DepressionDepression is everywhere and has been related to the ‘common cold’ of emotional problems, however, disturbance of mood and anxiety are common symptoms for many people who struggle with substance use disorders. Symptoms of depression often occur as a result of excessive alcohol or drug use and the worries and sad feelings that accompany the progression of addiction.

Mood and anxiety disorders can be caused by substances through the biochemical changes made to the brain. For some, the symptoms of these negative states are replaced with a sense of well-being as people describe a sense of hopefulness and renewal. Alcohol is a depressant drug as opposed to cocaine which is a stimulant.  Both drugs however damage the brain pathways enough to contribute to a difficult addiction recovery without care for the separate symptoms of depression. Researchers have completed many studies regarding which came first, the use of drugs and alcohol or the depression. Regardless of which came first, effective treatment requires addressing both conditions.

There are many factors that contribute to depression and the most effective treatments for recovery are a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy, group support, nutrition, exercise, and psychopharmacology as needed. Untreated depression contributes to domestic violence and child abuse, divorce, job loss, poor health, and suicide.

Signs of Depression

Depression can occur at any time in a person’s life and it is accompanied by varied symptoms such as sadness, difficulty concentrating, loss of interest in activities and in life, self-criticism, physical complaints, feelings of hopelessness, difficulty making decisions, irritability, withdrawal from other people and sometimes they feel worried, nauseated, experience heart racing and sometimes sweating.

There are several forms of depression, all of which can be formally diagnosed by a mental health professional. One of the most common is major depressive disorder or clinical depression, but others include persistent depressive disorder, which is a depressed mood that lasts for two years or more, and psychotic depression, which occurs when psychosis, including delusions and hallucinations, accompanies depression.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) notes that someone might be suffering from depression if they experience some of the following symptoms most days for at least two weeks:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
  • Decreased energy or fatigue
  • Moving or talking more slowly
  • Feeling restless or having trouble sitting still
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
  • Difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
  • Appetite or weight changes
  • Thoughts of death or suicide or suicide attempts
  • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear physical cause or that do not ease even with treatment

Unfortunately, many people turn to addictive substances to cope with the symptoms listed above.

Why Do People Use Drugs and Alcohol to Cope With Depression?

man struggling with depressionTaking drugs or drinking alcohol to help cope with depression is known as self-medicating. Some people may also self-medicate to deal with physical pain, as well as the pressures of normal life. But when people use addictive substances to cope with depression, they will only experience temporary relief and could be setting themselves up for long-term addiction.

Depression and substance abuse are commonly linked. In fact, the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 9.5 million U.S. adults ages 18 and older had been diagnosed with both a substance use disorder and a mental illness like depression. Anxiety is also frequently associated with depression and can also trigger substance use. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) reports that nearly one-half of people with diagnosed depression also deal with a form of anxiety.

Signs of Self-Medicating Behavior

There are several common signs that an individual is using substances to cope with their depression. One of the most common signs is a reliance on drugs or alcohol to feel less anxious or to improve mood or outlook. Self-medicating in this way over a long period of time is cause for concern. Other signs to recognize include:

  • Individuals use alcohol or drugs to cope with life events. Regularly using an addictive substance to cope with stress, relieve boredom, improve mood or prepare for social interactions can indicate self-medicating behavior.
  • Taking drugs or alcohol makes them feel worse. Addictive substances only offer a temporary change in feeling or mood. Once that quick fix passes, most people are left feeling worse and may find themselves in a downward spiral of use.
  • Individuals need higher amounts to feel relief. When self-medicating, individuals will frequently need higher dosages of alcohol or drugs to help them experience the same level of relief as when they first started using substances. This occurs because their tolerance increases over time.
  • The substances are causing individuals more problems. When someone regularly self-medicates with drugs or alcohol, they may find that the addictive substances cause even more problems than they are trying to escape. For example, using drugs and drinking often worsen relationships and health issues.
  • When substances aren’t readily available, individuals become upset. Another sign of self-medicating behavior is increased anxiety or irritability if individuals don’t have easy access to their addictive substance of choice.
  • Family and friends are worried about an individual’s use of drugs or alcohol. Finally, if people that care about an individual have expressed concern about their use of drugs or alcohol, they may be self-medicating to deal with their emotional or mental health issues.

The Dangers of Self-Medication

Self-medicating to deal with depression can lead to addiction. But there are other dangers associated with self-medicating behavior, as well. For example, an individual’s use of drugs or alcohol can make their depression worse. Rather than helping their mental health challenges, the addictive substances contribute to the issue.

Drugs or alcohol can also interact with any other prescription medications that an individual may take. This could mean the prescription medicine is less effective or could cause an unpleasant or even dangerous side effect.

Self-medicating depression can also lead individuals to develop additional mental health issues, such as psychosis or suicidal thoughts. Finally, using drugs or drinking alcohol to deal with depression can cause someone to delay seeking professional treatment.

Getting Help For Depression

When someone self-medicates with drugs or alcohol to manage their depression, the sooner they seek help the better they can stop the development of an addiction. The first step is to reach out to a trusted health care provider for suggestions on an effective treatment program or therapist.

The most effective forms of treatment for depression include talk therapy and medication. The two are often used together. During talk therapy, the therapist helps the individual identify patterns of thought and behavior that may be contributing to their depression, while also teaching the person exercises that can reduce their stress and anxiety. Other activities may include designing strategies to help the person avoid triggers that may worsen their depression, as well as developing other mechanisms to help them cope should they encounter a trigger. Talk therapy is most effective in those who have temporary or mild depression.

Someone living with a more severe form of depression will most likely need to include medication in their treatment plan. Typical prescriptions that can assist with depression include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), or tricyclic antidepressants. Always ask your health care provider whether medication is appropriate for your depression symptoms.

Lifestyle changes can also help combat depression. In addition to avoiding addictive drugs or alcohol, eating a well-balanced diet and engaging in regular exercise can help with depression. Good sleep habits are also beneficial in managing depression and other mental health concerns.

Treating Depression and Substance Use

Many treatment programs provide care for dual diagnosis challenges, which refers to co-occurring mental health disorders, such as depression, and substance use disorders. These programs treat both conditions simultaneously so individuals can focus on both their sobriety and their mental health at the same time.

Dual diagnosis treatment programs may incorporate medication and behavioral counseling or focus solely on behavioral treatment. Either way, make sure to choose a treatment program with experience and expertise treating dual diagnosis challenges if you’re concerned that your self-medicating behavior has progressed into addiction.

If you suspect that you or a loved one might be using addictive substances to deal with depression, contact the trained mental health professionals at Lasting Recovery. We can help diagnose any depression-related concerns and offer treatment in a welcoming and supportive group therapy environment.

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