Many people who struggle with substance abuse disorders also experience mental health issues. Some people may have a natural imbalance while others develop these issues over time. In either situation, alcohol or other illicit drugs will not help. Some people fall into the trap of self-medicating with a drug of choice to allay the symptoms of anxiety, depression, or another mental health issue, but the reality is that treating these problems with alcohol or other substances only makes the problem worse.
Dangers Of Self-Medication
Self-medication is an unfortunately widespread practice. One of the most common examples of self-medication is high-functioning alcoholism. This term describes an individual who manages to keep a relatively normal life while nourishing an alcohol problem. For example, a person in a high-stress job may unwind with a drink every day after work. Over time, one drink can become two drinks or more until the person has a full-blown alcohol addiction. Alcohol was once a coping mechanism and is now a very serious threat to the individual’s health and well-being. If the person used alcohol to cope with stress, an advanced alcohol problem will only make work more challenging.
The Alcohol-Anxiety Cycle
Alcohol and anxiety have a very complex relationship. Although the immediate effects of alcohol can include relaxation, a release of inhibitions, and greater social inclination, these effects aren’t a viable treatment for an anxiety disorder. Alcohol worsens anxiety in many ways. For example, the stress of waking up hungover coupled with anxiety can make the next day after a binge drinking episode even more unbearable than usual. The person may feel more anxious than usual about the day ahead due to feeling awful from drinking too much the previous night.
Over time, an anxiety disorder will entail more significant symptoms in the presence of an advanced substance abuse problem. A person addicted to heroin may feel extraordinary anxiety when his or her stash runs dry, or before procuring another dose. This type of symbiotic condition or an alcohol-anxiety cycle is very difficult to break without a comprehensive treatment plan that addresses the substance abuse and the mental health disorder at the same time.
The Alcohol-Depression Cycle
Many wonders, “Does alcohol cause depression?” People who suffer from alcoholism report the highest rates of depression among people with substance abuse disorders. Researchers estimate anywhere from 30% to 50% of alcoholics experience depression symptoms and about one-third of people with depression abuse alcohol. While alcohol abuse cannot directly cause depression, it certainly exacerbates the symptoms of depression and makes an alcoholic more likely to slip into depressive episodes. When people refer to the depression caused by alcohol use, they are typically referring to the development of depressive symptoms over time from prolonged alcohol abuse.
Alcohol and depression have a dangerous relationship. While alcohol can create many pleasurable feelings, it is ultimately a depressant on the central nervous system. Even small amounts of alcohol can cause problems for a person with naturally occurring depression. Alcohol lowers serotonin levels in the brain and cuts off the effects of certain stress hormones, causing a person who feels depressed to slip into an even deeper depression. Alcohol will also interfere with metabolic processes and sleeping patterns, further worsening the person’s condition.
Resurgence And Withdrawal
Anxiety and depression also pose serious risks during the detox and withdrawal phases. Essentially, these conditions make the early stages of substance abuse recovery much more uncomfortable and difficult. It’s common for people who struggle with anxiety to experience serious anxiety-related symptoms after quitting alcohol, and panic attacks are common in these situations. A panic attack during the initial stages of alcohol withdrawal can be very dangerous, when heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure are already serious concerns.
“Resurgence” is the word that describes a sudden reappearance of symptoms. When a person self-medicates with alcohol for a specific mental health issue, the person will likely experience an intense resurgence of the symptoms of that issue after alcohol withdrawal manifests. These mental health problems can also pose additional difficulties in life when combined with alcohol. Depression or anxiety the day after a drinking binge is very common, and this discomfort may encourage an individual to simply drink more to push those negative feelings away.
Dual Diagnosis Treatment
People who suffer from a mental health issue that runs in tandem with a substance abuse disorder are dual diagnosis cases, and this is incredibly common in the substance abuse treatment world. These individuals often wind up in substance abuse treatment after seeking therapy for their mental health concerns rather than the other way around. Social stigmas make it easier for many people to admit to a mental health issue before admitting to a substance abuse problem.
Dual diagnosis treatment requires a very robust treatment plan that addresses the substance abuse and the mental health issue simultaneously. It is virtually impossible to break out of an addictive cycle when both factors are involved without addressing both at the same time. During dual diagnosis treatment, caregivers will carefully assess a patient’s mental health records and his or her substance abuse disorder to develop a treatment plan that covers both issues.
Are Antidepressants Viable?
Antidepressants in substance abuse recovery are a touchy subject. Some believe that antidepressants can lead to replacing one addiction for another, while others believe that antidepressants play an important role in dual diagnosis treatment. The determining factor is whether the patient’s mental health issue is a naturally occurring one or the result of substance abuse.
When a person struggles with a mental health issue, the right antidepressant in the correct dosage can be enormously helpful. These medications help to correct chemical imbalances in the brain. While this is helpful for people with preexisting mental health disorders, people who develop mental health issues because of their substance abuse patterns benefit more from behavioral therapy and developing healthier life habits.
Developing New Habits
A comprehensive dual diagnosis care regimen should include mental health counseling, substance abuse therapy, and medical intervention when necessary. These fundamental elements of treatment will help a person struggling with a dual diagnosis issue form a healthy foundation for recovery. If the individual has a preexisting mental health disorder, antidepressant medication may play a role in his or her recovery plan. Others will benefit greatly from learning new ways to control urges and prevent relapses. Ultimately, alcoholism and substance abuse have strong links to mental health disorders including anxiety and depression, and it is crucial for people to avoid falling into the self-medication trap.
If you’re thinking about asking a doctor about an antidepressant prescription, try abstaining from drugs or alcohol for a few months first. Quitting or limiting your alcohol intake could be all it takes to alleviate the symptoms of anxiety and depression you experience. If quitting is too difficult, or other symptoms appear when you attempt to abstain, this is likely an indication that your mental health issues are the direct results of a substance abuse problem. Antidepressants only work for the people who have preexisting chemical imbalances, as these drugs correct those imbalances. For another person struggling with anxiety or depression due to alcoholism or another form of substance abuse, antidepressants may cause more harm than good.