There are many reasons people turn to alcohol. Some are looking for relief from feelings that seem unmanageable while others seek to feel anything but numbness. As the Ben Harper song says – “Some drink to remember, some to forget, some for satisfaction, some to regret.” There are as many reasons as there are people, but it isn’t hard to find common themes.
Which Comes First, Alcohol Use or Depression?
What many don’t realize is that alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. While your mood may lift temporarily under the influence of alcohol, the drug itself depletes the level of serotonin in your brain, a neurotransmitter associated with depression.
Lowered inhibitions are one of the effects of alcohol consumption and these create some of the mood changes that occur. This is a result of changes in your brain chemistry altered by alcohol. Unfortunately, the good feelings can change to feelings of aggression or sadness without warning – another result of the altered brain chemistry and lowered inhibitions.
Some researchers believe habitual drinking can lead to depression. There are differing opinions about whether this is due to chemical changes in the brain or the result of other problems related to alcohol abuse and addiction. These might include family problems, work-related problems, legal issues, financial issues and others. It is likely a combination of these problems and changes in brain chemistry, either way stopping your drinking will help.
Many people turn to alcohol because they feel depressed. This is referred to as self-medicating by professionals – the person with depression seeks relief from his or her symptoms by ‘”treating” them with alcohol (as if it were medicine). This makes sense when you consider the temporary relief people often feel when they drink. Where this theory falls short is in the big picture.
If alcohol use/abuse depletes serotonin, the depression is likely to become worse. Add to the mix the list of problems accompanying alcohol use/abuse or alcoholism cited above and the outcome is actually pretty bleak for those who seek relief from the bottle.
Signs of Depression
People often have an idea about what depression is, but when asked, rarely know the signs and symptoms of depression. There is more to depression than sadness. Many people, especially men and teenagers, experience agitation rather than sadness when depressed.
To be diagnosed with depression, a person must exhibit several of these symptoms on most days for at least two weeks. The symptoms must cause impairment in some area of his/her life, such as work, relationships, health or finances.
- Feelings of sadness or emptiness – teariness or frequent crying
- Feeling hopeless, irritable/agitated, anxious/nervous, or guilty
- Loss of interest in activities
- Tired, low energy or lethargy
- Inability to concentrate or remember things
- Sleeping too little, or sleeping too much
- Eating too much, or not eating/no appetite
- Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
- Aches or pain
Getting Help for Alcoholism and Depression
Depression affects everyone differently. Both depression and alcoholism are believed to be genetic. Some researchers believe heavy drinking may “turn on” the gene for depression. Others are not sure the connection between alcoholism and depression is causal. One thing most everyone agrees on is that there is a correlation between alcoholism or heavy drinking and depression. There is reportedly a higher incidence of self-harm, suicide and psychosis in heavy drinkers or alcoholics.
If you are concerned that you may have depression, talk to your medical provider, a therapist or psychiatrist about your concerns. They may recommend you stop drinking alcohol for a period, to see if your depressive symptoms improve.
We Can Help You Stop Drinking
If you would like more information about how to quit drinking, download the Give Up Alcohol Course. This course has helped people quit drinking alcohol since January 2007.