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Alcohol and Mental Health

Alcohol Misuse and Depression: What’s the Connection?

July 10, 2023
13 min read
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Written by
Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
July 10, 2023
13 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
July 10, 2023
13 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
July 10, 2023
13 min read
Reframe App LogoReframe App Logo
Reframe Content Team
July 10, 2023
13 min read

The day's stresses are piling up, and everything feels a bit too heavy. You're drained, feeling lower than low, and yearning for some form of solace. That's when you hear yourself say: “Ugh, I need a drink.” So, you pour a glass. A sense of calm washes over you. You find yourself reaching for a second glass, and then a third. The world, once so loud and chaotic, seems a bit quieter now.

This ritual might feel like a balm on some nights, but there’s something more insidious happening underneath. And when it becomes a pattern, it's more than just a way to relax. It becomes a pathway that can lead us down a much darker and lonelier road — the road to causing or exacerbating symptoms of depression.

But while you might have heard that “alcohol is a depressant,” what is the exact connection between alcohol and depression? Does alcohol cause depression? Or does alcohol make you depressed? And what is the connection between the treatment for alcoholism and depression? Let’s find out more.

Note: If you are experiencing thoughts of suicide, please seek medical attention. In the United States, you can reach your local crisis hotline by dialing 988. Click here for a list of mental health crisis phone numbers by country.

What Is Depression?

An alcoholic drink in the hand of a depressed man with his head down

Depression is a common and serious mental health disorder that affects millions of people worldwide. It goes beyond feeling upset or down in the dumps. Depression is characterized by prolonged periods of intense sadness, a palpable lack of interest in activities once enjoyed, and an overarching feeling of emptiness that can seep into every corner of a person's life. Symptoms vary, but they generally include enduring feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness, chronic fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and recurring thoughts of death or suicide. 

It's crucial to understand that experiencing depression isn't a sign of weakness; it's a serious health condition that deserves attention and care. The silver lining here is that depression is treatable. Various treatment options are available, such as medication, psychotherapy, or likely a combination of both.

Alcohol and Depression: The Connection

While often called the ultimate social lubricant, alcohol is a depressant, as far as the brain is concerned. It can transform into a silent predator when misused, leading to depression, drinking to cope with the negative emotions, and setting off a vicious cycle of “depressed drinking.”

Alcohol misuse refers to a pattern of drinking that harms a person's health, their interpersonal relationships, or their ability to work. Scientific research paints a compelling picture of the relationship between alcohol misuse and depression. For some people battling depression, drinking feels like a form of self-medication. However, instead of alleviating the symptoms, alcohol often intensifies them, creating a vicious cycle that's incredibly hard to break.

Does Alcohol Cause Depression?

What causes depression and alcohol use disorder? Several studies have shown that alcohol misuse could lead to depression due to its impact on neurotransmitters, the brain's chemical messengers. These neurotransmitters, specifically serotonin and dopamine, play a significant role in mood regulation.

When alcohol gets to our brain, it causes neurochemical chaos. It triggers a massive dump of dopamine, which makes us feel warm, fuzzy, light, and happy — and pushes us to go back for more. It also releases GABA, a calming neurotransmitter, and inhibits glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter.

This may sound nice, but unfortunately, these effects are short-lived. Our brain starts to rebound within an hour and continues to swing back and forth through the next day. The end result? Depleted dopamine (the opposite of warm and fuzzy), a shortage of GABA (can’t seem to relax), and an abundance of glutamate (everything feels irritating). Over time, these changes become more dramatic. Often, we will drink to combat these symptoms, only making them worse.

Does Depression Make You Drink Alcohol?

The relationship between alcohol use and depression also works in reverse: depression can indeed lead to alcohol misuse. When people are grappling with depression, the urge to escape or numb their relentless emotional pain can be overwhelming, leading to “depression drinking.” As a central nervous system depressant, alcohol might provide temporary relief. However, it can ultimately magnify the symptoms of depression and even pave the way to dependency or misuse. A 2009 study published in Addiction underscored this link, finding that adults suffering from depression were far more likely to binge drink.

Alcohol Misuse and Depression: What Can We Do?

Armed with this knowledge, what's the next step? How can we steer clear of this dangerous intersection of alcohol misuse and depression? One answer lies in prevention and the practice of mindful drinking. Mindfulness means being fully present, aware of where we are, what we're doing, and how it impacts us and those around us. When applied to alcohol, mindfulness involves knowing your limits, recognizing why you're drinking, and ensuring alcohol doesn't become an emotional crutch.

Moreover, by understanding the connection between alcohol and depression at the neurological level, we can feel more empowered to experiment with approaching situations that usually led us to drinking differently. Once we understand that alcohol might be contributing to our depression in the first place, we can adopt a sober-curious mindset and see what happens if we leave it behind. Chances are, our depression will start to lift naturally, which can be really empowering!

Depression Treatment

Furthermore, if you’re struggling with symptoms of depression, please reach out to a medical or mental health professional for help. They can provide appropriate treatment for alcohol misuse and depression, such as therapy and/or medication. With the proper treatment, the likelihood of falling into maladaptive coping mechanisms, such as excess alcohol consumption, is much lower. This also lowers the risk of other health issues, such as liver damage, heart disease, and even cognitive decline. 

There are many paths when it comes to treating depression, and what works for one person might not work for another. Here are some approaches that have been proven to help:

  • Therapy. There are many forms of therapy out there that can help us find our way out of depression. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is also useful for treating alcohol misuse, can be incredibly effective in helping us identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to depression. Interpersonal therapy (IPT), on the other hand, focuses on improving personal relationships and communication patterns, which can significantly affect an individual's mood, while psychodynamic therapy explores how unresolved past experiences and unconscious processes may contribute to depression.
  • Medication. While this isn’t the route for everyone, some people might benefit from one of the many different types of medications available for treating depression. There are many antidepressants out there, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs), and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). Each class works differently and has its own set of potential side effects. 
  • Lifestyle changes. Finally, lifestyle changes such as incorporating exercise or a healthier diet can work wonders in helping us find our way back to happier and healthier versions of ourselves. Both diet and exercise have been scientifically shown to have direct effects on neural pathways and can help us rebalance the levels of neurotransmitters in our brain.

Alcohol Misuse and Depression: The Takeaways

The connection between alcohol misuse and depression is intricate. Alcohol might feel like an easy escape, but it's a deceptive one — it only pulls people further into the heart of the storm, into the core of depression. The journey to recovery may be arduous and seemingly endless, but it's a journey worth embarking on.

We're all in this together, maneuvering our way through life. Together, we can ensure that our stories are defined not by our struggles but by our resilience, by our capacity to rise above the challenges and emerge stronger on the other side.

Everyone's journey to recovery is unique. It does no good to compare our journey with those of other people. While it may take time and patience, each small step forward is a victory in itself.

Note: If you are experiencing thoughts of suicide, please seek medical attention. In the United States, you can reach your local crisis hotline by dialing 988. Click here for a list of mental health crisis phone numbers by country.

Take Charge of Your Well-Being With Reframe

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol.

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today!

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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