How to Cope with Depression After Quitting Drinking

When you quit drinking, it’s a major achievement, but at least in the short term, it can come with challenges. Your sobriety journey, if you’re like many others, can uncover underlying mental health and emotional issues that were previously masked by alcohol.

Depression is a common experience for people who stopped drinking recently, and it can make your path to recovery feel more overwhelming.

While it’s a challenge, with the right tools, determination, and support, you can get past the obstacles of depression as you quit drinking.

In this article, you will learn:

  • How alcohol affects brain health
  • Why people feel depressed after quitting drinking
  • How to cope with depression in recovery

Drinking’s Impact on the Brain and Mental Health

Consuming alcohol can potentially affect the brain and mental health in profound ways.[1] Moderate drinking may not lead to significant harm for most people, but heavy or chronic use can lead to serious, lasting changes.

Alcohol interferes with the chemicals that transmit signals between neurons, known as neurotransmitters. It especially affects one called gamma-aminobutyric acid or GABA and glutamate.

GABA is considered an inhibitory neurotransmitter that reduces neuron activity. Glutamate, by contrast, is a neurotransmitter with excitatory effects that increase brain activity. Alcohol increases GABA and decreases glutamate, resulting in depressant effects.[2]

Drinking triggers your brain to release dopamine, another neurotransmitter. This one is associated with reward and pleasure. The release can create euphoric feelings, reinforcing the desire to drink more. Over time, your reward system can change, leading to addiction and dependence.

Chronic heavy drinking can impact the brain and mental health in other ways, including:

  • Structural changes in the brain can happen, including shrinkage of brain tissues, especially in parts linked to memory, problem-solving and cognition.[3]
  • Alcohol impairs cognitive functions, including decision-making, judgment and impulse control. The effects are more pronounced with higher consumption of alcohol, leading to risky behaviors and problematic decision-making.
  • Mood and mental health disorders are closely linked with alcohol use. Drinking can make existing mental conditions worse and give rise to the development of new ones.[4]
  • Alcohol disrupts your natural stress response. In the short term, it can feel like it’s relieving stress, but over time, it increases the production of cortisol as well as other stress hormones.
  • Drinking impacts your sleep patterns, leading to disruptions and poor quality sleep.

Why Would You Feel Depressed After Quitting Drinking?

While drinking is linked with depression, you might wonder why you could continue to experience it even after you stop. While quitting alcohol is a major positive step toward better health and well-being, it’s not entirely uncommon to experience depression during the early stages of sobriety.

Factors contributing to this include:

  • Neurochemical imbalance: Alcohol affects your neurotransmitters, as mentioned, and these play a role in mood regulation. When you’re actively using alcohol, the levels of these brain chemicals can be artificially elevated, creating euphoria and pleasure. When alcohol is taken away, your brain needs to adjust to functioning without it. The readjustment period can lead to a temporary deficit in neurotransmitters, contributing to feelings of depression.[4]
  • Withdrawal symptoms: Many people use alcohol as a way to cope with depression, stress and anxiety. If that crutch is taken away, it can cause mental health issues to resurface or get worse. Not having alcohol as a coping mechanism can, in the short term, make depression worse.
  • Life changes: Major lifestyle changes often accompany when you quit drinking. These can be stressful. You might feel socially isolated, be making adjustments in your daily routine, or face changes in relationships. Changes can be stressful, contributing to depression because you’re adapting to a new way of living.
  • Emotional processing: During active alcohol use, emotional issues and past trauma can be ignored and suppressed. Once an individual stops drinking, they might start confronting unresolved issues, and the emotional processing they’re going through can contribute to depressive symptoms.[5]
  • Physical health: The chronic use of alcohol can make your physical health poor, leading to issues like hormonal imbalances and nutritional deficits that affect mood. As your body heals and detoxifies itself, the physical health factors can lead to feelings of depression.
  • Lack of reward and pleasure: Drinking temporarily creates a sense of reward and pleasure. When you stop, you must find new enjoyment and fulfillment sources.

Coping with Depression After Quitting Drinking

While it’s somewhat common to feel depressed after quitting drinking, some strategies can help, including:

  • Professional support: You can get professional help through therapy or an addiction treatment program. Therapies like cognitive-behavior therapy can be especially beneficial when you’re dealing with feeling depressed after quitting drinking.
  • Social support: Find a support network as you quit drinking, whether it’s formal, such as a 12-step program, or it’s a group of sober friends.
  • Create healthy routines: Form a balanced schedule and routine for yourself that includes time for social activities, work, relaxation, and exercise. The structure provides stability and normalcy.
  • Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness meditation can be powerful when you stop drinking. It helps you stay present and calm the mind and body.
  • Explore interests: Look for new activities and hobbies that create joy for you and are fulfilling. This can distract from negative thoughts and give you a sense of purpose. Creative activities can be especially helpful because they improve your mood and help you express emotions uniquely.
  • Eat well: Proper nutrition can help your brain and body heal from alcohol use and positively affect your energy and mood levels.
  • Set manageable goals: Create small and achievable goals to celebrate progress, boost your self-esteem and feel motivated. You can also set long-term goals that you work towards to give you a sense of purpose and direction.
  • Limit stress: Identify and then avoid triggers that could increase your stress levels and cravings for alcohol. Set boundaries in both activities and relationships to protect your mental well-being.
  • Educate yourself: Stay informed about depression and recovery from alcohol dependence. You can make more appropriate decisions when you understand the process and what’s happening.
  • Avoid negative influences: Steer clear of situations and people that could lead to negative impacts on your mental health or could encourage drinking. Put yourself in positive situations and around people who support your sobriety.

Coping with depression after quitting drinking is a challenge, but it’s also a process that’s manageable. By combining professional support with healthy changes in your lifestyle and supportive relationships, you can navigate this period and build a foundation for sustained recovery and mental health.

Find Help for Alcoholism

At Invigorate Behavioral Health, we offer a comprehensive, holistic approach to treatment, blending evidence-based therapies with innovative wellness practices to address the physical, emotional, and psychological aspects of alcohol addiction. For those living with severe alcohol use disorder, our residential detox and treatment program is the first step on the road to recovery.

To learn more about our Los Angeles alcohol rehab program or get started with a confidential, risk-free assessment, please contact us today.

References:

  1. Mental Health Foundation: Alcohol and mental health
  2. National Institute of Health: The Role of GABAA Receptors in the Development of Alcoholism
  3. Journal of Translational Medicine: The impact of heavy alcohol consumption on cognitive impairment in young old and middle old persons
  4. National Institute of Health: Alcohol Use Disorder and Depressive Disorders
  5. Science Direct: Emotional processes in binge drinking: A systematic review and perspective

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