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Does Depression Lead to Alcohol and Drug Addiction?

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When we are trying to understand the roots of alcohol and drug addiction, we often must investigate brain chemistry and the history of the individual. There are many risk factors that may lead to the overindulgence of alcohol and use of drugs to self-medicate or manage moods. It is common to see depression coincide with a drug or alcohol problem, but does depression itself lead to addictions?

What Is Depression?

Depression is a result of complex changes within the brain that result in increased feelings of loneliness, a loss of pleasure or joy in life, changes in appetite, trouble sleeping or an inability to concentrate. These brain changes can be exacerbated by drug and alcohol use as the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus shrink in size due to overconsumption. But many people who are depressed may still seek relief through alcohol and drugs.

Alcoholism and Drug Addiction

Alcohol and drug abuse can develop into the serious disease of addiction. Ongoing use alters brain chemistry and makes it increasingly difficult to resist the drug. The flood of dopamine and serotonin creates an addiction cycle which requires increasingly large amounts of the substance to produce the same effect.

This makes addiction a progressive problem that tends to get worse with time. An individual suffering from depression may find instant relief when using alcohol or drugs, due to the flood of dopamine. But this sense of relief will deteriorate over time and require the user to increase the dosage, leading to the cycle of the addiction.

Coping Strategies and Behaviors

Coping behaviors are the strategies and tools we develop in order to deal with stress and trauma. Hardships are commonplace in most of our lives, but we find the strength to deal with them through healthy or unhealthy coping strategies. Sometimes coping behaviors are destructive, leading to dysfunctional behaviors, addictions, regression, and even illness. But we can also choose to seek out positive coping strategies for dealing with our pain and sadness.

Many people turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with their stress, pain, and depression. It may provide temporary relief but in exchange, there are many negative effects that accumulate over time. These behaviors can reward the brain, leading us to feel as if unhealthy alcohol or drug use is a good thing. But with time, the ability to make better decisions is degraded as the brain is damaged from the addiction abuse. A person who is depressed may struggle even more to make healthy decisions regarding resisting an addiction they developed in response to their emotional pain or suffering.

Potential Influences on Depression Leading to Addiction

Many individuals who suffer from a form of mental illness may struggle with the use of drugs or stimulants to manage the symptoms of their illness. Alcohol and drugs can provide a way to connect with others and escape from the struggles of their daily life. Depression commonly coincides with addiction and may make it even more difficult to resist utilizing drugs as a way to cope or to stop using when the addiction cycle has already begun.

Support Systems and Dysfunctional Family Patterns

When individuals face depression, the family or support circle available to them often make a significant impact in their recovery or regression. If they have friends and family who encourage them to take meaningful action towards recovery and to seek help, they may be able to learn the necessary coping skill to help them out of their depressed states.

On the other hand, dysfunctional family situations or friend groups who encourage drug or alcohol abuse may inflame the situation. Dysfunctional families may be emotionally or verbally abusive, which can further push people into depression and make them feel unsafe about reaching out for help. This can drive some people to turn to self-medicating for a sense of relief.

If the same individuals turn to friend groups who encourage the abuse of drugs and alcohol, they may find new unhealthy coping mechanisms that allow them to escape their troubles and receive the social acceptance they crave. This cycle can lead to a spiraling downward, where seeking support means being abused and feeling better is only found through drug or alcohol abuse.

Childhood Trauma

Those who suffer significant trauma may continue through life struggling with posttraumatic stress, anxiety, flashbacks, and ongoing depression. These individuals may struggle to find any relief from the after-effects of their traumatic experience. Often, in order to become free from these pains and struggles, they must go through a significant amount of counseling or therapy.

They may feel constantly plagued by their past and have trouble relaxing or feeling safe at all. For these individuals, the need to find effective coping strategies may be enormous. In order to endure intense emotional trauma, the brain has many methods to prevent mental breakdown. One mechanism is to compartmentalize the trauma so that the rest of the mind disassociates from the painful memories.

Alcohol and drugs can be a powerful tool to further enable this disassociation.

Disassociating can be a powerful urge for those who are suffering from depression that is related to a traumatic experience. In this circumstance, a serious bout of depression may be managed with the use of drugs and alcohol. These may help the person get through these tough times but may lead to an eventual addiction forming.


Depending on the reason for using alcohol and drugs, the level of healthy support individuals have in life, the amount of unprocessed trauma present, and their ability to deal with stress and make complex executive decisions in regard to their future will determine if depression leads to alcoholism or drug abuse.

It is certainly a common cycle to see depression co-exist with a drug or alcohol problem, or for an individual to choose an addiction in order to cope with depression. But there are many different reasons that lead people to abuse drugs and alcohol and those with depression have a choice in how they cope.

It is up to each individual to decide how to act to handle problems. Everyone gets to decide what coping strategies to use to find peace through times of suffering.

If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.

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Photo by Corey Motta on Unsplash

The opinions and views expressed in this guest blog do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in this article or linked to herein.

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6 thoughts on “Does Depression Lead to Alcohol and Drug Addiction?

  1. Sophie says:

    So, depression may or may not lead one into the pit of addiction, depending upon how an individual reacts to his situation. One thing is having an ailment & the other is how we fight with it.

    So, having depression wont decide how we will react or respond. But yes there is a great probability that one can embrace drugs or alcohol to find a temporary solace. And if this isnt rectified soon – there we are in the addiction’s chambers !

  2. Non12Stepper says:

    I wonder if it wouldn’t make sense to say that depression can lead to substance use, which can then lead to addiction. Not all substance use results in full blown addiction.

  3. Sin Mils says:

    It’s simply a vicious circle. You have a down, you use drugs to get up. Then without the drug, you have down… and repeat. To break that circle is to have support and find a non addictive up that you genuinely love to do.

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