Many people with addiction also struggle with mental health disorders. Depression and alcoholism are common co-occurring disorders. Certain substances can bring out mental illness more intensely than others. For example, alcoholism, a depressant, can worsen a person’s depressed state.
Everyone is susceptible to feelings of sadness now and again. However, depression is a common mental health disorder that causes persistent sadness and loss of interest. Unlike regular mood changes, depression can impact all aspects of life, including relationships, school, and work performance. It can be a great hindrance to one’s life if gone untreated and can worsen if the person drinks to mask the symptoms and self-medicate.
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 good. If they continue to drink, it will 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. Alcohol depresses the central nervous system and lowers serotonin levels exacerbating symptoms of depression such as exhaustion, sadness, and despair.
Some other common symptoms might include:
- Low Blood Pressure
- Lowered Impulse Control (from decreased GABA production)
- Increased anxiety and stress hormones
Signs of Alcohol Use Disorder
As alcohol addiction worsens, so will depression symptoms. The consequences of alcohol abuse often compound feelings of depression. Additionally, with prolonged drinking, tolerance will increase, making it more difficult 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 suffer, job performance, etc.) but continuing to drink
- Isolating from friends and family
- Excessive alcohol intake in one sitting
When alcohol intake reaches this point. They will likely be so physically addicted that they must drink regardless of how it makes them feel because the withdrawal symptoms are uncomfortable, debilitating, and dangerous.
Depression and Alcoholism
Many ask if depression came before or after alcoholism if a person is diagnosed with both. Did the depression lead to alcoholism, or did the alcoholism lead to depression? This is a difficult question because medical professionals and researchers have posed the cyclical relationship between the two disorders for years. It brings to mind the chicken or the egg question – which came first, the chicken or the egg?
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 because despair is exacerbated by alcohol, and people are not themselves when intoxicated. However, it’s important to note 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, which 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 not have had depression. Still, after becoming addicted to alcohol physically and then finally getting sober after wreaking havoc on 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 been diagnosed with 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.
Once a person’s addiction is identified, removal from alcohol 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 and 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. Granite Recovery Centers provides medical detoxification for people who do not need immediate medical intervention, are not a danger to themselves, and are capable of self-evacuation in an emergency.
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, they must be monitored by a medical professional and not drink. This is because every person reacts to medicine differently, and to see if a medication is the right one, a person cannot mix substances. Alcohol and antidepressants can also exacerbate depressive symptoms.
Treatment for Depression and Alcoholism
As the relationship between depression and alcoholism is complex, it is important to consult professional help to safely guide a person toward recovery. Many treatment facilities offer dual-diagnosis treatment programs that assist with mental health and addiction issues. Addressing the two issues concurrently smoother the recovery process and can help identify the best treatment options.
Granite Recovery Centers is here to help break the grip of depression and alcoholism. 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 for dual-diagnosis clients and understand the unique struggles alcoholism and depression can create. Please give our Admissions team a call today at 855.712.7784.