Alcohol and Depression

What is Depression?

Depression – also known as Major Depressive Disorder- is a common medical condition that has a negative impact on how you feel, act and think. If you’re suffering from depression, you’ll likely feel a loss of interest in activities you normally like to engage in, as a general feeling of apathy and sadness envelops you instead. You’ll begin to feel a wide range of emotional and physical problems, which will make it harder for you to be productive at home and in work. It’s important to note that depression is different from the feeling of sadness or grief that occurs as a result of losing a family member or friend.

Alcohol abuse can contribute to, and worsen, the symptoms of depression, and any treatment of these conditions where they co-occur needs to address both elements in order to be successful.

Types of Depression

There are different types of depression which each affect you in a different way. Diagnosing the right type of depression goes a long way in hastening the recovery process. The different types of depression include: Major Depression, Atypical Depression, Situational Depression, Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder, Peripartum/Postpartum Depression, Psychotic Depression, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), Bipolar Disorder and Persistent Depressive Disorder.

Symptoms of Depression

The symptoms of depression will vary from mild to severe, depending on the type of depression present. Some of the symptoms that will most likely be seen include:

  • Concentration and general difficulties with the thought process
  • Difficulties in decision-making
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Persistent and/or unexplained guilt
  • Slowed speech and movements
  • Increase in meaningless physical activities, such as pacing or hand-wringing
  • Loss of energy
  • Weight loss or weight gain, highlighting a change in appetite
  • Feeling sad or being in a dour mood
  • Trouble with sleeping patterns
  • Loss of interest in formerly pleasurable activities

When all or some of these symptoms last beyond two weeks, a depression diagnosis might be made.

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How to Deal with Depression

The first step to dealing with depression is to seek professional help as fast as possible. This is important to ensure the right diagnosis is made and to rule out any other underlying disorders that may be endangering your life. However, there are certain things you can do on your own to battle depression. They include:

  • Maintain a healthy diet. Depression can increase or decrease your appetite and make you lose or gain weight.
  • Stick to a routine. This will help you eat, sleep and wake up at the right times.
  • Don’t drink too much alcohol or consume other drugs. For many, substance abuse is a way to escape the emotions that come with depression. However, in reality, it only worsens the depression whilst adding the problem of addiction into the equation.
  • Get active. Exercise is a mood-booster. If you don’t exercise regularly already, you can start with a light 20-minute exercise such as walking.
  • Be more social. When you’re depressed, you’ll most likely find yourself withdrawing from all physical activities. Don’t allow this to fester. Actively seek social activities and get involved.

In combination with therapy, these tips can help you deal with depression more effectively.

Depression: Myths and Facts

Over the last few years, the level of education available with regardsto depression has improved a great deal. Unfortunately, many people are still repeating myths that only end up harming depressed individuals. So, what are these myths?

  • “Depression is just in your head, it isn’t real”. The fact is that depression is a disease that usually follows when there is a chemical imbalance in the brain. However, no specific factor has been nailed down as the reason for this. This means that your genes, medicines, illnesses, drug use, alcohol abuse and a myriad of other factors can cause depression.
  • “There’s no need to treat depression, just wait it out”. In reality, most people with depression need treatment to get better. There are a few cases of people that have recovered from depression without external intervention, but this is the exception to the rule and not a wise choice. Without treatment, depression can go on for months or years and can trigger even more grave situations for the patient.
  • “Depression is not for kids and teenagers. It’s for old white people”. This statement contains numerous falsehoods in just one line. Research shows that thereare no gender-, economic-, ethnic- or age-related demarcations when it comes to who can develop depression.
  • “Depression only occurs when something bad happens to you”. It’s true that many episodes of depression are triggered by traumatic events, but there can be a lot of other factors involved too, including alcohol or drug use, childbirth and hormone problems amongst others. In some cases, depression can take hold totally out of the blue.
  • “Talking about depression worsens it”. This may be true if you’re talking about your depression to an unqualified person. However, in most cases, talking to a certified therapist goes a long way towards releasing bottled-up emotions and hastens your recovery.
  • “Going for depression treatment means taking antidepressants for the rest of your life”. This is not true if medication is required, medical professionals will recommend its duration in accordance with the severity of your depression, as well as basing it on the best possible treatment plan for you.
  • “You will be depressed if your parents had it in the past”. Like many conditions, a history of depression in your family increases your chances of developing it. However, there is still no conclusive evidence on how significant genetics are when it comes to determining your chances of experiencing depression: even a long family history of depression doesn’t automatically guarantee that you will be depressed at any point.

The Relationship between Alcohol and Depression

Over the years, much research has established the fact that there is a substantial link between alcohol and depression. It’s possible for regular alcohol consumption to lead to depression; it’s also possible for people suffering from depression to drink too much. Some of the findings research has unearthed over the years about the relationship between alcohol and depression include:

  • 33% of people with depression also have a problem with alcohol. Where these people are concerned, depression generally occurs before alcoholism.
  • Children who are depressed today have a higher chance of becoming alcoholics a few years down the line.
  • Teenagers who have suffered a severe case of depression at least once in their life are twice as likely to start drinking compared with others who haven’t been depressed.
  • When compared with men, women are more likely to become heavier drinkers if they have had a history of depression.
  • In people experiencing depression, drinking worsens the condition.
  • Antidepressant medication loses all – or some – of its efficacy in the presence of alcoholism.
  • A combination of depression and alcoholism is more likely to lead to suicidal thoughts.

How Drinking Too Much Can Make You Depressed

Since alcohol is a depressant, drinking large quantities alters the brain chemistry (hence the feelings that come with being drunk). When you consistently drink a lot, you could harm your brain, which can lead in turn to depression. Alcohol can also indirectly trigger depression: when under the influence of alcohol, you’re more likely to make bad decisions that will ruin your finances or relationships. This is especially true for people with a genetic disposition to depression.

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Which Comes First: Depression or Alcoholism?

The debate on whether alcoholism occurs before depression (or vice versa) has been going on for quite a while. However, data from rehabilitation centres and hospitals suggest that depression occurs before alcoholism for many people. ‘Problem alcohol consumers’ often attempt to relieve the feelings of despair associated with depression. However, the reprieve is usually temporary, leading to a steep descent into alcoholism. With depression, the feelings of sadness remain near-permanent and habitual drinking only intensifies the problem. As the feeling of hopelessness lingers, the depression worsens, leading to suicidal thoughts (and attempts) in some people: alcohol exacerbates negative feelings and impairs judgement.

In short, whilst there is still no conclusive evidence as to whether alcoholism or depression comes first, it’s important to keep in mind that alcohol will never be a permanent remedy for depression. Meanwhile, if you drink too much, you can trigger depression where it didn’t exist in the first place.

Alcohol and its Effect on Anxiety, Depression and Mental Health

When you consume alcohol, it can have a temporary positive impact on your mood, alleviating anxiety and depression symptoms. However, over extended periods of time, alcohol will damage your mental health. Excessive alcohol has been highlighted as one of the reasons for depression and memory loss, as well as suicide.

Your brain is heavily reliant on a delicate balance of chemicals and certain processes. As an anti-depressant, alcohol can disrupt this balance and negatively affect your thoughts, actions, feelings and mental health. The relaxing feeling you get when you first drink alcohol is as a result of the chemical alterations triggered in your brain by the chemical composition of alcohol.  You feel less anxious and more confident, because the alcohol depresses the part of the brain associated with those feelings.

However, the brain can only take so much of this. As you drink more, you’ll notice that instead of the initial positive feelings, your mental health will begin to suffer and you can start to exhibit aggression, anger, anxiety and deeper depression.

Reasons Why Alcoholism Causes Depression

Alcoholism can cause depression for a variety of reasons. Firstly, the constant imbalance in the brain can lead to ongoing damage to the chemical processes required for a clean bill of mental health. Depression can take hold when this happens. Secondly, if you are genetically vulnerable to the development of depression, alcoholism could be the final trigger. Thirdly, alcohol is a depressant. Therefore, alcoholism can trigger a perpetually depressed mood.

How Alcohol Makes Your Depression Symptoms Worse

Alcohol can affect your body’s functions in a number of ways, thereby worsening depression symptoms where they already exist.

  • Alcohol alters your sleep cycle and general thought process. This leads to an increase in depression symptoms.
  • Alcoholism can reduce the levels of folic acid in the body. This triggers a wide range of negative reactions in the brain and over time can result in vascular dementia. There is also an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
  • If you’re genetically linked to depression, alcohol can trigger it into action. When this happens, you can begin to experience seizures, manic-depressive episodes and other mental conditions.
  • When alcohol temporarily shuts off the stress hormones, the feelings of depression can also be exaggerated, as it depresses the brain and nervous system.
  • Norepinephrine and serotonin are two mood regulating chemicals whose effects can be lowered by alcohol. When the chemicals are too low, it can make a depressed person even more depressed.

With this in mind, it’s important for you to avoid worsening the effects of your depression with alcohol. If you’re struggling with alcoholism and depression, find a treatment centre that understands all the intricacies of dual diagnosis to increase your chances of making a complete recovery from both conditions.

How Alcohol Alters your Brain Chemistry

Alcohol changes your brain chemistry in a number of ways. Firstly, it disrupts the levels of neurotransmitters. These are the chemical messengers that transmit signals throughout your body, controlling behaviour, thoughts and emotions. Alcohol affects the two main types of neurotransmitters (inhibitory neurotransmitters and excitatory neurotransmitters). Excitatory neurotransmitters – such as glutamate – are supposed to uphold energy levels and activity in the brain. However, alcohol suppresses its release. This leads to a stifling of activity along the brain’s pathways. Inhibitory neurotransmitters are supposed to reduce energy levels when necessary and calm you down. However, alcohol exacerbates the effects of these neurotransmitters, leaving you feeling highly sedated.

Secondly, alcohol also releases dopamine in your brain’s reward centre. This gives you the reassuring feeling that you’re doing the right thing and that alcohol is helping you all the while. If you become hooked on the feelings that come with dopamine release, you will keep consuming more alcohol to replicate the feeling. This is how alcoholism is born.

Alcohol can Actually Increase Anxiety and Stress, Rather than Reduce It

It’s true that alcohol can reliably reduce the body’s physiological stress response. However, in many cases, you can’t enjoy this benefit without being drunk. Do you really need to get drunk in a bid to de-stress? Additionally, it takes a lot of energy for your body to metabolise large doses of alcohol. This can cause more stress to your body, even when you feel you are relaxed.

When the effects of alcohol start to wear off, the withdrawal signs that follow cause more stress and anxiety than was originally the case before you consumed alcohol. Of course, most alcohol users are familiar with hangovers, although other situations – such as agitation, unease and low mood –can also trigger stress and anxiety.

Therefore, even though that moderate doses of alcohol can help reduce stress and anxiety, it is important to keep in mind that this is only the case for a select group of people, under specific circumstances. When you feel the need to de-stress, opt for wholesome solutions instead of alcohol, as you are most likely amongst the majority of people for whom alcohol consumption leads to an increase in anxiety and stress, instead of a reduction.

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Alcohol is Linked to Suicide, Self-Harm and Psychosis

Alcohol is a trigger for impulsive behaviour and loss of inhibitions. This is why people do things they’d have ordinarily been unwilling or unable to do whilst under the influence of alcohol.  This includes suicide or self-harm. Figures from the NHS showed that more than 50% of people hospitalised as a result of injuries said they’d drunk alcohol immediately beforehand or whilst doing so.

Alcohol can Damage your Memory

When you consume alcohol, your brain processes slow down and your memory becomes impaired. At a certain level, your brain completely shuts down and stops adding to your memory database. It’s for this reason that many drunk people wake up without any recollection of what happened the previous night, including what they said or where they were. This is a short term memory-failure that doesn’t mean your brain cells have been damaged. However, with consistent heavy alcohol usage, you can damage the brain due to alcohol’s heavy impact on the brain’s chemistry and processes. When this happens, you will no longer be able to remember simple things that should come naturally to you, even when you’ve not had any alcohol to drink.

How to Avoid Alcohol-Induced Depression

The first step to avoiding alcohol-induced depression is to first of all understand your risk of depression. If you have a history of depression or are genetically vulnerable, you need to be proactive against depression. This will include avoiding heavy alcohol consumption.

People who do not have a genetic risk of depression can still avoid alcohol-induced depression by curtailing alcohol consumption. Stay within the recommended 14 units of alcohol a week (six pints of beer or seven glasses of wine)if you are a regular alcohol consumer.

Four Ways toPrevent Alcohol from Affecting your Mood

  • When you’re stressed, use exercise and relaxation, instead of taking up alcohol.
  • You can use breathing techniques to calm yourself when feeling anxious.
  • If you have any problems or worries, talk to someone instead of trying to suppress them with alcohol.
  • Don’t allow your alcohol usage to graduate to a level where you think that it’s a great way to make a bad feeling disappear. On the contrary, consuming alcohol will most likely exaggerate a problem.

Alcohol and Depression Self-Assessment

It’s now relatively easy to engage in self-assessment to determine whether you have an alcohol problem or are battling depression.  There are lots of free research-backed online questionnaires that can help you ascertain if you have an alcohol problem or are depressed. More often than not, you simply have to check boxes to answer the questions and a result will be delivered at the end of the process.

However, it is important to note that the results of such self-assessments do not qualify as diagnosis. You still need to talk to a healthcare professional in order to establish a diagnosis.

Depression Treatment Options

There is no fixed treatment method for depression, because it’s rare to find two people affected in the exact same manner by depression. A treatment regime that works for one person might fail to yield any results in the next person. The most effective way to treat depression is through professional guidance. The professionals take time to specifically understand your unique needs before deciding what treatment options to use.

Medication-Based Treatments for Depression

There are many antidepressants available to professionals when it comes to treating depression. The right option for you will be influenced by your level of depression, as well as how side effects can affect you in the long run. Some of the medication groups available for the treatment of depression include : Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), Atypical antidepressants, Tricyclic antidepressants, Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and others.

Treating Depression via Lifestyle Changes

When the possibility of an underlying medical condition has been ruled out as the cause of the depression, lifestyle changes can be used as a way to treat depression. These changes include:

  • Exercise boosts endorphins and serotonin, triggering the growth of new brain cells. Thirty to 60 minutes of aerobic activity daily has been proven to work.
  • Keeping regular contact with friends and family, joining social groups or becoming a volunteer can reduce isolation, which is a key risk factor for depression.
  • Consistently eating small, well-balanced meals throughout the day can help you keep your energy levels up and minimise mood swings.
  • Regular Sleeping Patterns. Sleep often strongly affects the mood. By getting between seven and nine hours of sleep a night, you can counter fatigue, sadness, moodiness and irritability.
  • Reduce Stress.Look at the different aspects of your life that constitute stress, such as work or relationships and consider ways to reduce their negative effects.

Treating Depression with Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy is another means of treating depression, and one that is only deployed when the probability of an underlying medical condition has been ruled out. During therapy, you’ll learn new skills and insights that can help you to avoid a reoccurrence in future.  Psychodynamic Therapy, Interpersonal Therapy and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) are the types of psychotherapy most frequently used to treat depression. In many cases, professionals combine a mixture of these to get the best possible results.

Alcoholism and Depression Treatment

To effectively treat alcoholism and depression, you need to work with professionals who are experienced in dealing with dual diagnosis in this field. When the dual diagnosis has been made, a carefully drafted treatment plan that covers alcoholism and depression will be created. The treatment plan will most likely begin with an alcohol detox.


FAQs

Does Depression Drive You to Drink?

Yes. Many people use alcohol to attempt to stave off the symptoms of depression and the general feelings attached to it. This may work temporarily for a while, but over a period of time, you will need to increase your alcohol consumption to generate the desired result, hence slipping deeper into alcoholism. The best way to deal with depression remains professional treatment and therapy, not alcohol.

Does Drinking Too Much Make You Depressed?

Alcohol has depressant qualities, so drinking too much can make you depressed. When you drink excessively, you trigger an imbalance of chemicals and nutrients in your body, especially in the brain. This leads to anxiety and depression.

Does Alcohol Treat Depression?

No, alcohol doesn’t treat depression. Any temporary reprieve you feel from taking alcohol is superficial. It’s most likely that your brain is releasing copious amounts of the feel-good hormone, dopamine. When the effect of alcohol wanes, the symptoms of the depression will remain. Depression can only be treated by going through a professionally drafted treatment plan.

How do I Know if my Antidepressant is Working?

If you follow the prescription of a qualified professional, your antidepressant medication is likely to work. However, you need tostrictly adhere to all other components of the depression treatment programmes to ensure the best possible results. If after a while you don’t feel any change in your mood or any relief of the symptoms of your depression, you need to discuss this with your healthcare professional, who should be able to decide if changes are needed in relation to your depression medication.

If it’s Such a Depressant, why does Alcohol Feel so Good?

Alcohol isn’t called a depressant because it can put you in a bad mood. It’s a depressant because of the way it impacts body function. It slows down bodily functions a great deal , while releasing dopamine in your brain’s reward centre. This explains the feel-good factor. However, the positive feelings dissipate after a period of time, leaving only the wear and tear on the brain as a result of the depressant effects of alcohol.

Should I Worry About the Occasional Low Mood after Drinking?

Yes, you need to be worried. The topsy-turvy experience of drinking and getting sober can trigger stressful experiences, such as an inability to stay organised or focused; a constant cycle of shame and regrets; sexual difficulties; self-esteem issues; fatigue and insomnia; poor performance at work; anxiety about your actions; difficulties in relationships etc. These low moods and stressful experiences may not seem important right now, but if life experiences take a downturn (think about a job loss for example), it could be all that’s required to push you over the edge into major depression.

Does One Sex Suffer more from Alcohol-Related Depression?

Yes. A study by the University of Vermont in 2013 showed that the feeling of unhappiness a day after alcohol consumption was more common in women than in men.

How can you Tell if your Moods and Drinking are Connected?

To tell if your moods and drinking are connected, you need to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you think you can cope without drinking alcohol for an entire month?
  • Will your life be different if you consume drinks that have lower alcohol levels and monitor your consumption more effectively?
  • If you don’t drink in the week, will your productivity and relationships be positively or adversely affected?
  • Are you drinking to avoid sadness, anger or anxiety? These emotions can be handled without alcohol.
  • What is your mood before and after you take alcohol? What patterns do you see?
  • If you don’t drink in the week, will your productivity and relationships be positively or adversely affected?
  • Are you drinking to avoid sadness, anger or anxiety? These emotions can be handled without alcohol.
  • What is your mood before and after you take alcohol? What patterns do you see?

Your answers to these questions can help you decide if your mood and drinking are connected.

How Common is Depression in People with Alcohol Problems?

Statistics show that more than 40% of people who drink heavily display all (or some) of the symptoms of depression.

Why might Alcohol Problems and Depression Occur Together?

Alcohol problems and depression tend to exist together because in many cases, people with depression attempt to use alcohol as a form of self-medication. They use it to cheer up or get to sleep. The self-medication may work temporarily if the alcohol is consumed in small amounts. However, in larger quantities, it could worsen the depressive disorder. Additionally, the individual will end up sinking deeper into alcoholism.

Why is an Alcohol Problem – Coupled with Depression – a Particular Worry?

One of the main dangers of depression is that it can lead to suicidal thoughts. When combined with impulsiveness, compromised judgement and a complete lack of self-control (that is common under intoxication from alcohol), the chances of a person attempting suicide drastically increases.  A higher incidence of suicide – completed and attempted – is very much associated with alcohol consumption.

When Should I be Worried if I have an Alcohol Problem?

You should be worried about an alcohol problem if any of the following points are applicable to you:

  • You’ve been arrested or charged with a drinking offence
  • You’ve had issues at work because of your alcohol consumption
  • You can’t remember periods when you consumed alcohol or what happened during those periods
  • You feel shaky in the morning after taking alcohol
  • You can’t get ready for the day without taking alcohol
  • You feel guilty about your alcohol consumption, but can’t stop
  • People you knowadvise you to reduce drinking, which makes you annoyed
  • You drink everyday
  • You regularly drink alone
  • You are drinking more than the recommended units per week
  • You think alcohol helps you escape your worries
  • You think you can’t sleep without alcohol

How are Alcohol Problems and Depression Treated?

Alcohol and depression problems are treated via detoxification, counselling and medication.

What Should I do if I Think I’ve Developed an Alcohol Problem?

If you think you’ve developed an alcohol problem, get in touch with a medical professional or treatment centre right away to set you on your path to recovery. Remember, alcohol – especially in the presence of depression – is every bit as dangerous as all other lesser accepted substances.

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