It’s commonly known that alcohol is a "depressant"—but the truth about how alcohol affects someone who suffers from depression is not often discussed.
For more than 17 years, I suffered from depression. I’ve been on all types of medication. Most recently, a combination of three: Wellbutrin, escitalopram, and Xanax. Medication had become part of my life, and I made peace with needing it. I understood there was a chemical imbalance in my brain, one I was likely born with, and accepted the reality of needing medication—quite possibly for the rest of my life.
When I sought healing from depression, my drinking habits were never under scrutiny. In some ways the opposite was true; I often drank to deal with stress and anxiety. And it's easy to see why: alcohol has an elevated place in our society; drinking is not only acceptable but socially encouraged.
It wasn’t until after I stopped drinking, and my anxiety and depression began to ease, that I sought to understand the connection.
Since I hadn't connected my drinking with my depression, it wasn't immediately apparent why my depression and anxiety symptoms began to lift in the months after I stopped drinking. I met with my doctor, with the intention of exploring taking a lighter dose. She asked me what changes I’d made that might be bringing about an improvement. When I mentioned that I had stopped drinking, she immediately made the connection. I was surprised to learn what a profound effect drinking alcohol had had on my mental health.
With her help, and through research, I began to understand the intimate, terrifying, link between alcohol, anxiety, and depression.
How Alcohol Builds Up a Tolerance to Pleasure
Alcohol and other addictive drugs cause an artificially high neural response within the brain’s pleasure center. It’s one of the reasons we drink. And while this seems great—after all, who doesn't want to experience more pleasure?—there is a grim side effect. Our bodies are constantly seeking homeostasis, or internal balance. When the brain’s pleasure center is overstimulated, it releases a counter-chemical called dynorphin. Dynorphin acts to rebalance the brain by blocking the pleasure response, and increased levels can become ever present. This is one aspect of tolerance.
What’s scary is that when dynorphin counteracts pleasure, it doesn't discriminate. Dynorphin turns down the brain’s pleasure response overall. This means that naturally pleasurable activities—meeting up with friends, going to the movies, having sex or a great meal—stop activating the pleasure center of the brain in the same way. This explains why, when I was drinking every day, nothing seemed to be quite as much fun without alcohol.
Over time your tolerance, and the presence of dynorphin, can increase to the point where alcohol is the only thing that activates your brain’s pleasure center. Once I stopped drinking and regained my brain’s natural balance, all sorts of things started to be incredibly fun again.
Alcohol Was a Quick Fix to My Stress—Not a Solution
When I was drinking I thought about drinking a lot: When can I have drink? What should I drink? How much is too much? What did I drink last night? What did I say last night? Why do I feel so bad this morning?
I was experiencing a huge amount of internal conflict about drinking. I wanted to be drinking less, yet whenever I turned down a drink I felt deprived. I’d come to believe alcohol was vital for having a good time, relaxing, and even for addressing bouts of anxiety. When I drank less I felt miserable, and when I drank more I felt miserable.
Alcohol had the ability, in the very short term, to numb feelings of stress and anxiety. I often used alcohol to self-medicate, as a short-term fix for a stressful day or anxious feelings. In fact, a 2012 study suggests that alcohol can actually makes you less capable of dealing with stress and anxiety.
I now understand that the overall effect of alcohol on my body was to significantly increase stress, anxiety, and depression. There are studies that back this up, but for me nothing is more powerful than my own experience. It's like a lot of things in life: the quick fix often makes things worse, while investing in yourself over the long term is an enduring way to find peace and happiness.
Where I Am Today
I am happier and healthier without alcohol. The best part is the freedom and empowerment that come from knowing that I don’t need alcohol in my life. The beauty of this life is that we were created with everything we need inside us. In my experience, alcohol did nothing to contribute to my well-being; in fact, it was holding me back.
Since I stopped drinking, some pretty amazing things have happened, yet the most meaningful is my newfound, nonmedicated sense of well-being and happiness. I am now certain I would not have been able to reach this place, being completely free of medication, while continuing to drink.