Depression and anxiety are among the most common mental health disorders. Study after study has found that alcohol is the most commonly abused substance. These are unfortunate statistics, because alcohol often exacerbates (or even causes) depression and anxiety. Many people fall into a cycle of drinking to numb the symptoms of one or both of these disorders, only to worsen them.
Between 33–63% of people with depression also misuse alcohol. While it is hard to determine which comes first, many people drink to numb symptoms of depression. But alcohol is a depressant and will make symptoms worse. An imbalance of Serotonin is believed to play a role in the development of depression—and alcohol interferes with levels of Serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain.
These neurotransmitters also impact anxiety. According to a 2019 study in the journal Alcohol Research, up to half of people in treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder also meet diagnostic criteria for an anxiety disorder. In contrast, it was estimated at the time of the study that 11% of the general population had an anxiety disorder.
I have Generalized Anxiety. During active addiction I would take any drug in my vicinity, but my main substance of abuse was alcohol. Alcohol can seem like an obvious choice for those of us with anxiety; while its effects last, it lowers inhibitions and has sedative effects. But when it wears off, anxiety spikes. The last several years of my drinking, I was having panic attacks nearly every morning as the alcohol left my system.
When you use alcohol chronically, you start to rely on it to quell anxiety, even as your overall anxiety levels increase. Though my anxiety still exists in sobriety, it’s a hell of a lot more manageable. I’ve not only taken substances out of the equation; I’ve worked for years in therapy to learn healthier coping skills than picking up a bottle.
This is why it’s so important to treat substance use and mental health disorders together. They are so entwined that treating them separately would be futile. If you try to work on your mental health disorder while you’re still using substances, you won’t get very far. You will still be exacerbating your depression or anxiety with a drug. You won’t be fully present to do the work.
Meanwhile, if you get sober without addressing your depression or anxiety, you are missing a big part of what drew you to substances in the first place. Awareness of the roots of your addiction, your triggers, and the maladaptive coping skills you’ve learned is key to making lasting change. You can’t fix a behavior you don’t know you are doing.
If you are struggling with a depression, anxiety, or a co-occurring Substance Use Disorder, there is hope. Amatus Recovery Centers across the country offer high-quality treatment for addiction and mental health disorders. We are trained in co-occurring disorders, because we understand the importance of treating both. Our staff—many of whom are in recovery themselves—will help you learn healthier coping skills so that you can create a lasting recovery program. Call an admissions specialist at 410-593-0005.