Jan 30, 2023

The Link Between Depression and Alcoholism

Studies have found a moderate link between depression and alcoholism. Findings show that depression can exacerbate alcoholism and vice versa. 

The presence of two co-occurring disorders requires different management than either condition alone. A dual diagnosis can be the first step toward successful treatment for many people.

The Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol use disorder, also called alcoholism or alcohol dependence, is the uncontrollable consumption of alcohol to the point that it impacts your daily life. This manifests in various ways, most commonly heavy drinking or binge drinking, but the long-term effects are the same. 

Over time, an alcohol use disorder can lead to organ damage and failure, problems with the immune system, and cognitive impairments such as memory loss and a failure to learn new things. These risks become even more significant when someone begins to lose control of how much they’re drinking. 

Heavy drinking is the easiest to recognize. Signs can include:

  • Needing a drink before going to work or school.
  • Missing out on social events to spend time drinking.
  • Ignoring personal hygiene and physiologic needs, such as eating regularly, so a person can drink more.

The signs of alcoholism are not always easy to recognize. 

In some cases, someone with an alcohol use disorder may have tried to cut back on their alcohol intake or stopped drinking altogether. They then begin experiencing sweating, nausea, shakiness, anxiety, or other signs of withdrawal.

Binge drinking is harder to recognize but isn’t any safer than consistent heavy drinking. Those who binge drink can go several days to weeks without alcohol, but when they do drink, they consume extreme amounts in a short time. Because of this, binge drinking can be hazardous. According to a 2019 NIH study, those who binge drink are 70 times more likely to end up in the emergency room due to alcohol-related causes. 

Signs of Depression

Depression encompasses several disorders, including major depressive disorder, persistent depressive disorder (dysthymia), and psychotic depression. There are several distinguishing features between these disorders, but there are some consistent signs. Generally speaking, symptoms of depression include a persistently low mood, self-esteem, or self-worth. Sleep disturbances, including insomnia (sleeping too little) or hypersomnia (sleeping too much), are also common.

People suffering from depression may distance themselves from others. Personal relationships are often strained by irritability and moodiness. They may no longer show interest in activities they used to enjoy. Overall health may deteriorate as those with depression often have changes in appetite and a lack of energy or motivation to do tasks such as cleaning around the house or running errands in town.

What Is Alcohol-Induced Depression?

In addition to co-occurring depression and alcoholism, alcohol can trigger depression, called alcohol-induced depression. Going through withdrawal can also lead to a depressive episode. Although it isn’t very common, this type of depression can have just as significant an impact on a person’s life as other forms of depression. 

This condition resolves with abstinence from alcohol for several weeks. If the depression continues after abstinence, it is likely independent of alcohol use. 

The Link Between Depression and Alcoholism

One of the effects of alcohol is it alters the balance of chemicals in the same part of the brain that controls mood. As a result, it slows neural pathways and central nervous function, leading to a depressed mood. This can worsen symptoms of depression in the long term, even if it might dull them in the short term. 

Because alcohol can temporarily relieve depression symptoms, some who suffer from depression can attempt to self-medicate. This is especially true if their depression is unmanaged. However, alcohol can cause changes in the brain that require a person to consume more and more alcohol to achieve that same effect. This situation creates a dependency that leads to alcoholism.

What Are the Treatment Options for Co-Occurring Alcoholism and Depression?

Treatment for co-occurring alcoholism and depression is most successful when it targets both conditions simultaneously. There are several different strategies for treatment, and many plans incorporate more than one approach, especially in the beginning. The exact combination of treatments depends on an individual’s specific needs.

Medication-assisted therapy (MAT) uses prescription drugs to minimize withdrawal effects, reduce cravings for alcohol, and manage the symptoms of depression. MAT can be an effective adjunct therapy in combination with other treatment strategies. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) addresses negative thought processes and breaks negative cycles. It also helps identify what events may trigger the urge to drink and develop healthy coping mechanisms.

Group therapy allows people to connect and discuss their struggles with others with similar experiences. It provides a sense of community and real-world perspective. Group therapy is often a key part of aftercare to facilitate continued recovery after initial treatment. 

Where to Find Help

If co-occurring disorders are suspected, finding somewhere to offer the proper support for both conditions is essential. First, you should look for a specialized rehabilitation or addiction center, such as Massachusetts Center for Addiction. These facilities employ teams that are highly capable of managing complex cases. They can also provide unmatched support during and after your initial recovery. 

The center you choose should have experience treating alcohol use disorders and co-occurring disorders like depression. While some treatments are better than none at all, emphasizing the treatment of one disorder over the other is often less effective than tackling both simultaneously. 

Many addiction centers will have various options, including intensive outpatient care, for your treatment. They should create a personalized treatment plan to match your needs and address any environmental factors influencing your mental health. 

If you or a loved one is struggling with co-occurring alcoholism and depression, don’t wait to get help. Instead, reach out today to speak with an admissions coordinator and get started on your road to recovery.

MCA Staff
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