One of the most effective lifestyle changes a depressed person can make is quitting alcohol. It won’t necessarily be easy, but it can make a huge difference in your moods and overall quality of life.
This doesn’t only apply if you’re an alcoholic. Even moderate drinkers can see positive effects from quitting alcohol.
Many depressed people use alcohol as a form of self-medicating. In the short term, drinking can ease pain and anxiety. The problem is that alcohol is essentially a depressive drug, so that self-medicating might be sabotaging your long-term goal of managing or easing depression.
Depressed people sometimes use alcohol to fall asleep. Again, this might work in the short term, but alcohol can exacerbate insomnia and prevent you from achieving a deep, satisfying sleep.
From the day I started college into my early 30s, I drank a lot. As an undergraduate I indulged in the usual binge drinking reveries. In my 20s, I got drunk less often but developed a routine of drinking 2-3 beers nightly. I went to sleep buzzed almost every night.
Depression was not as widely understood in the 1980s. I saw several psychotherapists but none ever mentioned depression. Then sometime around 1994, a psychiatrist prescribed anti-depressants for me, first Paxil and then Zoloft (which I’ve taken ever since and expect to take forever). That guy left town after a year, and my next psychiatrist continued the Zoloft. She also strongly recommended I quit drinking — not cut back a bit, but quit altogether.
Her reasoning was that Zoloft and alcohol were pulling in different directions. I was essentially taking an anti-depressant drug and a pro-depressant drug and letting them fight it out.
My first reaction was anger at the therapist. Don’t tell me how to live my life! Also fear that I would not be able to quit, that that nightly mellow buzz was too ingrained a habit. And fear that life without alcohol would be no fun.
But I gave it a try, and quitting turned out to be much easier than I thought. For a while I continued drinking socially, even got drunk now and then, but I stopped keeping booze in the house and making it a nightly habit. By the late 90s, I made the decision to quit altogether. I’ve never looked back and never regretted it.
Alcoholism and Depression
Much scientific research points to genetic factors in both alcoholism and depression. Some people are just hardwired to be susceptible to depression or alcohol addiction or both.
Maybe I lucked out in not having the alcohlism genes. I drank 2-3 beers nearly every night for more than a decade without becoming a full-blown alcoholic. I found it relatively easy to scale back and eventually quit. My experience may not be representative.
Much scientific research has looked into the causal connections between alcohol abuse and depression. Does one cause the other? How often do they go together, and why? These questions remain open, with different studies pointing in different directions.
But some things are clear. It’s nearly impossible to beat or manage depression while you’re drinking heavily. If you have a serious alcohol problem, get help — talk to a doctor, join a twelve-step program, whatever it takes.
If you’re a moderate self-medicating drinker, you should strongly consider cutting back or quitting alcohol together. You might find it extremely difficult. Or you might find it easier than expected.
In general, those of us prone to depression need to be vigilant about what we put in our bodies. We need to become knowledgeable about which substances and habits might be making our depression worse, and we need to take action on that knowledge and develop healthy lifestyle choices.