alcohol abuse disorder

The link between mood disorders and alcohol abuse

A new study recently found a protein that helped lab rats simultaneously become less depressed and decide to drink less alcohol (yes, apparently there are drunk lab rats, guys).

It’s an encouraging development for people who want to quit or cut back on drinking, although a widely available medication based on this finding may still be a ways off.

But the finding highlights that these two problems - an addiction to alcohol and a problem with depressed mood - often go together. In fact, if you have one problem, you are twice as likely to have the other as the general population.

Here are a few things we didn’t know before we started reading up on alcohol addiction:

  1. Alcohol use disorder increases the risk of depression. A 2011 review of the available scientific literature suggested that the most likely cause of the fact that many people have both problems is NOT that some third thing causes both mood disorders and alcohol abuse, but that one causes the other, and in fact that increased exposure to alcohol increases the risk of depression.

  2. .Anxiety tends to come first, then alcohol abuse. While depression is likely to be caused by alcohol use, (and therefore comes second, after the drinking problem) anxiety may come first, according to a couple of studies. One common pattern, then, might be: you become anxious about something. You drink to relieve the anxiety. Then, a combination of your own anxiety, the added anxiety from the alcohol, and the effects of the alcohol itself results in depression. You then drink to feel happier, and the vicious cycle continues.

  3. .If you’re depressed, you’re even MORE likely to have a drinking problem if you’re ALSO anxious. You’re also more likely to use a whole litany of drugs.

  4. A lot of people try to treat their own anxiety and depression with booze. Apparently, about 1 in 4 people who have a mood disorder try to fix it with alcohol (most of them men). This just speaks to how important it is to address both conditions at the same time, instead of trying to treat either (the depression or anxiety OR the drinking problem) alone. People need strategies to deal with depression or anxiety without turning to alcohol, or the drinking will continue. Alcohol is a short term band-aid that gives immediate relief, but that makes things worse over the long term. It’s kind of like an infected band-aid.

So, what should you do about it?

In short, our recommendation is:

  1. Keep an eye out for WHY you’re drinking. If you realize you’re using alcohol whenever you’re worried or sad, you may be in danger of starting to depend on it. You can do this with tracking in Drinker’s Helper, by recording how you feel when you drink or have an urge to drink, and seeing patterns over time.

  2. Develop your skills for responding to fear and sadness. What can you do beside drink? Well, there’s activities to start - like exercising, or gardening, or meditating - that can take the place of drinking. You can also try mental tricks like the kind used in cognitive behavioral therapy, where you challenge the flawed thinking that makes you feel afraid and sad. There are a few exercises in the Drinker’s Helper library about dealing with anxiety and depression that we’ve found helpful in the past.

  3. Ask for help. As always, reach out for medical help if you think you might be depressed or anxious (or, of course, suffering from alcohol abuse disorder). It is a treatable condition, and medication can help. Also, make sure your family and close friends know to look out for you. Often, others can’t tell if there’s a problem of this kind or not, because we’re all too good at hiding it.

.As always, if you’ve decided to quit or cut back on drinking, we’d love to help! We offer exercises, tracking, insights, and support groups to help you quit or cut back on drinking. Get the app below.