How Are Alcohol And Depression Linked?

Depressive disorders result in symptoms that cause serious reductions in a person’s ability to engage in activities of daily living (ADLs). These ADLs can be as complex as engaging in work activities to tasks as simple as getting out of bed.

The widespread struggles of major depressive disorder are quite serious and, without care and support, can be too overwhelming for someone to manage on their own. This often leads them to find ways to “manage” their depression and often results in alcohol use disorders (AUDs) developing.

Depression is the most prevalent co-occuring mental health condition with 63% of people with AUD experiencing major depressive disorder. A study from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism also found that people with an AUD were 2.3 times more likely to have experienced symptoms of depression over the previous year. Due to the high prevalence of concurrent AUD and depression, it is important to know the signs and symptoms of both disorders so treatment can be sought as soon as possible.

Drinking Alcohol While Depressed

Abusing alcohol while living with mental health conditions is incredibly dangerous. Using alcohol to combat depression symptoms not only makes the depressive symptoms worse but also increases the risk of suicidal thoughts and life-threatening actions.

Alcohol itself is categorized as a central nervous system depressant. When alcohol is ingested, the primary result is the body being unable to perform its responsibilities. This can be seen during periods of intoxication, when speech, walking, thinking, and many other functions are heavily affected. From a neurocognitive standpoint, alcohol significantly impacts many of the neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) that oversee our emotional well-being.

When alcohol is used, these chemical balances are significantly impacted, which may result in poor decision-making. When this occurs infrequently, the risks are relatively low for long-term conditions to develop. However, when chronic alcohol misuse occurs, the risk grows exponentially and will eventually result in potentially permanent disruption of one’s neurotransmitter balance. This has frequently resulted in depressive symptoms developing or growing in severity.

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Feeling Depressed Versus Major Depressive Disorder

The phrase feeling depressed has become a well-known and commonly used term to describe a feeling of sadness or feeling down.

These feelings may develop after a difficult life experience like losing one’s employment or a difficult breakup from a romantic relationship. These are life events that result in a variety of feelings, with sadness being a significant factor for them.

Though these types of feelings and experiences are universal, they usually resolve themselves in short periods. There is a significant difference between “feeling depressed” and experiencing a depressive disorder. While these experiences are very human and common, they are not an honest representation of what depression truly is.

Symptoms Of Depression

While exact signs and symptoms will vary, these are some common symptoms you might see in someone experiencing depression:

  • Feeling sad, helpless, worthless, or empty
  • Low self-esteem
  • Fluctuations in appetite
  • Increased irritability

  • Disinterest in things one used to enjoy
  • Low motivation and energy
  • Negative thought patterns
  • Suicidal thoughts

Depression Classifications

There are many different classifications of depressive disorders as symptoms can manifest in many ways, leading to different diagnoses and treatment options.

Reactive Depression

Reactive depression, also referred to as psychological depression, is the traditional representation of what a major depressive episode may be.

They can range in severity from mild to severe and are associated with a recent or well-known stressor(s). Causes may include loss, traumatic experiences, and unsafe environments that include abusive situations. These events lead the individual to experience depressive symptoms that can last from weeks to years at a time. Often, individuals who experience these stressful events will utilize substances such as alcohol to “self-medicate” their uncomfortable symptoms and inadvertently make the severity of their symptoms worse.

Biological Depression

Biological depression is often experienced randomly and without any associated stressor(s). Depressions that develop this way can result from bodily function or organ disruption medical conditions that result in depressive symptoms, hormone fluctuations, medication or substance misuse. Alcohol is specifically identified as a potential cause of biological depressive symptoms due to its neurological impact on the brain when used chronically.

Treatment Options For Depression And Alcohol Addiction

Treatment approaches have improved significantly over the years for treating both depressive disorders as well as alcohol use disorders.

Medical practitioners have discovered that to truly be effective in treating these conditions, they must be treated simultaneously. Treating depression alone does not stop alcohol use from occurring when an alcohol use disorder has developed. Just as treating an alcohol use disorder without treating depression does not typically result in successful outcomes. Since these conditions are often concurrent, there are a variety of different treatment options that include psychotherapy, medication management, holistic activities, and more advanced approaches that are utilized for individuals struggling with severe symptoms.


Methods used in psychotherapy aim to help individuals identify and change harmful behavioral and thought patterns.

Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT)

CBT is one of the most well-known and researched therapies and has an excellent track record for treating depressive symptoms. CBT operates on the concept that being able to recognize and better understand the connection to one’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can assist in reducing negative thoughts and promoting positive behavior change.

It includes mindfulness as a strategy to manage discomfort as it occurs. CBT is a great option for  overcoming depressive thoughts and developing new strategies for coping with depression outside of alcohol use.

Interpersonal Therapy (IPT)

Often used to work through communication issues and improve understanding of how mood is tied to life events, IPT is an excellent tool for processing depressive symptoms by finding ways to effectively navigate through life events. It focuses on building social networks into one’s life for support and safety. IPT is also helpful in developing new ways to include support for alcohol use cessation.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)

DBT is a therapy based on CBT that has grown significantly since it was first developed to treat individuals with suicidal thoughts and personality disorders. It has grown to include treatment for many conditions including depression and substance use disorders.

It focuses on building safe coping strategies and emotional stability to manage stressful situations by reducing the impulse to control intense negative thoughts and emotions. This is a well-known approach that many professionals utilize when treating depression and alcohol use together.

Medication Options

Medication can provide consistent support to help with the mental and physical effects of depression.


Antidepressants focus on treating the dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine neurochemical receptors by promoting increased chemical balance within the brain. They can take up to 30-90 days to reach their full effect, and treatment with them usually lasts at least a year or longer depending on individual needs.


One way to help treat low motivation and energy is through using low-dose stimulants. Certain medications and types of antidepressants include stimulants to assist in getting a person back to their normal daily activity.


Atypical medications, also referred to as second-generation antipsychotics, have become some of the most prescribed medication to help treat depression. Antipsychotic medications are used in small doses concurrently with other antidepressants to help heighten the effects of the primary medication and increase serotonin levels.

Holistic Activities

Holistic activities are intended as supplemental support, and not as a direct treatment for depression. However, when combined with therapy and medications, the impact can be quite significant in a short period of time.

Mindfulness And Meditation

Research has repetitively demonstrated that including daily mindfulness in one’s life can help with treating a wide array of health conditions, including depression and alcohol use. Meditating 10-20 minutes a day can play a pivotal role in helping the brain make lasting changes to improve mental stability. It is highly recommended for those struggling with depressive symptoms and/or alcohol use disorder to begin each day with mindfulness exercises.


Recent research indicates that physical exercise can be just as effective if not potentially more effective in treating depression than antidepressants in some cases. Exercising for just five minutes made a positive impact, regardless of the intensity. Walking, running, jogging, and even gardening can help reduce the severity of depressive symptoms.

Spiritual Services

For some, the spiritual element of support can play a significant role in recovery. This can look different for everybody, as some find support in attending religious services, spending time in nature, or exploring one’s own connection to the world around them.

Advanced Treatment

Advanced treatment includes uncommon but effective methods in treating depression.

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)

TMS is a newer procedure used when an individual’s depression symptoms have been resistant to more traditional forms of treatment. TMS uses magnetic pulses to stimulate parts of the brain to increase neurotransmitter production, similar to how medications are intended to act. This treatment approach is more direct than medications and can produce excellent results.

Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)

The ECT process has evolved significantly, and the current form is much gentler and more targeted than in the past. It operates similarly to TMS, except it uses brief electrical stimulation to parts of the brain while someone is under anesthesia. It is very effective, potentially even more effective than TMS for those with severe depression.

There are a multitude of different treatment options available for those struggling with depression and an alcohol use disorder. It is important to understand that while it can be helpful to know the different types of treatments available, what is most important is deciding to seek treatment in the first place.

It is estimated that 1 in 10 people in the US has experienced a major depressive episode and only 50% of those individuals decide to seek treatment. Depression and alcohol use are a dangerous combination that is best treated with support from professionals and with support from loved ones.

Start Treatment Today

Whether for you or a loved one who is struggling with depression and alcohol use, it is extremely important to make a change as soon as possible.

The first step to recovery is deciding to seek help, contact a treatment provider to explore different treatment options today.