Most of us have days when we feel a bit low. But for some people, these feelings don’t go away – they get worse and may start to interfere with everyday life. This is what’s known as depression and it’s very common: it estimated that 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem (such as anxiety and depression) each year.
Common triggers for depression include relationship problems, unemployment, divorce and bereavement. But people who drink heavily, regularly, may develop the symptoms of depression without having any of these problems.
Alcohol is a depressant: it alters the delicate balance of chemicals in your brain. As you sip your first drink, the alcohol starts to affect the part of the brain associated with inhibition. That’s why a drink sometimes makes you feel more confident and relaxed.
But as you drink more, something different can start to happen. Once your brain has high levels of alcohol affecting it, it’s possible the pleasant effects of your first drink will be replaced by negative emotions such as depression, anxiety or anger – even if you were in a good mood when you started drinking.
Drinking heavily and regularly is associated with symptoms of depression, although it can be difficult to disentangle cause and effect when the two go together. Alcohol is known to affect several nerve-chemical systems which are important in regulating mood. When the sequence is studied, it is clear that depression can follow on from heavy drinking. It has also often been shown that reducing or stopping drinking can improve mood.
Medications prescribed for depression should not be mixed with alcohol. Some of the commonly prescribed anti-depressants tend to increase the risk of relapse to heavy drinking in people who are trying to cut down or abstain, so antidepressants should be only taken with great caution.
If your depression symptoms are being caused by your drinking, stopping drinking should bring about a significant improvement. In fact, people in this position often find that cutting out alcohol entirely for just 4 weeks will produce a clear difference in how they feel.
After a few alcohol-free weeks, many people find they feel brighter. You may find it less difficult to get up and face the day, and friends and family may find you easier to get along with.
To help prevent your symptoms returning, if you decide to resume drinking alcohol in the future, make sure you stick within the UK Chief Medical Officers’ low risk drinking guidelines: Don’t drink more than 14 units a week (that goes for both men and women), have several alcohol-free nights each week and avoid binge drinking.
Try to find other ways to relieve stress and lift your mood – you can find some useful tips and advice here.
If you’re still experiencing the symptoms of depression four weeks after cutting out alcohol, the Royal College of Psychiatrists advises that you talk to your GP. Remember to tell him or her how long you’ve been alcohol-free.
Your GP may recommend a talking therapy such as counselling or CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), or a self-help group. He or she may also prescribe you antidepressant medication. Remember, you’ll probably need to continue to avoid alcohol or only drink very lightly if this is to be effective.
Drinkchat is a free service for anyone who is looking for information or advice about their own, or someone else’s, alcohol use. Our trained advisors are on hand to give you some confidential advice. You don’t even have to make a phonecall.