By: Team Monument

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Photo by  Priscilla Du Preez on  Unsplash

Many of our community members describe feelings of depression around the time when their drinking habits became unhealthy. Others share that once they quit drinking (or started drinking less), their depression appeared to get worse. There’s a cycle at play here: depression is a common driver of unhealthy drinking habits, and alcohol often intensifies depression. 

In short, we can’t talk about alcohol without talking about depression. And vice versa!

Navigating depression and unhealthy drinking can be incredibly challenging, and no one expects you to do it alone. Both are medical conditions that can be treated with the appropriate care. And understanding the connection between the two is an important step.

How depression and unhealthy drinking interact 

We spoke with Monument Advisor Laura Diamond, the Counseling Supervisor of the dual-diagnosis inpatient detox and rehabilitation unit at The Addiction Institute of Mount Sinai West Hospital, about what a dual diagnosis of alcohol use disorder (AUD)  and depression looks like, why it’s so common, and how to treat both medical conditions. 

Laura explained that patients with a dual diagnosis of AUD and depression often suffer from a combination of negative self-talk and unsuccessful efforts to decrease their drinking. And with each unsuccessful attempt, combined with increased alcohol tolerance and withdrawal symptoms -- shame, guilt, and a loss of pleasure can become paramount. 

“Many individuals with symptoms of depression are drawn to the temporary calming effects of alcohol and use it to ‘soothe,’ helping to distract from symptoms of depression,” Laura explains. “AUD frequently impacts every aspect of an individual’s life, and as negative consequences increase secondary to alcohol use (such as interpersonal stressors and career consequences), their depression worsens.”

And while there is no one-size-fits-all image of someone living with a dual diagnosis of AUD and depression,  Laura affirms that in her professional experience, she has seen more individuals develop AUD after showing signs of depression. Many folks with alcohol use disorder (and even those without) perceive alcohol as an instant stress reliever. Yet alcohol is actually medically characterized as a depressant -- the antithesis of relief. 

Laura broke it down like this: “While alcohol can feel like it is temporarily relieving or reducing stress, it can ultimately lead to an increase in symptoms of depression. Alcohol is a depressant that alters your brain’s natural levels of neurotransmitters, which transmit chemical signals throughout the body and play a big part in regulating thought processes, behavior, and emotion.”

Drinking might act as a temporary crutch, but its impacts on healing from depression can endure much longer. Laura shared that alcohol can actually hinder individuals from developing new, healthy coping skills. 

The good news is, depression and alcohol use disorder can be addressed and treated.  

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Here’s what we can do instead

We understand that alcohol can feel like the only option. Perhaps you believe it’s been keeping you afloat, or maybe it’s felt like a companion. Dismantling and rebuilding your toolbox of coping skills can take time. Still, it is absolutely possible with access to supportive resources, whether that’s a specialized therapy program, physician care, online support groups, or all of the above. 

And with the support of a therapist, Laura advises teasing the two diagnoses of AUD and depression apart so that both can be honored and addressed equally. One impacts the other, so by confronting both, we can intercept the cycle. Before we can identify alternative coping mechanisms, we need to identify what we are trying to escape through drinking. 

While challenging, confronting uncomfortable feelings can give you so much more out of your life.  In Laura’s words, “if an individual immediately uses alcohol when experiencing a negative emotion, they miss an opportunity to learn and practice more positive coping skills, which leads to increased health and happiness in the future.” You deserve health and happiness, and it’s within reach. 

If you’re interested in exploring specialized therapy to change your drinking and build healthier coping mechanisms, check out Total Care treatment plans. If you’re still exploring your options and assessing your relationship with alcohol, RSVP for our free, therapist-moderated support groups to hear from others. We’d be honored to have you. 

Disclaimer: Our articles and resources do not constitute clinical or licensed therapy or other health care services. If you need counseling or therapy services please contact a licensed provider. If this is a medical emergency, call 911.

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