Stomach pain
  • Sweating 
  • "Blackouts"

Treatment for alcohol use disorder

Treatment for alcohol use disorder often consists of therapy, medication, and in some cases, inpatient health care. Alcohol counseling or therapy may help an individual control behavior that may lead to drinking, and medication can help manage the cognitive and physical effects of the disorder. In some cases, inpatient treatment is recommended to provide a controlled environment with a complete treatment team of nurses, therapists, and doctors. 

What is depression?

Depression is a term to refer to a group of mood disorders known as depressive disorders. It is characterized by feelings of sadness, fatigue, and a lack of motivation. Depression can adversely impact an individual's ability to function and lead to comorbid disorders like anxiety disorder or alcohol use disorder. Also, according to the Mayo Clinic, alcohol use disorder often coexists with bipolar disorder, which can lead a person to experience depression, manic episodes, or both.

Symptoms of depression 

Depressive disorders can affect an individual's mental, emotional, and physical health. One of the most recognizable symptoms of depression is a persistent feeling of sadness or despair. In addition to a sustained low mood, an individual with a depressive disorder may experience anxiety, trouble concentrating, irritability, and a lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities. Depression can also cause physical symptoms, such as shifts in weight, disruptions to sleep patterns, and joint or muscle pain. 

Depression treatment

A combination of therapy and medication is often recommended for managing symptoms of depressive disorders. Treatment used for depression may include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and interpersonal therapy (IPT), among many others. Therapy can help an individual learn more about their depressive symptoms, provide them with support, and give them the tools necessary to manage depression independently. 

Medication for depression may alleviate symptoms and improve the efficacy of therapy. Consult a medical or mental health professional before starting, changing, or stopping medication for a depressive disorder or other conditions.

The connections between alcohol use and depression

According to the National Institute On Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, mental health conditions are one of the leading risk factors for alcohol use disorder. Research shows that depression is the most common comorbidity with alcohol use disorder. Because alcohol acts as a depressant, it can cause feelings and symptoms often associated with depression, including profound sadness. Additionally, many people use drinking to cope with low mood, so depression may be a risk factor for problematic alcohol use. This crossover can harm a person's mental, physical, and emotional well-being.

The dangers of using alcohol as a coping mechanism

Some people use alcohol to cope with their feelings regarding daily life. When someone living with depression drinks to alleviate symptoms, it can affect the neurotransmitters within their brain. The chemicals in the brain that control a person's emotional state and reward system may experience rapid fluctuations, which can make the individual feel better temporarily, but exacerbate their symptoms in the long term. This is why drinking may become a cycle. 

Another commonality between drinking and depression comes in the form of hereditary susceptibility. If someone has relatives who previously experienced alcohol use disorder or depression or are currently diagnosed, it may increase their likelihood of facing these concerns themselves.

How to reduce alcohol consumption 

There are several ways you may reduce alcohol use in your life so that your drinking doesn't lead to further mental health challenges. 

Develop a support network

If your relationship with alcohol has become unhealthy, ensuring a support network can be vital. Try spending more time with friends or family members who don't drink. You could also join organizations promoting an alcohol-free lifestyle or find meetups with people trying to limit their consumption. 

Some people use free support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous to benefit from valuable guidance and useful insights from people with similar concerns. 

Avoid drinking influences 

Being in the company of people who drink frequently may make it more challenging to limit your alcohol consumption. If you often drink more around some friends and loved ones, consider setting boundaries with these individuals. For example, you can choose to spend time with certain people at specific times or in a limited number of situations to try to limit your own drinking. 

You can also get rid of any alcohol you keep in your home. Having easy availability to beer, liquor, or wine can make it harder to abstain during challenging moments. Additionally, consuming media that promotes alcohol consumption—including certain movies, TV shows, or magazines—could tempt you to drink. Limiting negative influences can be a first step toward abstinence from drinking. 

Keep a journal

Journaling can serve several purposes when it comes to decreasing your alcohol use. It may help you track how much you use, alerting you to potential situations in which you tend to drink more. It can also help you put your feelings surrounding alcohol into writing, which may provide an outlet to process your emotions. 

Additionally, a journal offers a space to set goals regarding your consumption. For example, you could write down that you'd like to limit yourself to only two drinks per week. You can create a chart for each day of the month and fill in a bubble each time you meet your goal. You can then modify your goal as you get used to less drinking. 

Engage in healthy activities

Partaking in activities that occupy your body and mind may help you avoid turning to alcohol when you feel bored or upset. You can try multiple sober activities, including but not limited to hiking, painting, playing board games, or spending time at a bookstore. 

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Try therapy 

Reaching out for support can be challenging for some individuals. You may face barriers like financial insecurity, anxiety, embarrassment, shame, or other concerns. In these cases, you might benefit from online counseling. 

Research shows that online therapy can help those who are living with symptoms of depression and misusing alcohol. For example, in one study, researchers found that online cognitive-behavioral therapy could effectively treat comorbid depression and alcohol use disorder, with results suggesting it was as effective as in-person treatment. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a widely utilized intervention that helps individuals recognize and replace maladaptive thought patterns that may accompany major depressive disorder. 

If you're living with depression, concerned about your alcohol use, or experiencing other mental health-related challenges, help is available. With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can participate in therapy remotely, which may be helpful if depression makes it hard for you to leave the house. You can also contact your therapist outside of sessions. If you're having trouble avoiding drinking in a particular situation, you can message your therapist at that moment for support, and they'll respond when they're available. 

Takeaway

Depression and alcohol use have a complex connection that can make managing symptoms of either condition challenging. If you are in a situation where you are experiencing depression, alcohol use disorder, excessive drinking, or similar concerns, know that help is available. Working with a licensed therapist, you can navigate these mental health challenges, improve your emotional well-being, and live a life free of substance use.

Depression is treatable, and you're not alone
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