People that regularly engage in binge drinking and then stop often report feeling more motivated than they were when they were drinking. This could have to do with the way alcohol affects your brain, especially when you drink excessively. Depression and addiction often go hand in hand, and a large portion of people with both a substance use issue and depression, have an alcohol use disorder. Nearly a quarter of men and more than 40 percent of women that seek treatment for alcoholism also struggled with major depressive disorder. It’s clear that there’s a link between depression and heavy drinking.
If you or someone you know has been struggling with depression and binge drinking, learn more about why these two factors might be related.
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that affects the brain by suppressing excitability. Excitability refers to a state of high activity when you feel alert, motivated, stressed, anxious, or awake. Excitability can also mean you feel antsy, uncomfortable, and restless, which are the negative feelings alcohol can suppress that make it a desirable substance to abuse.
Alcohol, like other depressants, is GABAergic. That means it works by interacting with a naturally occurring chemical messenger in the brain called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA’s job is to regulate excitability in the brain by binding to its receptor and activating it, which helps you to calm down, de-stress, and relax. People with sleep and anxiety disorders may have psychological or biochemical problems that prevent GABA from effectively regulating excitability.
Alcohol binds to the GABA receptors in the brain and causes the chemical to become more effective when suppressing excitability. This can enhance GABA’s normal effects, causing you to experience more intense nervous system depressing feelings. This can cause sedation, loss of motor skills, disinhibition, suppressed anxiety, slurred speech, and other feelings, depending on the amount that you drank.
Binge drinking is drinking large amounts in a short period, typically with the goal of becoming intoxicated. According to the standard definition of binge drinking, it’s drinking that raised your blood-alcohol concentration to 0.08 grams percent or above. The amount you drink to get to that level depends on your weight and sex, but it generally means five drinks for men and four drinks for women within two hours.
Binge drinking is common among college-aged teens to young adults in their mid-30s, and it can have some serious effects on your mental and physical health. Not everyone who binge drinks develops a severe alcohol use disorder or an addiction. However, people that are predisposed to addiction are more likely to develop a substance use disorder if they binge drink.
It may feel like alcohol helps or masks depression, but these effects are typically only temporary, and they can worsen mental health problems overall. Since alcohol suppresses excitability by enhancing the effectiveness of GABA, it can act as an anxiolytic, which means it can relieve anxiety.
Depression can be brought on by stress, or it can make the anxiety-causing problems in your life seem worse. So alcohol can temporarily mask those feelings by making you feel relaxed and sedated. Alcohol also releases more dopamine, which is a brain chemical that causes you to feel content, happy, and rewarded. It can trick your brain into thinking you are feeling good.
However, alcohol’s chemical altering of your brain can cause issues like dependence and addiction, which can worsen mental health problems, especially depression. Your brain learns to rely on alcohol in order to feel better and without it, your depression deepens.
Chemical imbalances get worse, and the cognitive and chemical tools that help you fight off depression are severely limited. And the problem gets worse the more you drink. Frequent drinking can lead to a diminished effect on your dopamine levels. That means that you may start to feel less depression-masking, rewarding effects the more you drink. At this point, your brain is starved for dopamine and positive feelings, but you can no longer get it from drinking.
Alcoholism or addiction, in general, can cause consequences in nearly every aspect of your life. When something starts to take over your health, job, relationships, finances, and legal standing, it’s bound to shake up your life in pretty much every way possible. Someone who’s depressed may feel unmotivated, ashamed, unwanted, or generally worthless. Struggling with addiction can put a strain on your relationships, it can make you lose your job, and it can even land you in trouble with the law. People that are struggling with addiction often have feelings of guilt and shame as their addiction starts to affect their lives and the people around them.
In many cases, they might not recognize that alcoholism is the problem, which may make them feel like they are just inherently flawed in a way that other people aren’t. For someone with no previous mental health problems, the feelings brought on by addiction can still be troubling and disruptive. For someone with depression or may be prone to depression, these feelings can worsen mental health issues. Plus, alcoholism is a risk factor for depression and anxiety. It may trigger latent mental health problems or cause them directly.
For addiction treatment to be effective, it’s essential to address substance use and any underlying mental health problems simultaneously. When you begin in an addiction treatment program, you will go through an assessment process that’s designed to help identify issues that need to be addressed, including depression. In treatment, you may go through therapies that are designed to treat depression, including individual therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy. By addressing underlying issues like depression, you may be better equipped to cope with triggers and stress that might otherwise lead you to relapse.
If you or someone you know has been struggling with addiction, it’s important to address it as soon as possible. If you do, you are more likely to avoid some of the serious consequences that are associated with addiction. To start your road to recovery today, learn more about alcoholism, depression, and how they can be treated.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018, October 24). CDC – Fact Sheets-Binge Drinking – Alcohol. from https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/binge-drinking.htm
Conner, K. R., Pinquart, M., & Gamble, S. A. (2009, September). Meta-analysis of depression and substance use among individuals with alcohol use disorders. from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4864601/
DiSalvo, D. (2015, August 12). What Alcohol Really Does to Your Brain. from https://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddisalvo/2012/10/16/what-alcohol-really-does-to-your-brain/#5e957fd8664e
Haynes, J. C., Farrell, M., Singleton, N., Meltzer, H., Araya, R., Lewis, G., & Wiles, N. J. (2005, December). Alcohol consumption as a risk factor for anxiety and depression: results from the longitudinal follow-up of the National Psychiatric Morbidity Survey. from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16319407
U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2004, September 16). gamma-Aminobutyric acid. from https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/gamma-Aminobutyric-acid