What's the Connection Between Alcohol and Depression?

Illustration of woman sitting inside an empty bottle of wine, depressed

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

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 it can be difficult to treat. This article outlines the connection between alcohol and depression, how the two disorders align, identifies treatment options, and ways to cope.

Effects of Alcohol Use

Alcohol can produce feelings of euphoria and excitement, making you feel 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, PhD, 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 makes it worse.”

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

“Alcohol is frequently used to numb uncomfortable emotions and can become a habitual pattern that disrupts the natural balance of neurotransmitters in the brain,” says Vanessa Kennedy, PhD, Director of Psychology at Driftwood Recovery.

No matter your drink of choice, alcohol can easily be abused and often is, especially 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, but it will exasperate those feelings and actually 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 extremely cautious when it comes to using substances such as alcohol. According to Dr. Kennedy, 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, there are certain factors that 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, which may result from child abuse, sexual assault, combat, etc.
  • Underlying mental health conditions
  • Environmental factors, including exposures to violence, trauma, assault, abuse, etc.

If you believe you’re susceptible of experiencing alcohol addiction or depression, 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 it comes to diagnosing an alcohol use disorder and a major depressive disorder, it’s important to address them simultaneously, as they can significantly impact your recovery.

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 an alcohol use disorder, with studies finding that alcohol dependence is more closely tied to the persistence of depressive disorders.

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 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 certain 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 more than one occasion. 
  • You’ve continued drinking even though you’ve felt 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 important to evaluate your drinking habits and consider why you drink, when you drink, and how you feel when you drink.

Major Depressive Disorder (MDD)

Depression is a common and serious mood disorder, which 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, in general, takes on many different forms. Depressive symptoms can result from life stressors, mental health conditions, medical conditions, and other factors.

Depression can also be directly caused by alcohol in the case of 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 talk about treatment and strategies for dealing with depression. 

Other Connections

Some experts also suggest that both depression and alcohol use disorders share underlying pathophysiology in that they are both neuroinflammatory conditions. Because of this shared connection, treatment for both should include a diet aimed at improving gut function and reducing endotoxin load that contributes to neuroinflammation. Following a Mediterranean diet rich in omega-3's, for example, might be one recommendation.

Treatment Options

It's very important to address both alcohol abuse and depression simultaneously when looking into treatment options, as these conditions are closely intertwined and can exacerbate each other, Dr. Kennedy explains. 

“Cells are living beings and if you want to fix the issue of depression at the level of the cells, they cannot be inebriated,” says Dr. Taylor. “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 in order to recover,” says Dr. Kennedy.

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.

Therapy

“Therapeutic interventions designed to address both issues often include a focus on addressing emotional pain or trauma, as well as developing and practicing healthy coping behaviors,” says Dr. Kennedy. 

Treatment depends on the individual, but there are many different therapeutic interventions which are used to address both alcohol use disorder and major depressive disorder. Among them, Dr. Kennedy recommends:

Cognitive behavioral therapy can also be used to 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

Medication

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

According to Dr. Kennedy, 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. 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,” says Dr. Kennedy.

A Word From Verywell

It can be tempting to drink if you’re feeling unhappy, but there’s a better solution out there. When treating depression and substance abuse, consult with a mental health professional and/or an addiction specialist who can provide resources and recommendations for possible treatment options. 

For more information and resources, visit the NIAAA's Alcohol Treatment Navigator or the National Institutes of Health's "Rethinking Drinking" website.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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9 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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