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Can Drinking Too Much Make You Depressed?
A night of drinking is probably not enough to make you feel depressed. But researchers have established a connection between alcohol and depression.
Studies show that people with alcohol use disorders (AUD) are 2.7 times more likely to have major depression and 1.7 times more likely to have dysthymia or chronic depression.1
Young adults (18 to 25 years) with AUD have a higher risk for depressive disorders. However, any type of alcohol abuse places adolescents (12 to 17 years) at risk.2
How long does depression from alcohol last?
Drinking causes both depression and feelings of depression:
- Depression: Persistent feelings of sadness that last for several months.
- Feelings of depression: Symptoms tend to get better after a few days or weeks.3
Why am I depressed after drinking?
Despite its accessibility, alcohol is a psychoactive drug that causes immediate changes in the brain. Just as drinking increases blood alcohol, stopping intake decreases the alcohol circulating in the blood.
These changes can affect your mood and behavior while drinking or up to several days after.
Certain behaviors and drinking patterns can also expose you to unhealthy amounts of alcohol. These cause long-term changes in your brain chemistry and potentially lead to anxiety and depression.
Below, we will explain how alcohol leads to depression — and what you can do about it.
If you have alcohol dependence, you are at greater risk of suffering major depressive disorder (MDD) than someone who has alcohol abuse.1
11 Reasons Why You Are Depressed After Drinking
Alcohol can make you feel low after one drinking session or cause signs of depression within days or weeks of heavy drinking. Here are the different ways that alcohol can make you depressed:
1. Alcohol is a depressant
Contrary to popular belief, alcohol is a depressant — not a stimulant. Alcohol's stimulant-like effects only appear when you start drinking.
After the initial rush, alcohol decreases central nervous system (CNS) activity. Long-term exposure to depressants increases your risk for depression.
As a depressant, alcohol causes symptoms of intoxication like:4
- Loss of inhibition
- Impulsive behavior
- Impaired judgment
- Poor coordination
- Loss of consciousness
2. You drink alcohol to cope
Alcohol relaxes you after 1 to 2 drinks when your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) reaches 0.01 to 0.05%. After 3 drinks, you will feel fewer emotions, and your memory will become impaired.4
If you have trauma or emotional pain, drinking can help you forget them for a while. It might explain why many people drink to avoid problems and cope with stress.5
Unfortunately, these effects do not last long. When your blood alcohol returns to normal, negative feelings and memories can take over. This can leave you feeling depressed and encourage you to keep drinking.
3. Drinking worsens negative emotions
Each person reacts differently to alcohol use. While drinking helps some people forget their problems or numb their emotions, it triggers negative emotions in others.
Depending on your emotional state, you might feel anger, sadness, aggression, and depression after 2 to 6 drinks — when your BAC is between 0.06 and 0.30%.4
4. You have frequent blackouts
Binge drinking causes a sudden spike in blood alcohol. If your BAC reaches 0.16% you may start to blackout. A "blackout" makes you awake but it prevents you from forming new memories.
Blackouts are characterized by memory gaps and impaired cognitive ability. So you may have poor judgment, act impulsively, and make bad decisions without remembering them.
People who blackout often wake up feeling guilty, ashamed, and anxious over their actions. If it happens too frequently, or if your action leads to consequences, blackouts can make you depressed.
5. You have hangover anxiety
Heavy drinking is known to cause hangovers. You might experience one after a few hours of your last drink as your blood alcohol drops.
Hangover symptoms include:6
- Muscle aches
- Stomach cramps
For some people, hangover symptoms can trigger anxiety. Apart from these unpleasant symptoms, the drop in blood alcohol alters your brain chemicals. It decreases the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and increases glutamate in your brain.
According to scientists, these neurotransmitters are supposed to help regulate your mood. Long-term drinking causes these changes, leading to hangover anxiety or "hangxiety".7
6. Alcohol disturbs your sleep
The more you drink, the more liquid your body has to get rid of. And if you happen to go to bed after several hours of drinking, you will not have good night's sleep.
Excessive drinking can make you sweat and urge you to take frequent trips to the bathroom. It also interferes with your normal sleep cycle. Too much alcohol forces you to spend less time in rapid eye movement (REM). This prevents your brain and body from fully recovering.8
Lack of good sleep can make you irritable and stressed the next day. If this persists into chronic insomnia (persistent lack of sleep), anxiety or depression may develop.9
7. You have alcohol dependence
Drinking to cope is not healthy if you do it often. One reason is that it makes you psychologically dependent on alcohol. It encourages you to drink whenever you have problems.
Alcohol can also make you physically dependent by releasing brain chemicals:
- Dopamine: A "happy hormone" that is responsible for alcohol's stimulant-like effects. It produces a euphoric high whenever you start drinking alcohol.
- Serotonin: A "feel-good hormone" responsible for alcohol's sedative effects. It produces feelings of pleasure, relaxation, and a general sense of well-being.
Eventually, you will get used to the dopamine. Your brain also produces less serotonin unless you drink. This means you will feel less of alcohol's perceived benefits over time, causing you to drink more.
As you increasingly depend on alcohol for pleasure, you will find other activities less enjoyable. It can lead to anxiety and depression and leave you in a cycle of alcohol abuse and dependence.
8. Excess drinking puts you under chronic stress
Alcohol dependence prevents you from learning coping skills that will allow you to deal with negative emotions in a healthy way. Instead of facing your problems, you will just keep on turning to alcohol.
This does not solve anything, however. It will only add to your stress. Chronic stress is a contributing factor to depression and other mental health issues.10
9. You're having an alcohol withdrawal
Drinking normally inhibits the N-methyl D-aspartate (NDMA) receptors in your brain. But if you have alcohol dependence and suddenly stop or reduce your intake, these receptors become excited.
This excitement is what causes alcohol withdrawal symptoms, like:11
If you have a history of depression, depressive symptoms can rebound during alcohol withdrawal.
10. You are suffering the negative effects of alcohol
Chronic alcohol use affects the person drinking and the people around them. Some of the negative consequences associated with drinking are:
- Poor physical health: Malnutrition and liver damage
- Relationship problems: Divorce and fights with family
- Mental health issues: Alcoholic dementia and brain damage
- Other social effects: Loss of job and home
These consequences can trigger anxiety and depression. However, the direct effects of alcohol on your brain may also lead to mental health problems.
11. Alcohol stops anti-depressants from working
Drinking counteracts the positive effects of anti-depressant medications. It reduces their benefits or stops them from working altogether.
If you take anti-depressants to manage your depression, symptoms of depression may resurface if you mix alcohol with your doctor's prescription.12
How Can I Lift My Mood After Drinking?
If you feel down after drinking, here are some tips to make you feel better:
- Do not be hard on yourself: It's normal to be depressed after drinking.
- Stop drinking: Continuing to drink will only make you feel worse once the alcohol wears off.
- Rehydrate: Drinking plenty of water will help you get rid of alcohol faster.
- Exercise or walk around: Physical activity can speed up your alcohol metabolism. It also encourages your brain to release neurotransmitters that can improve your mood.
- Do something you like: This will trigger your brain to produce feel-good chemicals.
When to Seek Treatment for Depression and Alcohol Use
Here are some signs that you require professional treatment advice:
Depression after quitting drinking
If depression persists after you stop drinking, it may be a sign that you are clinically depressed. Depression symptoms that last for several months suggest the need for mental health treatment.
The symptoms of depression include:
- Loss of interest in activities
- Feelings of sadness
- Decreasing productivity
Alcohol abuse and alcohol addiction
Feelings of depression do not last for more than a few weeks. However, if you continue to exhibit alcoholism after your depressive symptoms go away, you may need alcohol addiction treatment.
Watch out for alcohol dependence and alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Frequent hangovers and increasing alcohol consumption may also indicate alcohol abuse.
The tell-tale sign of an alcohol use disorder is continuing to drink despite its negative consequences.
Co-occurring depression and alcohol use disorder
The presence of depression and alcohol use disorder suggests that you have a co-occurring disorder. It requires dual diagnosis rehab — a specialized treatment that addresses both issues.
As part of your treatment, a therapist will teach you how to effectively cope with negative emotions and other triggers so you can avoid drinking.
Treatment Options for Alcohol Abuse & Addiction
Here are some of the best treatments for AUD:
Inpatient treatment is the most intensive and effective option for alcohol addiction treatment. These programs usually last 30, 60, or 90 days. They may be longer in some cases.
Throughout an inpatient program, you'll live on-site in a safe, substance-free environment. You'll go through medically supervised detox first, then behavioral therapy. Other services may be added to your regimen.
Many of these treatment programs assist you with an aftercare program afterward.
PHPs are the second most intensive alcohol addiction programs. They're sometimes called intensive outpatient programs (IOPs). PHPs provide comparable services to inpatient programs.
These services may include:
- Medical services
- Behavioral therapy
- Support groups
- Other holistic or custom treatments
The main difference between PHPs and inpatient programs is that you return home and sleep at your house during a partial hospitalization program.
Some PHPs provide food and transportation. This varies by program.
PHPs are ideal for new patients and those who have completed an inpatient program and still require intensive treatment.
Outpatient programs are less intensive than inpatient programs and PHPs. They're best for people who are highly motivated to achieve sobriety. Patients usually have responsibilities at work, home, or school.
These programs customize your treatment sessions around your schedule.
Outpatient programs may be part of aftercare once a patient completes an inpatient program or PHP.
Certain people qualify for medication-assisted therapy. Some medications can assist you throughout detox and withdrawal. Others can reduce cravings and normalize your bodily functions.
The most common medications used to treat AUD are:
- Disulfiram (Antabuse)
- Acamprosate (Campral)
- Naltrexone (Revia and Vivitrol)
MAT can help prevent relapse and increase your chance of recovery if combined with other therapies.
Support groups are peer-led organizations made of people dedicated to helping each other stay sober. They can be the first step towards sobriety or part of an aftercare plan.
Many of these programs follow the 12-step approach.