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What's the Connection Between Drinking and Depression?

If you're battling depression, alcohol isn't going to make you feel better. It may temporarily suppress feelings of isolation, anxiety, or sadness, but that won't last. And more than likely, your depression will worsen.

The connection between alcohol and depression and the two conditions may feed off one another. In many cases, treating alcoholism will relieve depression. However, alleviating depression does not resolve the alcohol use disorder.

In some cases, you may receive a dual diagnosis of a major depressive disorder (MDD) and an alcohol use disorder (AUD). This co-occurring disorder isn't uncommon but can be challenging to treat. This article outlines the connection between alcohol and depression, how the two disorders align, and identifies treatment options and ways to cope.

Effects of Alcohol Use

Alcohol can produce euphoria and excitement, making you instantly happier and more confident, but those feelings are fleeting. Alcohol is a depressant. Much like barbiturates (sedatives), alcohol is a drug that affects the central nervous system (CNS) and the brain's functionality. Yet, many Americans drink alcohol, even if they're depressed.

"In our society, alcohol is readily available and socially acceptable," says Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D., author of Whole Brain Living, explains. "Depression and alcohol misuse are often tied because we take a depressant to counter a chemical depression which only worsens it."

The more alcohol you drink, the more severe the symptoms. Depending on your intoxication level, you may experience decreased inhibition, loss of judgment, confusion, and mood swings.

Alcohol is frequently used to numb uncomfortable emotions and can become a habitual pattern that disrupts the natural balance of neurotransmitters in the brain.

No matter your drink of choice, alcohol can easily be abused and often is, primarily when it's used to self-medicate. Pouring yourself a glass of wine or cracking a beer at the end of a long day may temporarily relieve feelings of depression because alcohol acts as a sedative. Still, it will exacerbate those feelings and intensify them.

Drinking persistently and excessively can increase your risk of developing a major depressive disorder. It can also aggregate symptoms of pre-existing depression and endanger your health and mental health.

Individuals diagnosed with clinical depression should be highly cautious when using substances like alcohol. For those taking antidepressants, combining them with alcohol can reduce their efficacy.

Contributing Factors

The co-occurrence of a major depressive disorder and an alcohol use disorder is surprisingly common. Yet, certain factors can put you at a higher risk of experiencing these comorbid disorders. Those factors include:

  • Genetics, including a family history of depression or substance misuse

  • History of trauma or abuse, or PTSD, may result from child abuse, sexual assault, combat, etc.

  • Underlying mental health conditions

  • Environmental factors, including exposures to violence, trauma, assault, abuse, etc.

Suppose you believe you're susceptible to experiencing alcohol addiction or depression. In that case, you may want to speak with a mental health professional, such as a social worker, counselor, or therapist, about these concerns and how best to prevent or cope with these disorders.

Alcohol Use Disorder and Depression

Many studies have found that alcohol dependence is closely linked to depression. When diagnosing an alcohol use disorder and a major depressive disorder, it's essential to address them simultaneously, as they can significantly impact your recovery.

Please get to know the two disorders and how they correlate.

Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)

Alcohol may be a socially acceptable drug, but it's still a drug. Alcohol abuse and dependence are both considered alcohol use disorders, with studies finding that alcohol dependence is more closely tied to the persistence of depressive disorders.3

According to the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5), these are some signs and symptoms that could reveal an alcohol use disorder:

  • Your drinking is interfering with your home, school, or work.

  • You've stopped engaging in activities that are important to you.

  • You've found yourself in dangerous situations while drinking, such as driving, swimming, or having unsafe sex while under the influence.

  • You've drank to experience a specific effect.

  • You've experienced withdrawal symptoms from alcohol, such as nausea, sweating, racing heart, or trouble sleeping.

  • You've tried to cut back but can't.

  • You've drank more or longer than you intended on multiple occasions.

  • You've continued drinking despite feeling depressed, anxious, or blacked out.

  • You've wanted to drink so badly you couldn't think of anything else.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that 9 out of 10 adult binge drinkers don't have a severe alcohol use disorder, but that doesn't mean alcohol isn't a problem for them. Drinking to cope with depression, no matter if you have an alcohol use disorder is concerning.

Alcohol use disorders may be mild, moderate, or severe, depending on the combination of symptoms you're experiencing, but drinking problems can exist regardless of a clinical diagnosis.

Whether you're experiencing depression or not, it's essential to evaluate your drinking habits and consider why, when, and how you feel when you drink.

Major Depressive Disorder (MDD)

Depression is a common and serious mood disorder that can impact your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. In the United States alone, an estimated 17.3 million adults have had at least one major depressive episode.

Some common signs and symptoms of depression, according to the DSM-5 Manual, include:

  • Feeling sad, empty, or hopeless

  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed

  • Experiencing a significant change in weight or decrease in appetite

  • Having trouble sleeping, experiencing fatigue, or sleeping too much

  • Experiencing thoughts of death or suicidal thoughts

  • Having difficulty concentrating

Major depressive disorder involves persistent and prolonged symptoms, but depression takes many forms. Depressive symptoms can result from life stressors, mental health conditions, medical conditions, and other factors.

Depression can also be directly caused by alcohol, like a substance-induced disorder.

Though depression is experienced by many, it can often go undiagnosed and untreated. You don't have to battle the depression alone, and relying on alcohol to make you feel better will only cause further pain. Reach out to a mental health professional to discuss treatment and strategies for dealing with depression.

Treatment Options

It's imperative to address alcohol abuse and depression simultaneously when looking into treatment options, as these conditions are closely intertwined and can exacerbate each other.

Cells are living beings, and if you want to fix the issue of depression at the level of the cells, they cannot be inebriated. Alcohol makes us feel drunk and confused because alcohol makes the cells drunk and nonfunctional.

Treatment options can range from seeing an individual therapist or psychiatrist once a week in an outpatient setting to attending an intensive outpatient group three times a week or residential treatment, in which an individual stays in a treatment setting, receives intensive therapy, and is physically separated from alcohol to recover.

A dual diagnosis can be complicated to treat, no matter the circumstances. The most common treatment options are included below but know that recovery requires a personalized treatment plan that best suits your mental health needs.


Therapeutic interventions to address both issues often focus on addressing emotional pain or trauma and developing and practicing healthy coping behaviors.

Treatment depends on the individual, but many different therapeutic interventions are used to address both alcohol use disorder and major depressive disorder Trauma-specific therapy

  • Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)

  • Individual therapy

  • Group therapy

  • Family therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy can also treat co-occurring AUD and MDD by improving your emotional regulation, changing your cognitive behaviors, and helping you develop personal coping strategies.

Depending on the severity of the disorders, you may need more intense treatment, such as outpatient care, integrated assertive community (ACT) treatment, or a residential stay, which may be required to begin or continue your recovery journey.

You may also consider joining a community-based group such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Self-Management and Recovery Training (SMART) Recovery.


The use of medication to treat an alcohol use disorder and a major depressive disorder depends entirely on the individual and their circumstances.

Possible medications include:

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)

  • Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs)

  • Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs)

  • Tricyclic antidepressants

  • Mood stabilizers

It is important to note that medications for alcohol use disorder are a first-line treatment, and they can be helpful for many, so talk to your doctor about this option. If you're dealing with severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms, such as anxiety, insomnia, nausea, and hallucinations, among others, then your doctor may suggest medications such as chlordiazepoxide or other benzodiazepines. Naltrexone, Acamprosate, and disulfiram are also FDA-approved medications that can help curb alcohol cravings.

An experienced psychiatrist [or another mental health professional] familiar with mood disorders and the effects of alcohol abuse can be instrumental in recommending appropriate medications and monitoring medication efficacy.

If you or a loved one are coping with a substance use disorder, you must get help. It's natural to feel intimidated or scared. But remember, rehab is intended to help you achieve lasting recovery. Suppose you're considering rehab as an option. In that case, you may take the first step by speaking with a doctor, therapist, counselor, or social worker.

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