Alcohol and Depression
Alcohol can cause depression or make it worse.
Alcohol may make you feel less anxious or down while you are drinking, but when the effects of the alcohol wear off you can feel worse than before.
Why do some people use alcohol to try to cope with depression?
If we are depressed, alcohol can make us feel better for a few hours, by relaxing us and changing our mood. It can numb difficult feelings for a time and may help us to fall asleep (although you probably won’t sleep as well).
What's the problem with using alcohol?
Alcohol is a depressant
Alcohol's effects on our mood are temporary, and we may even feel worse after drinking, because of the way alcohol changes our brain chemistry. This is why we often feel down or anxious the morning after a night’s drinking.
Alcohol can cause depression or make it worse
People who drink heavily are more likely to have depression.¹ This may be because of the way alcohol changes the brain chemistry or because of the problems that heavy drinking can cause.
Dependence can develop
People who have depression are more likely to be heavy or dependent drinkers.² There may be various reasons why people with depression are more likely to be heavy or dependent drinkers.
One reason is that people may use alcohol like a medicine, to ‘treat’ the symptoms of depression. ‘Self-medicating’ may seem like the easy option or only option. But if this becomes your way of coping, you may come to rely on alcohol, or need it to get through the day. This can lead to dependence.
Alcohol dependence is roughly three times more likely among people with depression, compared to people who aren’t depressed. 3
You may not get the help you need
Relying on alcohol also means that people with more serious depression and mental health problems may not look for medical help and so will not get the treatment they need.
Read more about Alcohol and existing mental health problems
Will changing my drinking improve my depression?
Most depressed drinkers who give up alcohol feel better within a few weeks – with more energy and a brighter mood. 4
Even cutting down should improve your symptoms, as generally the more you drink, the worse the symptoms. 5
If stopping drinking doesn’t improve your depression within a few weeks, talk to your GP.
If you are worried that you will find it hard to stop drinking, speak to you GP or see our Thinking about change section for advice.
Other tips to tackle depression and lift your mood
- Taking little positive steps to boost your mental health can help you to feel better. See some ideas.
- Try to tell somehow you trust how you feel. It can be a great relief to share your feelings. If you feel more comfortable talking in confidence, there are helplines you can call. For example, the Samaritans.
- Some people need professional support to cope with depression. Talk to your GP. They can give you information about supports that can be of help to you, for example, support services or counselling. Sometimes a short course of medication can be helpful.
¹ K R Conner, M Pinquart, S Gamble, “Meta-analysis of depression and substance use among individuals with alcohol use disorders,”, Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, (2009), Vol 37, pp. 127 – 137
² A Dixit, R Crum, “Prospective study of depression and the risk of heavy alcohol use in women”, American Journal of Psychiatry, (2000), Vol 157, pp. 751 - 758 11 L Sullivan et al, “The prevalence and impact of alcohol problems in major depression: a systematic review”, The American Journal of Medicine, (2005), Vol 118, pp. 330 - 341
3 BF Grant, TC Harford, “Comorbidity between DSM-IV alcohol use disorders and major depression: results of a national survey”, Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 1995, Vol 39 (3), pp. 197 - 206
5 P Philips, J Labrow, “Understanding dual diagnosis”, Mind, 2004, http://www.cpft.nhs.uk/Downloads/Martin/dualdiagnosis.pdf