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Depression, Alcohol Abuse and Addiction

Friday, August 19, 2016 | By JP Emerald Coast

depression and addiction connection

The connection between depression and substance abuse is complicated, but there clearly is a relationship. Treating these two disorders requires a team of professionals that can see the subtle clues that lead to a successful recovery. Treatment can take on different forms, including combinations of both medication and cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). There is no one-size-fits-all approach to treating depression and addiction. Chances of recovery are best when a team of trained professionals are in your corner, guiding you each step of the way.

There are medications for depression and medications for addiction. There are psychotherapy techniques that work against depression, and those that work against addiction. Each person’s journey is unique. Success against depression and addiction requires compassion, expert knowledge, patience, and reassurance.

Why Depressed People Are More Prone to Addiction

There is a strong connection between depression and addiction, as many people experience both at the same time. Whenever a mental health condition is occurring, the risks for experiencing other mental health conditions or diseases increases. This is especially true for depression and addiction.
depressed woman
Some of what makes people with depression more prone to developing addiction include the following:

Structural changes in the brain

The amygdala, the hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex can become physically altered by the presence of depression. Through these physical alterations come changes in behavior, emotions, reactions, and self-control, all of which can contribute to one’s desire to experiment with drugs and/or alcohol. Unfortunately, through experimentation, tolerance and dependence can develop, especially if a person’s brain is already compromised. When addiction develops, it will produce its own set of changes in the physical structure of the brain that make it more difficult for a person to stop using. 

Poor brain chemistry

When people have poor levels of dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine in their brains and those neurotransmitters are not functioning properly, it can cause them to feel some of the most common symptoms of depression — sadness, apathy, and discontentment. The pain that develops from those feelings and their persistence can chip away at a person’s resolve, leaving them more vulnerable to quick fixes, such as drinking and using drugs.

Modeling behaviors

Depression, like addiction, is often genetic in nature. This means that there is a strong likelihood that someone who is depressed has one or more family members who is experiencing/experienced depression. The increased risk for younger family members can come from watching the behaviors of their elders in regards to depression. For example, a mother with depression may have turned to drinking or hiding her feelings in an effort to self-treat her symptoms. Her daughter may experience depression, too, and model the behaviors she knows from watching her mother. Since both depression and addiction can be biological, this is a common reason why people with depression turn to substance abuse, especially when it has been modeled for them.

Depression does not always lead to addiction, as there are many people with this mood disorder who do not have an addiction to drugs or alcohol. But, there are several people who have experienced this situation the other way around, where their addiction led to depression.


Depression is a very fragile disorder in the sense that it can be easily triggered by a number of things, such as stress, diet, genetics, brain chemistry imbalance, and even drugs/alcohol. Most people are not born with an active mental health condition like depression, rather they may have some genetic risk factors that can play a role in the development of a mental illness later on in life. And, as they go through life, people can have experiences that lend themselves to the development of depression. One of those experiences is substance abuse.

When drugs and/or alcohol are abused, the brain begins changing. Depending on the type of substance that is being abused, the brain can experience changes as minor as reduced levels of dopamine to the permanent death of brain cells. Depression can develop quickly anytime major or minor changes occur within the brain, as it can be easily triggered (as mentioned before).

It is important to know that it takes some time for the brain to experience changes significant enough to begin triggering the onset of depression. But what can happen immediately is the physical and emotional letdown that comes with substance abuse. Getting high or drunk can make a person feel “better” and detached from his or her problems, but when the effects wear off, he or she can quickly experience a number of emotions that lend themselves to depression. For example, someone coming down from a methamphetamine high can experience deep sadness and paranoia, all of which can be extremely stressful. Continuing to stress oneself out to that extreme on a regular basis can serve as a catalyst for the development of depression, especially if a person has preexisting risk factors for this particular mental illness.

Signs of Depression


This disorder has the ability to affect a person’s mood so pervasively and consistently because of how it affects neurotransmitters and certain parts of the brain.

Some of the most common symptoms of depression are direct results of brain chemistry and function and usually include the following:

  • Persistent feeling of sadness
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed things, activities, places, etc.
  • Changes in appetite (e.g. overeating or eating too little)
  • Changes in sleep (e.g. sleeping too much or not getting enough rest)
  • Depleted energy
  • Frequent lethargy
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Thoughts of harming oneself and/or committing suicide


Neurotransmitters are commonly referred to as “messengers” because that is their job — to send a message from one part of the brain to another. With depression, specific neurotransmitters do not work properly, causing changes in a person’s mood. The three neurotransmitters involved in depression are:

  • Norepinephrine – Norepinephrine is an “excitatory neurotransmitter,” meaning that it triggers functions in the body like blood pressure, heart rate, and the adrenal glands. When a large amount of norepinephrine is released, it produces an adrenaline rush. Low release of norepinephrine is tied to lethargy, lack of focus, and inattention. People with depression experience low norepinephrine, which negatively impacts their mood.
  • Serotonin – Serotonin is directly responsible for appetite, sleep, digestion, sexual desire, memory, and social behavior. Low levels of serotonin are exhibited in people with depression through their changes in appetite and sleep, problems with memory, and lack of sexual interest, to name a few symptoms.
  • Dopamine – Dopamine is often synonymous with the word “happy,” as when it is released in the brain, it produces feelings of contentment and reward. The brain naturally produces and releases dopamine, however, someone who is struggling with depression is likely experiencing the impacts of low dopamine levels. These impacts can include foggy thinking and lack of excitement in life. 

Parts of the brain

When depression is occurring, certain areas of the brain are involved and can become damaged the longer the depression goes untreated. The following parts are directly linked to depression:

  • Hippocampus – The hippocampus is responsible for memory and emotion. The presence of depression causes atrophy (or shrinking) in the hippocampus, aiding in the continued symptoms associated with depression. If depression is properly treated, the hippocampus does not experience such severe damage.
  • Amygdala – The amygdala is also vital in the appropriate function of emotion and memory. It is also responsible for survival instincts. Depression causes the amygdala to get larger and hyperactive, creating symptoms such as poor sleeping habits and negative changes in activity.
  • Prefrontal cortex – The prefrontal cortex controls reasoning, decision-making skills, impulsivity, memory, and attention. In those individuals who are depressed, the prefrontal cortex becomes overactive, causing it to atrophy like the amygdala. This results in impairment of this area of the brain, affecting one’s reasoning, decision-making skills, and so on.

Dealing with depression is not easy, as everything that seems to develop as a result of that depression can keep people from getting motivated to reach out for help. While many people do get help and learn how to deal with their depression, others might experience a worsening of their problems, particularly if they turn to drugs and alcohol to cope.

depression and addiction treatment


When depression and substance abuse are occurring at the same time, it is imperative to have both issues treated simultaneously. In the past, therapists would refuse to treat depression or any other mental health disorder if the patient was still using drugs and/or alcohol. That approach didn’t yield positive results, which is why today, dual diagnosis treatment exists.

Dual diagnosis treatment is an approach to substance use disorders and mental health disorders that are co-occurring. A dual diagnosis treatment plan can be tailored to meet the needs of the patient but is rooted in a foundation that combines both medication and therapy. Patients who receive dual diagnosis treatment will participate in therapy sessions and work with a professional to determine which (if any) medication can help their depression.

Common therapies that are used in the treatment of depression and addiction include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy – This form of therapy, which is often referred to as CBT, works to help patients change their ways of thinking and reacting in an effort to improve their beliefs and subsequent actions.
  • Individual therapy – Individual therapy is the most common form of therapy in dual diagnosis treatment, as it brings both the patient and a therapist together to focus on the primary issues standing in the way of the patient’s recovery.
  • Group counseling — Studies show that when participating in group counseling, patients can benefit in a number of ways. For example, getting therapy in a group setting allows patients to learn from one another and provide/receive support on their journeys.

For some patients, depending on their treatment needs, therapy can be enough to help them recover. But because depression and addiction impact the brain so drastically, it often takes the addition of medication to one’s treatment plan in order for him or her to be stable in recovery.

Some medications that are regularly prescribed to those who have depression include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Zoloft
  • Prozac
  • Wellbutrin
  • Celexa
  • Lexapro
  • Paxil

Depression is much easier to treat with medication than addiction, however, that does not mean that there aren’t medications that can help with issues related to addiction, particularly withdrawal symptoms and cravings.

For some forms of addiction, medications can be prescribed to help combat these two common issues. Buprenorphine and methadone are two medications regularly prescribed to those who are addicted to opioids like heroin, OxyContin, and fentanyl. They work to minimize the intensity of withdrawal symptoms and help continually curb cravings. In that same vein, Antabuse is a medication that can be prescribed to recovering alcoholics to keep from drinking in the future. If a recovering alcoholic consumes alcohol while taking Antabuse, it will cause him or her to feel very ill. The feeling of sickness that can develop is often enough to keep those in recovery from continuing to drink.

The bottom line when it comes to depression and addiction, however, is that one condition cannot be treated before the other. Both conditions are best addressed at the same time (except in some rare cases where it is deemed more appropriate to separate the two treatments) and utilizing therapy and medication can help restore healthy brain functioning.


Treating both depression and addiction at the same time is not done for convenience, rather it is done because it produces several benefits. Patients can thrive in a setting where both of their issues are being collectively treated, allowing them to reach stability in their recovery as quickly as possible.

Of the many benefits of dual diagnosis for depression and addiction include the following:

  • It can be determined which occurred first — the depression or the addiction. While in some cases this is not important, in others it is. With that information, therapists, prescribers, and other healthcare professionals can help you get to the root cause of your condition. When the roots of your depression and addiction are uncovered, your treatment can provide specific treatment to target those issues.
  • Studies have shown that taking medications for both depression and substance dependence at the same time decreases a patient’s chances of relapse. This is because both issues are being treated, preventing one issue from overpowering the other and triggering a relapse.
  • If you are dependent on drugs or alcohol, getting professional detox services is key to your safety and success in treatment. Medication can play a major role in your detox, as you may require something like methadone or buprenorphine to help cope with your withdrawal symptoms and cravings. When your withdrawal symptoms are minimized and your cravings are not as prominent, you are able to focus more on your therapy and overall recovery as opposed to being distracted by your physical discomfort.

Dual diagnosis treatment, like any other type of treatment, can be as beneficial as you make it. The more involved you become in your treatment and the more open you are to change, the better your results will be in the end.


Struggling with depression or addiction can be challenging, especially if you are attempting to carry on without treatment. But when both depression and addiction are occurring simultaneously, the impacts can be devastating. Without the proper care, your addiction can continue to fuel your depression and vice versa. Ending this dangerous, insidious cycle on your own can be near impossible. The longer you allow it to continue, the darker your future becomes.

The good news is that you do not need to stay trapped on this roller coaster ride. You have the power to get the help you need so that you can bring healing into your life. By reaching out to JourneyPure today, we can help you get started on the road to recovery. With our guidance and support, you can turn your life around for good.

Do not wait any longer to call and ask for help. We are waiting. Call us today.

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