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Triggers and Cravings

Why Do I Crave Alcohol When I'm Sad?

Published:
August 9, 2023
·
12 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.
August 9, 2023
·
12 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.
August 9, 2023
·
12 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.
August 9, 2023
·
12 min read
Reframe App LogoReframe App Logo
Reframe Content Team
August 9, 2023
·
12 min read

Movies and TV shows often feature characters drowning their sorrows in the bottle. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel starts off with Midge going on a massive drinking binge after her husband leaves her. Ironically, this lands her in a comedy club and launches her career — but remember, that’s fiction.

I’m real life, booze rarely makes a sad situation better. So why are we drawn to it when we’re feeling blue? Let’s explore the connection between sadness and alcohol cravings.

The Emotional Brain

It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? “I’m sad.” But despite its apparent simplicity, sadness is a complex emotion. Understanding how it works might not alleviate the feeling, but it can provide insights into how we respond to it. Here's what happens in our brain when we feel sad.

  • The limbic system (specifically the amygdala and hippocampus) goes into overdrive. The amygdala processes our emotional reactions, while the hippocampus helps connect emotions to memories. When we’re feeling down, these areas are bustling with activity.
  • “Feel-good neurotransmitter” levels dip. Serotonin is often referred to as the "happy chemical." When we’re sad, the serotonin levels in your brain might dip, leading to feelings of depression or anxiety. Some anti-depressants aim to balance serotonin levels to improve mood.
  • The prefrontal cortex gets hijacked. Located at the front of the brain, the prefrontal cortex helps regulate emotions. When we’re blue, the communication between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex can become disrupted, potentially leading to prolonged sadness.
  • The stress hormone cortisol gets released. Chronic sadness can lead to persistently high cortisol levels, which may impact other bodily functions, like sleep and digestion.
  • Mirror neurons get triggered by “second-hand” sadness. Research has shown that certain areas of the brain that are linked to understanding others' emotions and empathy become more active when we see someone else experience sadness. This might also explain why sometimes we seek social connections or support when we're feeling blue, since empathy from others can ease the burden.

Alcohol and Sadness

When sadness kicks in, the brain tries to get rid of it and nudges us towards things that might ease discomfort. Alcohol might provide a temporary illusion of relief, but that's all it is, an illusion! At best, it’s only a Band-Aid solution that doesn’t address the actual source of sadness. Here is what’s behind the illusion:

  • The temporary "feel good" boost. Alcohol can lead to the release of serotonin and endorphins in the brain, providing a temporary mood lift. It's the brain's way of saying, "Hey, things are alright!" even when they might not be. This can make alcohol seem like an enticing solution to sadness or stress, even though the relief is only short-lived.
  • The GABA factor. Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a neurotransmitter that slows down brain activity. Drinking increases the production of GABA, which is why we feel a sense of relaxation or drowsiness when we drink. At the same time, alcohol decreases the production of glutamate — a neurotransmitter that would usually increase brain activity. As a result, when life gets overwhelming (and the thoughts a bit too loud), the brain might crave that quieting effect alcohol seems to offer.
  • The dampening of negative emotions. The prefrontal cortex, which we previously discussed as an emotion regulator, can be inhibited by alcohol. This means that the brain's ability to assess situations, make judgments, and think about long-term consequences becomes blurred. However, the immediacy of relief can overshadow the knowledge that this comfort is fleeting.
  • The dopamine draw. Dopamine — the pleasure neurotransmitter that’s part of the brain’s reward system — is also released when consuming alcohol. A dopamine hit is like getting a gold star when we do something good. However, with continuous consumption of alcohol, the brain starts to associate alcohol with a "reward," making us crave it more during emotional times.

The Vicious Cycle of Sadness and Alcohol

Alcohol doesn't mend a broken heart or solve any problems. It might make us feel better momentarily, but it soon wears off, often leaving us worse off than before. Here’s why:

  • Neurotransmitter imbalance. Though alcohol might seem like a temporary fix for sadness, it can have a rebound effect. As it wears off, levels of those feel-good chemicals in the brain drop, potentially leaving us feeling more down than we did before. Over time, and with continuous use, alcohol can disrupt the balance of these neurotransmitters, leading to chronic feelings of sadness or even depression.
  • The cycle of dependence. The temporary relief we feel when we drink can create a dependence, leading us to turn to alcohol whenever we’re down. It's like a faulty crutch that keeps breaking, but we keep trying to use it anyway.
  • Physical repercussions. Alcohol impacts our liver, heart, and other vital organs. The more we consume, the greater the harm.
  • Sleep troubles. Think alcohol helps us sleep? Think again! It may help us doze off, but the quality of our sleep suffers. Even though alcohol might make us feel sleepy, it can interrupt the natural sleep cycle, preventing deep REM sleep which is vital for mental rest. We wake up groggier, and the sadness lingers.

Alcohol and Depression

Things get even more messy when we throw clinical depression into the mix. The neurotransmitter imbalance created by alcohol has an even more drastic effect in people with this condition, since lower serotonin levels already come with the territory.

Alcohol can also interfere with the effectiveness of antidepressant drugs and might even lead to dangerous side effects. Therapy — another way of treating depression — can also become less effective, since it requires introspection and clear thinking, both of which can be clouded by alcohol.

Chronic alcohol consumption can also lead to a breakdown in personal relationships, job losses, or other significant life challenges. These situations can further contribute to feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness often associated with clinical depression.

Breaking the Cycle

  • Recognize the pattern. Understanding the connection between sadness and alcohol craving is half the battle. Once you're aware, you can take steps to break the cycle. Make a journal of moments when you feel the urge to drink. Include details about what's happening in your life at those times. Recognizing these patterns can help you prepare or avoid situations where cravings might occur.
  • Build a support system. Reach out to friends or family who understand your goals, or consider joining a support group. Having others to talk to can make a significant difference, especially during moments of sadness.
  • Craft a mood map. Create a visual representation of your emotions, linking feelings and cravings for alcohol. Use colors, images, or symbols that resonate with you. It’s a fun way to help you see patterns in your emotional climate.
  • Invent a "craving character.” Give your craving a persona. Draw or describe it. When it visits, having a quirky or absurd image in mind might make it easier to say no.
  • Compile a “joy playlist.” Put together a playlist of songs that uplift you. When sadness strikes, hit play and let the music elevate your mood instead of alcohol.
  • Host an alcohol-free adventure night. Invite friends for a fun evening without alcohol. Cook together, play games, or watch movies. Make it a regular event to build community support.
  • Launch a new skill challenge. Use the time you might have spent on drinking to learn something new, like cooking a complex dish or building a birdhouse. Share your progress with friends or on social media for encouragement and accountability.

The next time sadness knocks on your door and brings along that pesky craving for alcohol, remember, you've got the knowledge, the tools, and the strength to say "Not today!" It's a journey, and every step away from that bottle is a step towards a happier, healthier you. You've got this!

Beat the Blues and Start Your Journey 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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