Many people who struggle with addiction often struggle with a mental health disorder, as well. The most common mental health disorders include depression and anxiety, which afflict more than 8 million adults in the United States. Certain substances can bring out mental illness more intensely than others: for example, alcoholism, a depressant, can worsen a person’s depressed state.
While humans are all susceptible to feelings of sadness every now and again, depression is more of a lingering cloak of sadness that affects everything in our lives: our mood, appetite, societal relations, libido, and more. It can be a great hindrance on one’s life if gone untreated, and can worsen if the person is drinking in an effort to mask the symptoms and self-medicate. Once a person relies on alcohol to relieve their depressive symptoms, they find they cannot stop even if their life begins to fall apart.
What Makes Alcohol a Depressant?
When people think of alcohol, they might first think of happy emotions and social celebrations. This notion is partly because of mainstream influence and acceptance of alcohol in our society, but it also has to do with the way alcohol physically affects the body. A person’s first drink releases endorphins in certain areas of the brain (the nucleus accumbens and the orbitofrontal cortex), resulting in a stimulating and relaxing effect. It will leave the person feeling good, uninhibited, and generally pretty good. If they continue to drink, it will begin to dull their cognitive abilities, curb anxiety, lower inhibitions, and eventually make them sleepy. It can slow down reaction time, impair vision and speech, affect memory and concentration, and so on.
After the alcohol begins to leave the brain, however, the chemicals deplete and it can leave the person feeling even worse than before they drank. The alcohol depresses the nervous central nervous system, so if the person who is drinking has depression, the symptoms that manifest due to low serotonin levels—exhaustion, sadness, despair—will be felt more severely.
Some other common symptoms might include:
- Drop in blood pressure
- Lowered impulse control (from decreased GABA production)
- Increased anxiety and stress hormones
As a person’s alcoholism worsens, so will their depression symptoms. If they begin to face consequences because of their drinking, they may face job loss, homelessness, trouble in personal relationships, brushes with the law, and more, all of which can compound feelings of depression. Furthermore, as they keep drinking their tolerance will increase, making it more difficult for them to feel the euphoric effects of alcohol.
Some of the signs of alcohol use disorder may include:
- Drinking often (often leading to daily)
- Hiding alcohol or drinking in secret
- Drinking in the morning
- Suffering physical effects as well as personal (relationships suffering, job performance, etc.) but continuing to drink
- Isolating from friends and family
- Excessive alcohol intake in one sitting
If a person’s alcohol intake reaches this point, they will likely be so physically addicted that they will have to drink regardless of how it makes them feel because the withdrawal symptoms are uncomfortable, debilitating, and dangerous.
Chicken or the Egg?
Many ask if depression came before or after alcoholism if a person is diagnosed with both at the same time. Did the depression lead to alcoholism, or did the alcoholism lead to depression? This is a difficult question because of the cyclical relationship between the two disorders, and has been posed by medical professionals and researchers for years. It brings to mind the chicken or the egg question – which came first the chicken or the egg? Many argue that getting a person to ‘baseline,’ or without any alcohol in their system, is a good way to tease this out. This is partly because a person is not themselves when intoxicated—their despair is exacerbated by the alcohol. It’s important to note, however, that in early recovery, a person is likely feeling bad about themselves and their situation, so any determining factors aren’t likely to surface in the short-term, which is why long-term rehabilitation is often recommended.
A person could have had depression in the first place, and it might be why they picked up a drink. It may have been dormant or hidden if they wanted to keep it to themselves. Some symptoms of depression may include:
- Feelings of doom
- Suicidal ideation
- Unexplainable exhaustion
- Losing interest in things they once enjoyed
If a person is experiencing these symptoms, alcohol may have seemed like a good way to mask them, and may have kept those negative feelings at bay, or at least temporarily muted. This synthetic, alcohol-induced ‘relief’ might have felt better to them than feeling depressed in reality, and so the craving to drink seems impossible to resist until they no longer have the power to choose.
On the other hand, a person may have not had depression to begin with, but after becoming addicted to alcohol physically and then finally getting sober after wreaking havoc to their lives, they might be very saddened when coming to terms with the damage they did. This could make a person feel symptoms of depression and even look like chronic depression at first. Guilt and reckoning with consequences that may have occurred while drinking can contribute to a person’s feelings of sadness, but this does not indiscriminately mean that they have diagnosed depression. The one thing to be certain about is that alcohol manipulates a person’s behaviors and emotions, chemically altering them to feel something different than they would normally.
Breaking the Cycle
If a person has both depression and alcoholism, what matters most is moving forward. The cycle that forms is cunning and might be difficult to break; between the addictive qualities of alcohol and the stifling symptoms that depression brings, it can be lonely and seem endless. We can tell you that it isn’t impossible to feel better, and to move on from both.
Once a person’s addiction is identified, removal from alcohol entirely is crucial. This may include a medical detox depending on the severity of the addiction. At this time, the person may be more forthcoming about feelings of depression because they think there must be a reason for why they drink in an alcoholic way. This is often due to the feelings of guilt that often accompany both alcoholism and depression. By talking through their feelings, any trauma they may have experienced, and working to pinpoint the root of their depression, they will experience a release of sorts and begin to heal.
Antidepressants have also been found to ‘lift the veil’ of depression, and by doing so can help open the window for therapy to begin. If a person begins on an antidepressant regimen, it is important they are monitored by a medical professional and do not drink while on it. This is because every person reacts to medicine differently, and to be able to see if a medication is the right one, a person cannot be mixing substances. Alcohol and antidepressants can also exacerbate depressive symptoms.
Treatment for Depression and Alcoholism
As the relationship between depression and alcoholism is a complex one, it is important to consult professional help to safely guide a person towards recovery. Many treatment facilities offer dual diagnosis treatment programs, which assist with both mental health and addiction issues. Addressing the two issues concurrently makes the recovery process smoother, and can help identify the best options for treating both.
At Granite Recovery Centers, we’re here to help you break free of the grip depression and alcoholism has on your life. It’s possible to turn things around, and we’re here to help you take the first step toward recovery. We offer substance abuse treatment programs specifically for dual diagnosis clients, and understand the unique struggles alcoholism and depression can create. Please give our Admissions a team a call today at 855.712.7784.