Alcohol and Depression

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Research suggests a reciprocal relationship between alcohol use disorder (AUD) and depressive conditions. These conditions frequently co-occur, each of which increases the risk for the onset or intensification of the other. (1) Regardless of which came first, AUD or depression, both issues are among the most prevalent co-occurring psychiatric disorders and should be treated in unison, not independently.

People with dual diagnoses benefit most from a specialized approach to treatment. This is essential to address alcoholism, mental health disorders, and the underlying factors contributing to both conditions. For example, those who experience depressive episodes may find it challenging to control their alcohol use. For this reason, they may benefit from recovery programs that offer dual-diagnosis care and individualized treatment plans that address all issues perpetuating the cycle of depression and addiction.

At Guardian Recovery, we understand that individuals experiencing these disorders can feel overwhelmed trying to conquer them alone. If you’re motivated to take back your life and discover healthier ways to cope with your thoughts, moods, and feelings, contact us today to learn more about our evidence-based programs and services.

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The Interaction of Depression & Alcohol Misuse

The misuse of alcohol and depressive disorders are closely linked. Many people suffering from depression, especially those untreated, turn to alcohol, hoping it will relieve emotional pain. Unfortunately, increasing evidence also indicates excessive alcohol consumption may interfere with treatment for depression. (2)

Alcohol use increases the likelihood of experiencing suicidal thoughts and behaviors. In a large study involving approximately 59,300 adult outpatient visits to a mental health provider with a documented AUD, 0.62% attempted suicide within 90 days. Patients reporting daily or near-daily excessive drinking episodes were more than twice as likely to attempt suicide than those who reported none. (3)

Alcohol use can also increase the intensity and duration of depressive episodes. Similarly, it can significantly contribute to stressful financial, legal, and family issues that can worsen depression. If a person with depression depends on alcohol use to cope with stress, this can trigger a vicious cycle of misuse that can be extremely challenging to break.

Alcoholism can also lead to depression in many circumstances. Extended alcohol misuse can significantly alter brain function and affect the balance of chemicals that regulate emotions. (4) These widespread neurological changes can ultimately result in depression, mood instability, and other mental health issues.

What Is Alcohol Use Disorder?

Alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant that slows activity in the brain and body. Excessive, prolonged alcohol use can lead to alcohol use disorder, (5) a condition characterized by problematic drinking that often includes episodes of binging and daily or near-daily alcohol use.

Symptoms of Alcohol Use Include:

  • Spending considerable time drinking.
  • Neglecting other activities to drink.
  • Having intense cravings for alcohol.
  • Repeatedly drinking excessively or for a prolonged period.
  • Continued drinking despite incurring emotional consequences, such as depression or anxiety.
  • Continuing to drink despite the adverse effects on relationships, legal issues, and other areas of life.

What Is Depression?

Depression is a potentially severe mental health disorder characterized by persistent sadness, hopelessness, or helplessness. It can infiltrate nearly every aspect of a person’s life and significantly affect those around them. Depression often results in problems with family and friends, as well as challenges in the workplace. Furthermore, it substantially increases the risk of developing other health disorders and places the person at a much higher risk of suicide.

Unfortunately, depression is a pervasive disorder. According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), the condition affects one in every 15 individuals. (6) For a clinician to diagnose depression, at least five criteria must be present for two weeks or longer. In addition, the individual must experience symptoms that cause “clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning” (7) that are not a result of substance misuse or another medical condition.

Criteria for a Diagnosis of Depression Include: (8)

  • Depressed mood daily and for most of the day.
  • Diminished interest or pleasure in many activities daily and for most of the day.
  • Significant weight loss, weight gain, or decreased or increased appetite almost every day.
  • A slowing down of thought and decreased physical movement observable by others.
  • Loss of energy or fatigue almost every day.
  • Feeling worthless or excessive, unwarranted guilt nearly every day.
  • Reduced ability to think, focus, or make decisions nearly every day.
  • Recurring thoughts of death, suicidal ideations, suicide attempts, or having a plan for committing suicide.

A wide variety of factors can contribute to the onset of depression. Some individuals are genetically vulnerable to depression, and for others, personality can play a significant role. Individuals that exhibit low self-esteem are more susceptible to developing some degree of depression. Additionally, environmental factors, such as having a stressful childhood, play a fundamental role in developing depression. Other factors include stressful events, family history, loneliness, and illness. (9)

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How Depression Can Lead to Alcohol Misuse

Some people consume alcohol, hoping it will help them cope with depressive symptoms. They may find the euphoria and sedating effects of alcohol appealing as self-medication that distracts them from constant sadness and disinterest. While alcohol may temporarily reduce some symptoms of depression, it ultimately worsens the condition when drinking is excessive or chronic. (10)

Depression is typically worsened by difficulties in life. For some, alcohol may seem like a reasonable remedy to reduce stress and anxiety. However, alcohol misuse has been associated with widespread adverse effects such as financial and legal issues and damage to relationships. As the impact of heavy drinking starts to intensify, depressive symptoms may also intensify. This can lead an individual into a cyclical pattern of alcohol misuse to numb negative feelings while their depression continues to deteriorate.

Those who suffer from depression and take antidepressants to manage their condition may experience additional problems. Alcohol misuse compromises the effectiveness of these medications, which means depressive episodes may remain insufficiently addressed. (11) As depression deepens, the need for self-medication increases, triggering the desire to consume more alcohol.

How Alcohol Misuse Can Lead to Depression

Again, alcohol misuse and depression are often intricately bound up in a reciprocating causal relationship that is difficult to break. Depression can increase the likelihood of developing an alcohol use disorder, and excessive drinking has been associated with symptoms of depression. In fact, depression can onset or increase in severity due to heavy drinking. (12)

Research suggests alcohol misuse is more likely to trigger major depression than the other way around, but causality may flow in either direction. Individuals who misuse alcohol are at a significantly higher risk of developing depression than those who do not. This may be due to associations between the neurological and metabolic changes triggered by alcohol and the mechanisms that cause depression. (13)

Due to the cyclical nature of these co-occurring conditions, treatment may be more challenging, and a dual-diagnosis approach to address both issues is typically recommended.

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Treatment for Depression & Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcoholism and depression are potentially severe and debilitating disorders. Navigating life’s obstacles and stressors can be especially challenging for an individual suffering from both conditions. Because depression and alcoholism often co-occur, Guardian Recovery has developed integrated approaches to address both disorders simultaneously.

Our highly-trained staff of health professionals and addiction specialists is dedicated to providing clients with the support and resources they need to promote long-term recovery and the healthy and fulfilling lives they deserve. If you struggle with alcohol misuse and depression, contact us today for a free assessment and no-obligation health benefits check. You can speak to a skilled Treatment Advisor and learn more about our comprehensive treatment programs and various levels of care.


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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave


Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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