Depression and alcoholism often go together, but which causes which is a chicken-and-egg kind of question. As I know all too well from personal experience that a couple of drinks can break down your inhibitions and give you feelings of confidence, well-being and even euphoria. If you’re feeling depressed anyway, that sounds pretty good. However that euphoria can suddenly be followed by complete dread, hoplesness, and self-deprecation.
But alcohol is a known depressant. The mechanisms by which alcohol causes depression are biological–and therefore inescapable. To start, alcohol temporarily blunts the effects of stress hormones; that’s one reason why we lose our inhibitions. But it also depresses the activities of the brain and nervous system. Studies shave shown that alcohol lowers the serotonin and norepinephrine levels in the brain. Both these chemicals are neurotransmitters–chemicals that help nerve impulses travel along the nervous system. Abnormalities in neurotransmitter activity can affect mood and behavior. In fact, there’s a whole class of antidepressant drugs (they’re called serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, or SNRIs) that increase the levels of both serotonin and norepinephrine in the body. Although isn’t not clear exactly why these drugs work, it’s thought that these higher levels of serotonin and norepinephrine enhance neurotransmission and therefore elevate mood. That’s a complicated way of saying that, chemically speaking, alcohol does exactly the opposite of what antidepressants do in the body. One study of alcohol and depression looked at people who had just one drink a day–not all that much. After three months with absolutely no alcohol, their scores on standard depression inventories improved. That is why it doesn’t matter how much you drink, the question remains, “How does the alcohol effect you when you do drink?” Without getting caught up in labels, if whether you are an alcoholic or not, if you are continuing to drink when it makes you depressed, that is insanity. That is why alcoholism is a “thinking disease”.
Alcohol has also been linked genetically to depression. So people who have a tendency to be clinically depressed also have a tendency to become dependant on alcohol. It’s thought that heavy alcohol use can actually activate a gene that has been linked to depression and other mental health issues.
So, chemically speaking, the deck is stacked against the chances of drinking making you feel less depressed. In fact, it’s going to make you feel more depressed. It’s sobriety that’s going to make you feel better.
High bottom drinkers have a very difficult time quitting because they truly believe it is the amount or how often they drink that determines if they have a problem. I never had to drink much to feel depressed. Is it worth it? I think not. Stop fooling yourself and remember, if your life is feeling like it is full or despair, frustration, and emotional pain, maybe it is time to get out of denial, and into a solution. Try not drinking for a week and see if your mood improves? Then make the decision is alcohol working or working against you in your life?
Sherry Gaba, LCSW, is a Psychotherapist and Life Coach in private practice and for Celebrity Rehab. She is a frequent contributor to anthologies, blogs, and newsletters, is a sought after speaker and has developed recovery and life coaching packages for anyone who is ready to move forward in their life. Vist Sherry at www.sgabatherapy.com for information about life coaching, teleseminars, and webinars.