The short answer is yes. In all likelihood, your drinking – no matter or big or small it might be – is making your depression worse. In the best-case scenario, it does nothing for you in the long-term and is likely to alienate you from utilizing effective forms of treatment. In the worst-case scenario, it’s actively feeding your depression and fueling its severity, leaving you bitter, sad, and addicted.
Booze is a terrible antidepressant in the long-term. Alcohol, alongside anti-anxiety medication like Xanax and a series of sedatives and tranquilizers, belongs to a class of drugs known as depressants. While the name might be a misnomer in the context of depressive disorders, depressants do generally ‘depress’ certain functions of the mind and body. Depressants affect your inhibitions, agitation, breathing, heart rate, and mood. They’re ‘downers’, good for calming you down, but bad for fixing thoughts and symptoms of depression.
But alcohol and prescription drugs like Xanax and Valium also release dopamine when consumed, and they’re very fast-acting, meaning it doesn’t take much to get you tipsy and happy – for a short time, at least. How your body and mind respond to alcohol also changes just how it interacts with a case of depression. As simple as it might be to just say that drinking makes depression worse, it’s not quite that easy. There’s a lot to go over, so let’s take it apart bit by bit.
Why Depressed People Drink
There are many factors as to why alcohol is as popular as it is. The two greatest factors are culture and availability. Most Americans drink, and many drink much more often than they should. Drinking is a common form of relief in popular media, used to ‘take off the edge’, and deal with life’s problems. If books, movies, and relatives are anything to go by, most children learn that adults, at some point or another, turn towards the bottle to soothe themselves.
Drinking also feels good, at first. In fact, it has a reproducible antidepressant effect. And it’s a lot easier to gain access to a bottle of cheap liquor than it is to find something as potent as a prescription opioid. It’s also perceived to be much safer. With the stigma and culture attached to marijuana and the dangers rightfully attributed to club drugs and opioids, alcohol still seems like the traditionally ‘best’ option to self-medicate.
That isn’t to say people don’t self-medicate with other drugs. Other than alcohol, people also turn to various prescription stimulants, depressants, and opioids to soothe the pain of addiction. But because of its availability, alcohol is very popular. And at first, it does work. When consumed, alcohol generally elicits a response in the brain that puts us in a good mood. But that mood does not last. Some people use alcohol to cheer up, but most use it as a numbing agent. Alcohol eats away at cognitive capabilities on top of lowering inhibitions and anxieties, and because anxiety and anxious thinking is such a common partner to depressive thoughts, it helps soothe the minds of many who are depressed and constantly worried.
Over time, alcohol lowers risk assessment and cognitive function. It attacks the liver. It produces a carcinogen every time the body metabolizes it and increases your likelihood of nearly every kind of cancer. And, it makes depressive thinking worse after that initial high. You go through an emotional downer, and the effects of alcohol after the initial euphoria dip down into feelings of more depression.
Alcohol lowering inhibitions also makes it easier to interact with others while depressed. And being with others, in good company at least, can drastically alter and improve your mood. But that doesn’t help you much when you can only bear to be around people when inebriated. Finally, as a depressant, alcohol makes you drowsy. Because insomnia is a common issue among people with depression, this can be a temporary boon. It also completely wrecks the quality of your sleep, leaving you groggy and in all kinds of discomfort the next morning.
It’s Not Straightforward
So why drink? Because it works at the time. Depression is a mental disorder characterized by a consistently low mood lasting weeks at a time. It isn’t rational. There is no trigger for it, and it’s not typically diagnosed after something that would naturally elicit sadness, like loss or grief. When someone is depressed, they don’t know why. All they know is that they can’t get out of bed, or that they can’t sleep, that they feel constantly tired, hopeless, unable to enjoy food or drink, unwilling to engage in old hobbies, and uninterested in life.
Or, they might feel something else. Because depression, as heavily researched as it is, is still not completely understood or perfectly categorized. We know that people who can be diagnosed with a single disorder (major depressive disorder) may exhibit very different symptoms (high irritability and sleeplessness, or apathy and oversleeping), and have two very different causes (neurotransmission, or neuroendocrine system problems).
Often, depression is genetic. But it also occurs in people with no history of it. Some people are only depressed during the wintertime, and respond well to phototherapy (UV exposure), while others get depressed around Christmas even with the extra artificial light.
It’s this frustrating sense that nothing works, and everything is hopeless that leaves many wondering if it’s worth the time and effort to get help, when getting drunk is ‘just as good’, at least for a little while. Even then, alcohol is not always effective. Some people experience jolts of euphoria after alcohol use. Others just feel sick. Or they go from being completely sober to blackout drunk in very little time. Or, they feel mellow, but not in a way they want to.
The brain is a complex organ, and it’s different for every skull. How we respond to drugs – especially when a mental disorder comes in and complicates things – isn’t uniform across any given population, even when taking into account gender and similar metabolisms. Drugs just don’t work the same for everyone.
It’s Important to Get Help
Treatment works. That’s because depression treatment is patient-centric. It’s built around the patient, not built around a single cure. Antidepressants are the first line of offense against depression, but even one type – SSRIs – is supplied in different forms, with varying effectiveness for any given person. If SSRIs fail, other antidepressants may prove more useful, including MAOIs, TCAs, or SNRIs. Outside of medication, there is a slew of alternative therapies and psychotherapies to help patients cope with depression, from mindfulness training to cognitive behavioral therapy and group therapy. Finally, non-invasive neuromodulation through techniques like deep transcranial magnetic stimulation (dTMS) have proven effective in the treatment of depression.
There’s a long list of things to try when it comes to helping someone with depression feel better and live a good life. Alcohol is never on that list.