What You Need To Know About The Relationship Between Alcohol and Depression

Alcohol and depression are two areas that are intimately linked and for most seem to go hand in hand. Many people, cannot decide if alcohol led to depression or if depression led to drinking alcohol. I have yet to find someone who has ever declared that alcohol improved their depression or eradicated it. Instead for many, like Heather who inspired this blog post, the relationship between alcohol and depression has only caused more sorrow.

the relationship between alcohol and depression

Alcohol and Depression

There is no doubt that alcohol and depression are linked and the bond between them is strong.

Alcohol is a type of drug known as a depressant – this means that it depresses arousal levels and reduces excitability. Not only can alcohol abuse significantly worsen the symptoms of depression, but it can also cause them to occur in the first place.

I personally suffered from depression and anxiety since I was a child. My official diagnosis of clinical depression came more than 17 years ago. This subject has interested me ever since.

The Chicken and The Egg

The chicken-and-egg relationship between alcohol and depression is interesting. Did alcohol cause the depression you are feeling or did depression cause an addiction to alcohol? There is a strong case for both to be true. Regular drinking numbs your brain’s ability to feel pleasure. This is a function of tolerance. Your body’s attempts to make itself immune to the effect of alcohol in order to protect itself. The brain and body are always striving for balance. The artificial stimulation of the brain’s pleasure center from drinking (or any addictive drug) throws the brain out of balance. In response, the brain releases dynorphin – a natural downer – an internal chemical that actually numbs your ability to feel all feelings including pleasure.


Brene Brown said it well – you can’t numb selectively. When you numb your negative feelings you automatically numb your positive feelings. And a numbing of your ability to feel pleasure from daily activities worsens depression.

The Link Between Alcohol and Depression

There is also a good chance that depression contributed to addiction. There are many studies that demonstrate the link between stress (depression is a huge source of stress) and addiction.  In order to lessen the stress, we drink which is amusing since drinking soon becomes the source of our stress. We start drinking though to switch off the pain of the depression. There is no denying that we live in a switch culture. Constantly we look for the switch to change our state – to immediately rescue us from what we are feeling.

We do that in all sorts of different ways. We look for the source of our feelings, trying to attribute them to something. Often we reach for a quick fix in terms of sugar, food, alcohol, and drugs – a Xanax, ice cream, or a glass of wine. These things can change our feelings in the short term. Yet in the long term – especially as we become addicted to the switch – they make the feelings worse.

My Journey

I am going to tell you a bit more about my journey with depression. I think there is a huge pitfall in quitting drinking for depressed individuals.

First, let me tell you about my circumstances. Please know that as mysterious and misunderstood as depression is there are so many shades and experiences. My journey is simply mine – yours may be very different.

If I look back on my life I remember feeling crippling anxiety from a young age. As young as I can really remember. I also remember it coming and going and when it came I would desperately search for a channel – a reason. I needed so badly to make sense of these horrible feelings. So I would come up with something that was wrong in my life, or something that was missing. It helped because it gave me an outlet. I would start to obsess. Therefore distracting myself from my depression to a degree – by obsessing about the thing that was missing.

What Was Missing?

My obsessions were many. A boyfriend, a career, a husband, a house, living in the wrong place. Instead of enjoying my two years living in NYC, the depressed/obsessed part of myself spent a huge amount of time and effort obsessing about how I would be happy when we moved back to Colorado. When we were back in Colorado I began an obsession with getting pregnant. Once pregnant I started to channel my depression obsession into a promotion at work.

Fast forward 4 years – I had two kids, a more senior role in my job than I ever could have imagined, and a beautiful house in Colorado. Yet there I was – riddled with fear and anxiety. I no longer had anywhere to channel it. It was one of the most terrifying points in my life. For the first time in 30-some years, I had to come face to face with my depression. I was on three different medications for depression at this time, after very severe moments where I was having a hard time caring about being alive. Yet my depression remained and I see now that my drinking increased. Although I was a heavy drinker before, I believe that for me in this time of desperation my addiction was born. Alcohol and depression just became best friends.

The Path to Healing

Yet I also believe that my addiction saved me.I credit it with putting me on this path I am to healing because you cannot sustain chronic use of poison.

You feed the alcohol monster more and more and more your body simply cannot handle it. Your relationships can’t handle it, your career can’t handle it and things start to break.

When things start to break you are forced to a place where you have to stop looking outside for answers. At that moment – the most painful of all moments yet the most beautiful – hope is born.

At that moment you begin a journey inside. A painful, terrifying life-affirming journey to know yourself and accept yourself just as you are – sadness and all.

Accepting Your Feelings

It’s funny I can admit to depression – just a label the doctors gave me when I was in college and it never felt like I failed, it felt out of my control. It’s only recently that I can admit to sadness – because sadness felt like I was doing something wrong. How with this amazing life, and this incredible set of external circumstances could I possibly be sad? Yet that’s the point. External circumstances. I had to start to look at my internal circumstances. In doing that I have been able to get off my medications. Life is certainly not without sadness, in fact, sadness is often with me – I had a really long cry this morning for no good reason. Instead of disallowing it because I shouldn’t feel it; I accept it – and don’t force myself to understand it. I try and see sadness as a cleansing emotion that will allow a release of all the negativity and pain that I keep inside.

Alcohol and Depression Pop Back Up

About a year after I stopped drinking the novelty wore off. I had gone through every situation and proven to myself that life was better without alcohol but I was no longer as excited about it as I was before. I experienced, around this time, one of my bouts of anxiety and depression and in that month I started to mourn alcohol. Why? Because as I always had I channeled my depression into this bucket. My mind began to tell me that I didn’t use to feel so sad, that I didn’t use to be depressed that the reason I was now feeling all of this was that I no longer drank. That if I could just take the edge off with one glass of wine then I would be able to deal with this – I would be able to handle it. I began to feel like it was unfair that I couldn’t drink.

The Relationship Between Alcohol and Depression

I think this is the most dangerous aspect of the relationship between alcohol and depression – the idea that somehow not drinking is partially responsible for your depression and that drinking would somehow ease it. These things are not true yet with our obsessive nature of thinking, we can blow them up and make ourselves incredibly miserable. To combat this, I dove into research and into my past. Research showed me definitively that drinking to self-medicate is a horrible idea – it is not only the fastest way to develop a neurochemical addiction but it will never allow you to heal. You will not come to face yourself and your pain.

Looking critically at my past led me to remember that I was depressed – even more so when drinking. I was depressed before I ever started drinking. I have memories of crippling fear and anxiety as far back as I can remember. This was work, it took effort. I had to look objectively and realize, learn for myself, that my depression was not going to be helped by a drink. My desire for a drink disappeared when I realized it would never heal my pain and only increase it. When I am whole and happy – when I am on the upswing, I don’t desire a drink. So when I closed the door on drinking to relieve pain, the door again closed on drinking.

The Door to Drinking

I haven’t reopened the door to drinking because I know that reopening the door to alcohol is reopening the door to depression. Alcohol and depression might be a chicken and an egg question but there is no doubt that the two accompany each other everywhere they go. I just won’t be joining them.

To find out more about how alcohol rewires the brain and steals pleasure download the first 40 pages of This Naked Mind.