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The Relationship Between Alcohol and Depression

Alcohol use disorders are some of the most common types of substance abuse disorders, especially in individuals who are also found to exhibit co-occurring mental disorders, specifically depression. While it has been difficult to be sure exactly when and where each disorder may have occurred for specific individuals, it is well understood that the issue of alcohol abuse often goes hand-in-hand with depressive symptoms.

According to the Better Health Channel, “There is a strong link between excessive alcohol consumption and depression.” But what is that link like? And which is more likely to come first? The relationship between alcohol and depression is a convoluted one, but it has been proven, time and time again, that these two issues are often likely to occur in the same individual and will usually be directly related to one another.

What is Comorbidity?

alcoholism and depression

Comorbidity describes when alcoholism and depression occur simultaneously.

According to the NIDA, “When two disorders or illnesses occur in the same person, simultaneously or sequentially, they are described as comorbid. Comorbidity also implies interactions between the illnesses that affect the course and prognosis of both.” In someone who is both abusing alcohol and exhibiting the symptoms of a depressive syndrome, the term comorbidity applies.

Though experts still disagree in many ways on how these two conditions influence one another, it is known that they are commonly found in a single individual and that

  • Someone who drinks heavily or has an alcohol use disorder is more in danger of developing depression.
  • Someone who has lived with depression or displays depressive symptoms is more likely to abuse alcohol or experience an alcohol use disorder.

Which Came First?

In many instances, therapists and doctors want to help patients suffering from both disorders find out which one manifested originally and worked to cause the other disorder. Unfortunately, this is not always easy to determine. As stated by the NIDA, “Although drug use disorders commonly occur with other mental illnesses, this does not mean that one caused the other, even if one appeared first. In fact, establishing which came first or why can be difficult.”

The same issue makes it problematic to try and determine whether an alcohol abuse disorder or a depressive disorder influenced the other condition. There are many ways an individual can experience both of these issues, especially due to the nature of depression and AUDs. Some cite alcohol as the cause, others depression, but there is a direct link between the two in all scenarios.

  • Many individuals who struggle with the symptoms of depression have been known to self-medicate or use alcohol and drugs to numb the pain that they feel. Instead of reaching out to a friend or finding a safe outlet for their feelings, they abuse substances such as these which can lead to the need for more and more over time as tolerance grows.
  • Studies like the NIAAA‘s suggest that there is a genetic relationship between alcoholism and depression, as both conditions are often present in multiple family members. According to the study, “the pattern of disorders in the family is a reasonable characteristic to use for the differentiation of subgroups within alcoholism,” namely the issue of comorbid depression. According to the NLM, “Alcohol use disorders can increase your risk of many health problems including” depression and suicide. Alcohol itself is a depressant drug, and its effects can cause those individuals who are already showing symptoms of a mood disorder to become even more depressed. In addition, its use over time can increase a person’s inability to cope with the stresses and difficulties of their life, making them more vulnerable to the issue of a mood disorder. The Better Health Channel states, “People who are not depressed may drink too much alcohol and become depressed.”
  • People who drink because alcohol “masks [their] feelings in the short term” often do not think about how it affects them in the long term. Abuse of the substance can make someone feel good at first, but they will often feel very low after drinking for a while. In order to feel good again, they will continue the cycle, not realizing how detrimental it is to them.
  • Boredom, lack of employment, anxiety, and loneliness are all feelings that may cause a person to drink (and drink more than is healthy). These issues can also be involved in or even symptoms of a depressive syndrome.

Though it is sometimes impossible to definitively state whether the mood disorder or the dangerous alcohol consumption came first, even in specific cases, the link between alcohol and depression is very clear.

How Best Can I Avoid These Disorders?

Alcohol abuse and depression are both mental disorders that, in certain ways, can be avoided or at least kept from becoming more severe. While having one condition makes you much more likely to experience another (the NIDA states that people are “twice as likely” to suffer from a mood or anxiety disorder if they are also substance abusers), there are ways that both can be treated or even avoided.

  • If you are a heavy drinker or you abuse alcohol in some way…
    • You should consider seeking addiction treatment, as alcoholism can often occur in those who drink every day consistently for several years.
    • You should consider treatment for alcohol withdrawal (especially if you are likely to experience dangerous or even life-threatening symptoms, the kind that are caused by a withdrawal syndrome called delirium tremens).
    • You must attend some sort of therapy (group therapy, individualized counseling, psychotherapy, etc.) and stay open to the possibility that you may be using alcohol to mask another psychological disorder.
  • If you are living with depression (or have had issues with depression in the past)…
    • You must understand that your chances of abusing alcohol and becoming dependent are much higher than the average person’s.
    • You should seek treatment immediately and consider taking medication prescribed by a doctor for your depression as well as attending regular therapy sessions.
    • You should discuss your issues with depression with someone you can trust and allow yourself to feel your feelings rather than attempting to bottle them up.

Someone who already suffers from both conditions should seek treatment immediately. Alcohol abuse and depression have a tangled relationship, one in which it is easy to become lost. But understanding the truth of it as well as the necessary steps to avoid the worsening of these conditions is key to protecting yourself.

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