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How To Manage Depression in Sobriety

There are so many people, perhaps you’re one of them, who feel lethargic, sad, and lost after they quit drinking. Sobriety was supposed to fix everything, right? You’re supposed to be happy.

But you’re not.

You feel like you’re on autopilot, there’s no joy in your life, and the only thing you feel like doing is curling up on your couch and finding ways to check out to pass the time. Simply put, you don’t feel like doing anything. Ever.

What was all that work for if sobriety means you’re just going to feel blah for the rest of your life?

If this sounds like you, I completely get it. I’ve suffered from anxiety and depression for years, even before I started drinking excessively. Everything you are feeling right now is normal. Fortunately, I have some good news for you.

Depression after quitting alcohol is common, but it doesn’t last forever. It will get better, and I’m going to give you some tips, resources, and suggestions for how to help yourself out of your current depressive episode.

What To Do If You Think You’re Depressed in Sobriety

First and foremost, if you are experiencing depression right now, you need to see a mental health specialist. The tools and strategies here are intended to supplement your treatment plan with your healthcare provider.

If you’re unsure if you’re depressed, you can take this quiz from Depression.org to see if a call to your doctor is in order.

If you do not have access to in-person mental health counseling or a similar program, then I recommend using online talk therapy and seeing a general practitioner to discuss medication options.

You may or may not need medication, but depending on the severity of your condition, you need to seek advice from a trained medical professional.

Together, you can make a decision about your care.

A graphic image of a woman sitting on the ground and hugging her knees looking sad. The title reads How to manage depression in sobriety
Managing Depression in Sobriety

Online Talk Therapy for Depression in Sobriety

BetterHelp is a great option for online therapy if you can’t do it in person. I’ve done both and had positive experiences.

You’ll start off with an assessment with a therapist who will help determine your current needs. Be open and honest with this person. You select a therapy plan from there and then get paired with a therapist who is best situated to help you.

This is why it is so important that you are forthright about what you’re seeking help for. Talk about alcoholism, depression, and anything else that’s going on so you can get the best person to work with you.

online talk therapy for depression

From there, you’ll get started.

The great thing about BetterHelp is that you can change your therapist if something isn’t working out, so there’s no reason to give up on the program if you’re not meshing well with the first person you get.

When compared to the out-of-pocket costs of in-person therapy (in the US, at least), BetterHelp is an affordable alternative.

And honestly, some people do better with online counseling because they feel the platform enables them to be more open than they might otherwise be in person with a stranger. The opposite can also be true; it depends on individual preferences.

Why So Many People Suffer From Depression in Sobriety

Many people self-medicate their mental health issues with alcohol, so it’s no wonder that after the alcohol is taken away, the depression hits hard.

Because alcohol gives your brain a supersized dopamine boost, it’s also likely that you can no longer produce dopamine naturally at levels that can sustain a healthy mood. (Don’t worry; this is reversible.)

Additionally, alcohol use changes your brain circuitry and neurochemistry in profound ways, including:

  • Diminished mood and lower feelings of self-worth
  • Increased levels of stress and anxiety
  • Reduced production of dopamine and serotonin
  • Changes in neural circuitry that makes you want to drink more

For more on this, I recommend the following video:

From the Experts

An article on Ocean Breeze Recovery’s blog really breaks this down nicely. It states:

When people get sober, they expect a life filled with joy and happiness. When things do not go as planned, they might begin to think recovery is not worth it. To them, treating their addiction meant all their problems would vanish.

However, this is nowhere near the truth. In fact, many more problems can arise because they are now dealing with their sober self. There is nothing to mask or suppress the true feelings of their internal being. With no suppression of thoughts or feelings, one may realize they are struggling with depression in recovery. To their luck, depression is treatable if action is taken quickly.

The symptoms of depression are easily distinguishable when the person in active addiction accumulates a significant amount of clean time.  People suffering from depression usually have symptoms such as these:

  • Inability to focus or concentrate
  • Overwhelming feelings of sadness, anxiety, or “emptiness”
  • Hopelessness
  • Guilt, worthlessness, helplessness
  • Disinterest in activities or hobbies
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Irritability
  • Changes in appetite
  • Harmful thoughts (suicide, homicide, death)”

Visit their site here to read more.

Tips to Help You Manage Depresion in Sobriety

Depression, much like an addiction, is fond of downtime. It’s where these two little devils thrive the most, like mosquitos in a swamp. Laying around all day mindlessly watching Netflix is doing much more harm than good.

In fact, boredom in sobriety is a huge driver of relapse.

But here’s the catch 22 – laying around all day makes your depression worse, but your depression is making you so exhausted and unmotivated that you have no energy for anything except laying around all day.

So what do you do?

So how do you motive yourself to tackle this problem proactively? I have a few suggestions that, when done in conjunction with proper treatment and counseling, can do a lot of good.

1. Change your mindset.

It is very, very easy to wallow in depression. I have thrown many a pity part for myself from the comfort of my couch. I’ve also had very real, debilitating moments when I curled up with a blanket and cried, wishing my life was different, or even over.

If that last scenario is playing out for you, seek help right away. I cannot stress that enough. You may think it’s “just” an emotional breakdown and you’ll sleep it off and be fine tomorrow, but it’s actually a huge warning sign that something is very wrong.

You cannot wish or visualize yourself out of depression. But you can force yourself to think about the problem differently.

The very first, and biggest, step you can take in that direction is viewing your depression as a solvable problem. Even if you don’t know how or where to begin, if you can get yourself into the headspace that your current feelings are a result of a medical condition (depression) and there are treatments that can help you, you’re on your way.

This is why therapy is so critical.

We don’t think twice about seeing a medical doctor when our bodies are sick. The same should be true of our brains. Let the professionals help you get better (because you can).

2. Get some exericse.

Exercise is so powerful and it doesn’t have to be a burden on your daily routine. When you move your body and increase your heart rate, your brain releases all those delicious, feel-good chemicals that improve your mood.

Aside from the obvious advantage of increasing serotonin levels in the brain of someone suffering from depression, there’s the restorative element as well. Your brain has taken quite a hit from years of heavy drinking. You need to relearn how to feel good again without that chemical crutch.

Sobriety requires us to find new, natural ways to feel better. Exercise and movement is a must-have tool in any sobriety toolbox.

Am I suggesting you start hitting the gym four times per week? Absolutely not. If you’re struggling to drag yourself off the couch and shower regularly, the chances of you hitting the gym consistently is not very high right now.

Start small and then build from there.

I promise you that when I wake up in the morning and take even five minutes to sit on my floor and stretch, maybe do 5 push-ups (if so many), or even stretch over the side of the bed to create an inversion, my whole morning changes. Truly.

It helps clear those morning cobwebs from your brain and makes you much more likely to do something healthy for yourself like eat breakfast or complete a meditation.

The opposite is also true. Hitting the snooze button and allowing your brain time to wander aimlessly is fuel on your depressive fire. Don’t do it.

3. Prioritize healthy eating. 

Consuming extra sugar is incredibly common in sobriety. Most of us fall victim. Here’s the thing. If you’re trying to manage depression right now, the last thing you can do is eat foods that spike your blood sugar and cause your mood to swing.

It’s tough to eat well when you’re depressed.

Healthy eating requires effort, which you can barely muster right now. It also requires caring, which maybe you don’t. And then there’s the comfort of emotional eating. It’s a lot!

using diet to help manage depression in sobriety

There’s an emerging field called nutritional psychiatry that may help motivate you to create diet changes. It turns out, our guts and brains are connected. What you put into your body can have wide-ranging impacts beyond your waistline.

Serotonin is a wonderful neurotransmitter that helps regulate our sleep, appetite, mood, and keeps pain at bay. And do you know where 95% of your serotonin is produced?

The gut.

This is also related to why you feel lousy in sobriety. Alcohol is inflammatory and does major damage to your gut, which contributes to your overall low mood.

Repairing your gut through healthy eating will help you feel better.

Nutritional Boosts for Mental Health

  1. Take a probiotic. Protect the good bacteria in your gut and guard against bad bacteria and inflammation. It’s one pill and maybe three seconds out of your day. This is an easy win for you!
  2. Start eliminating processed food from your diet little by little. (Visit my habit stacking post to see how to do this effectively.)
  3. Try switching a healthier style of eating like the Mediterranean Diet or a traditional Japanese Diet. People who follow one of these two diets are 25% to 35% less likely to suffer from depression than the rest of us stuffing our face with Hot Pockets and Doritos.

Interested in learning more? Check out: The Mind-Gut Connection: How the Hidden Conversation Within Our Bodies Impacts Our Mood, Our Choices, and Our Overall Health

A note on probiotics – make sure you get a high-quality tablet. Even better options are to eat fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, or sauerkraut. If you love any of these foods, have at them!

Healthy Food Options With Minimal Effort

To the greatest extent possible, I want you to make these lifestyle changes slowly and with the least amount of effort. With that in mind, here are some tools you can use to make healthy eating easier.

I personally LOVE to cook. It’s therapeutic for me. I’m also well aware that cooking has the exact opposite effect on other people.

If you have the financial means to do so, consider a meal prep service that will deliver all the ingredients you need to prepare healthy meals at home. No shopping necessary and you get to eat delicious food without having to find your own recipes and ingredients.

It’s also a huge time saver.

I know that when I am having a depressive episode, finding time to cook feels like a herculean effort. If someone who enjoys cooking feels that way, I can only imagine what those who do not are experiencing.

Here are some meal services you can try:

  1. Blue Apron – lots of delicious options for all kinds of dietary needs. Ignore that wine link, though. I’ve heard great things about their customer service as well, in the event something is not up to snub.
  2. Hello Fresh – I’ve used this one a few times and the food was AH-MAZING. I would’ve continued with it, but it’s pricey and because I know how to cook, it didn’t make sense for my family to keep at the time.

You can also try grocery delivery services like Amazon Fresh if going to the store is an impediment to having healthier food around the house.

4. Keep yourself busy. 

This is the hardest one because, for a lot of people, being depressed means you don’t want to do anything. To an extent, allowing yourself space to rest is great. However, if all you are doing is resting, then you’re not helping yourself.

Some people feel like joy has been completely sucked out of their life after they get some sober days under their belt. There were so many moments in my life when I knew I needed to do something, but I genuinely could not find something to care about. Nothing I thought about sounded like it would bring me happiness.

People would say, “Well what do you enjoy doing?”

I didn’t know. Nothing, I guess.

“What makes you happy?”

Right now? Nothing.

If this sounds like you, I get it. The only thing that helped me in these moments was to force myself to get out and do stuff. You have to learn how to have fun without alcohol.

Eventually, something will click.

You’ll try something that was almost, kind of fun and you’ll go back and do it again, and again until you start to find a new groove. It could be something you had no idea would be interesting to you.

Managing Depression in Sobriety: Final Thoughts

This can be a slow process. I won’t pretend otherwise. BUT, it all goes back to #1. Depression is a solvable problem and if your sobriety and recovery are important to you, you have to constantly work on the solutions.

If your attitude is that nothing can or ever will make you happy, it’s going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Feelings are not facts, though. You can push through them.

Eventually, you’ll get to a point where you can identify depression the same way you can identify an oncoming cold.

You’ll be able to say, “Okay. My energy is really dropping and I can feel myself wanting to go into hermit mode. My depression might be getting worse. I’ll need to do things to make sure I don’t get swept up by it.”

Most importantly, I hope you are able to see (or at least begin to see) that, A. your depression is very, very normal, and B. it is treatable.

Do not give up on your sobriety.

If you want some additional support, we have a wonderful group of people in the Soberish private Facebook Group and we are ready to welcome you with open arms (if that’s what you need).

Graphic of a sad woman clutching her knees. There is a stormy background. The title reads Depression in Sobriety: how to manage.
Depression in Sobriety PIN

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  1. I want to thank you for this informtion.
    I was researching sobriety & depression to inform myself. My friend has been sober for over a month now & is going through a sever depression & stays in bed all day & night. He doesn’t understand this withdrawal symptoms because because he feels when drinking beer he didn’t have that many. His purpose of drinking not because he liked
    it but to drink it on an empty stomach with prescriptions to make him feel better & help him sleep better maybe 2 to 4 hours. He sleeps better & longer without drinking. That seems to have changed because of the depression he is not sleeping well.

  2. Thank you for this, it’s very helpful.

    I’ve not had a drink for 45 days now and definitely in a depressed state.

    It’s got me inspired to try to change my mind set.

  3. Thanks for this info ! I will try to put these into action. I hate depression and I move had it most of my life . Now that I’m sober for 3 years I want a better life .

  4. This was a great article and what I needed to hear today. So many other articles on this subject want to label the person and tell them that their problem is that they aren’t working hard enough at reforming themselves… oh, and by the way, that they MIGHT be suffering from mental illness.

    Of course, this “tradition” of labeling and blame originates from people who gave up their addictions and organized self help groups, which in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. However, seeing as labeling oneself and excessive self criticism are often symptoms of, and triggers for, depression and anxiety, it isn’t surprising that the defacto explanation as to why one might struggles emotionally after going sober by many such groups is an externalized variant of these common thought patterns that people with mental health issues have.

    Seeking professional help is critical for mental health struggles. Going it alone is the worst option. Family and friends get burnt out after a while. One’s support group doesn’t always have the right answers and may in fact make the issue worse. People in this situation need to be kind to themselves and find a dedicated professional resource who can help them navigate through it safely. And, as the headline says, they need to remind themselves that feelings depression and anxiety are temporary conditions that pass.