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Depressed After Quitting Drinking? This Is Why It Happens.

For many people, alcohol is a way to escape mental health issues like depression and anxiety. Science tells us that self-medicating with alcohol actually makes our mental health worse, so we expect to find relief in sobriety.

But what if we don’t find relief? What if we find ourselves sick and depressed instead?

Depression After Quitting Drinking: Why It Happens

Depression after quitting alcohol is common for several reasons:

So for individuals who suffer from depression and abuse alcohol, it’s not that giving up alcohol makes you depressed. Alcohol actually exacerbates existing mental health problems and, in some cases, causes them by chemically changing the brain.

That latter point, combined with the withdrawal process, makes you feel like things will never be good again. Understanding why it happens can help you get through it with realistic expectations.

Dopamine Deficits and Depression After Quitting Alcohol

A big reason many people experience depression after giving up alcohol involves alcohol’s impact on the brain.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, which means it acts as a chemical messenger between neurons. It plays a critical role in the reward system in our brain. You may have heard it referred to as the “feel-good” chemical.

Our brains release dopamine in response to or anticipation of things we enjoy, like certain foods, sex, buying a new shirt, or seeing a loved one.

These elevated dopamine levels tell your brain, “Hey, this is pretty awesome!”

The anticipation of that same thing will raise your dopamine levels in the future. It’s why smelling Thanksgiving dinner from the living room can be such a maddening experience. You are craving something you can’t quite have yet. That’s dopamine at work, too.

If an emergency arose and you could no longer stay and enjoy Thanksgiving dinner, your dopamine levels would drop and take your mood along with it.

A woman sits on the ground feeling upset. There is a messy cloud over her head. A graphic with a circle slash through a bottle of alcohol is to her right. The title reads Why do I feel depressed after quitting alcohol?
depressed after quitting alcohol

How Alcohol Impacts Dopamine Levels

Alcohol artificially elevates dopamine levels in your brain in a big way. When we drink, the reward system in the brain gets switched on, and we start to feel amazing. That’s the initial buzz of the first drink or two at work.

Except now, our brains have to adjust.

The brain likes balance. Alcohol creates a chemical imbalance by flooding the brain with dopamine. So it attempts to correct things by producing more GABA, the inhibitory neurotransmitter that calms things down.

As you continue to drink, your disposition goes from euphoric to slow, slurred, and sloppy.

Your personality might start to change, and you can experience huge mood swings.

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on Dopamine Levels

If dopamine levels in your brain are constantly elevated by alcohol, your brain will rely on alcohol for dopamine.

Eventually, your brain will make less of it on its own. Additionally, it will reduce the number of dopamine receptors available.

This last process is called downregulation.

It’s the brain’s reaction to the constant flood of dopamine from alcohol. The fewer receptor sites you have, the more of a substance you need to get the same effect.

When that happens, your brain no longer functions normally without alcohol.

When you quit drinking, you deprive your brain of its primary source of dopamine. With fewer dopamine receptors in the brain, it becomes significantly more difficult to experience pleasure or joy.

To understand dopamine more, check out this video:

Alcohol-Induced Depression

There is a clinical term for experiencing depression after quitting alcohol and it’s called alcohol-induced depressive disorder (AIDD). 

Alcohol abuse and comorbid depression are common – meaning they often occur simultaneously. With alcohol-induced depression, alcohol use actually triggers the depression. 

This is characterized as a depressed mood or anhedonia (more on that in a minute) that occurs during or shortly after getting drunk or during the alcohol-withdrawal process. According to a 2019 study in the scientific journal Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, if it’s AIDD specifically, it generally goes away within 3-4 weeks.  

Unfortunately, it’s typically not mild, as it’s often associated with extreme distress and impairment. This same study noted that approximately 1% of people with substance abuse disorders experience substance-induced depression. That’s not a lot. 

Generally, when we talk about alcohol and depression, we’re speaking specifically about co-occurring depression and alcohol abuse. 

For a great explanation on depression after quitting alcohol, I highly recommend this video:

How Long Does Depression Last After You Quit Drinking?

That is the million-dollar question with an unsatisfying answer: it depends.

There are many factors to consider, such as genetics, how much you drank and for how long, the extent of damage, and pre-existing mental health problems.

According to American Addiction Centers, acute mental health responses like severe anxiety and depression often resolve by the fourth or fifth day of sobriety. However, milder, lingering episodes of anxiety and depression can go on for 3-6 months after your last drink.

Anhedonia in Early Recovery

An-ha-what? Anhedonia is the feeling that nothing will be good again. It is an inability to experience pleasure, even in things you once enjoyed.

Often when people talk about feeling depressed after giving up alcohol, they are referring to this.

Additional symptoms include:

  • inability to experience pleasure
  • food loses its taste/is bland
  • physical touch is no longer comforting
  • sex is no longer enjoyable, or you stop having it altogether

People in early recovery experience anhedonia because of the way alcohol changes the structure of the brain.

Even though your brain will begin to produce higher dopamine levels after quitting drinking, with fewer receptors available, it can’t get where it needs to go.

The result is a miserable feeling that nothing will ever be good again.

The hopeful news is that this depressed feeling is temporary.

How do you recover from anhedonia in sobriety?

First and foremost, you need to give yourself time. Drinking doesn’t change the structure of your brain overnight, and it won’t be fixed that way, either.

As your brain gets used to a normal amount of dopamine, it will start to reopen dopamine receptors. As that happens, your mood will improve.

Additionally, you can try to increase dopamine naturally.

Here’s how you do that:

*Again, check with your doctor or mental health specialist before starting any supplements. They can best tell which to take, how much, and how often.

When will you feel better?

I wish had a precise answer for you, but I don’t. There are so many factors at play. Some people feel better within a couple of weeks. It takes others up to 90 days to start to feel “normal” again.

One of the best things you can do for your sobriety is to keep the bigger picture in mind. You feel bad now because your brain is trying to repair the damage from drinking. It is temporary.

Your brain will readjust, and the fog will lift.

Symptoms of Depression

If you have a history of depression or anxiety disorders and used to self-medicate with alcohol, your symptoms will likely increase when you quit. This can also explain why you feel depressed after quitting drinking.

It’s important to keep track of your symptoms. If they become overwhelming, you’ll need to get additional support.

Depressive symptoms include:

  • Persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in previously enjoyable activities
  • Changes in appetite and weight (either weight gain or loss)
  • Difficulty sleeping or oversleeping
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Physical agitation or slowing of movements
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

If you experience any of these symptoms and they are interfering with your daily life and/or putting you at major risk for relapse, do not be afraid to reach out to your doctor.

It can feel like an extra step that you don’t have time or bandwidth for, but it’s important.

woman wondering depression in early sobriety will end
When does anhedonia get better?

Getting Treatment For Depression After Quitting Drinking

If you are experiencing symptoms of depression in sobriety, it is important to speak to your doctor. It is common for people to require separate treatment for depression and alcohol abuse. They are co-occurring disorders.

Co-occurring disorders are defined as the co-existence of a mental health problem and a substance abuse disorder. It’s common, affecting nearly 37.9% of people with substance abuse issues.

If this is you, do not feel ashamed or hopeless. Reaching out for help early in sobriety will increase your chance of feeling better sooner and avoiding relapse.

Of course, that is easier said than done, which is why it is incredibly important to have a support system in place as you go through this process. Recovery groups like AA or SMART Recovery are great resources.

So is talk therapy with a mental health specialist who understands addiction and substance abuse.

A lot of people do both. If your emotional world starts feeling unbearable, don’t be afraid to consult with your doctor to talk about medication.

Treatment for depression coupled with sobriety and healthy lifestyle changes such as improved diet and exercise will help you get to the good parts of sobriety.

If you’re feeling at all overwhelmed and don’t know where to find a support community, we have a private Soberish Facebook group ready to receive you.

Additional reasons you might feel depressed when you quit drinking:

In addition to all the reasons we just discussed, it’s important to note that sometimes you feel depressed after quitting because you’re wrestling with some big emotions you don’t typically allow yourself to feel.

When you drink alcohol in the face of everyday stresses and problems, you lose your ability to deal with them in healthy ways.

It takes time to learn how to deal with overbearing bosses, failed relationships, loss, boredom, and grief when you don’t drink.

It’s also okay to admit that quitting alcohol feels like a loss.

You’re giving up something that used to be a big part of your life. Yes, that thing was harming you, but it also played a starring role in some of your biggest life moments. It’s baked into our social lives.

Chances are you are reading this from a country with a big drinking culture. When you give up alcohol, it can feel like you’re setting yourself up to be excluded. (You’re not, but it can feel that way at first.)

Maybe you’re grieving the loss of friendships with old drinking buddies. Or maybe you’re struggling to forgive yourself for drunken mistakes you can’t take back.

This part of sobriety is hard, but it is not permanent. You can recover.

My Experience With Depression After Quitting

When I first quit, my anxiety initially revved up. I had an overwhelming sense of not being able to calm down. But then I crashed and struggled to do most basic things. I got myself to work, but that was about it. 

The first couple of weeks, I managed to go to the gym and make strides towards creating healthier habits, but that came tumbling down quickly. I just wanted to zone out. Initially, I tried to quit cigarettes and drinking at the same time and that proved too overwhelming. 

So I ended chain smoking a lot, slamming cans of soda (hello post-drinking sugar cravings), and mindlessly scrolling my phone to pass the time. I was just passing time. I couldn’t find anything purposeful to do with myself in those early days. 

After a few weeks of that, I realized I needed help. So I reached out to my doctor and we decided to go back on medication and start talk therapy. 

It helped, but shortly thereafter (like a week or two later), I learned I was pregnant and that was the final push I needed to ditch the cigarettes for good. My mental health didn’t improve as much as I’d hoped (thanks, hormones), but it was the beginning of my path to recovery, even through a really difficult pregnancy. 

FAQs about Depression After Quitting Alcohol

How long does anhedonia last after quitting alcohol?

The tricky thing about anhedonia is that it can come and go. Some people may experience anhedonia for a few hours after quitting alcohol, like with hangxiety. Other people might experience anhedonia for several weeks.

It’s also common to experience anhedonia, feel better, and then get hit with another wave later in the recovery process.

Because anhedonia is unpredictable and can lead to relapse, it’s important to communicate with your doctor or mental health specialist to get additional support during these episodes.

After a while, however, it will go away completely.

Is depression normal after quitting drinking?

Yes, it’s normal! A lot of people feel depressed after quitting alcohol.

It can be a sign of pre-existing depression that you used to self-medicate with alcohol. It is also a side effect of your brain trying to adjust to the lack of dopamine it used to rely on alcohol to receive.

It will get better. Make sure you work with your doctor on managing symptoms during those initial weeks and months of sobriety.

What percentage of alcoholics are depressed?

Studies have shown that a high percentage (63.8%) of alcohol-dependent people also suffer from depression.

Do dopamine levels return to normal after quitting alcohol?

Yes, they do! Eventually, your brain will start producing dopamine on its own again and opening up dopamine receptors.

This probably won’t happen as quickly as you like, but give your brain some time. Medical professionals will say it takes about 90 days for your brain’s dopamine production to return to pre-drinking levels.

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19 Comments

  1. Thanks, Alicia. I enjoy your simple approach to things. I’m two years into sobriety and I still suffer from chronic depression. Like Nils, I didn’t lead an unhealthy life per se before quitting; rather the opposite as I was way more enthusiastic, energetic and ambitious about the ‘erotic’ aspects of existence; sports, social events, seeing friends, concerts, dining out, traveling and, yes, also the lower erotic ones, like enjoying having a lot of sex. I simply don’t enjoy living nearly as much as I did when I drank alcohol. Alcohol wasn’t the centerpiece of my life, but I do realize now, that without it, most if not all of what I used to enjoy has more or less gone with it. And based on my experiences from the last two years I don’t think there’s a fix for this for med personally. Maybe there shouldn’t be. Maybe life without ‘enhancers’ is just like that, a bleak, hellishly lucid, boring and mostly uneventful drone of work and sleep, wash and repeat, which has to be embraced and understood as it is without chasing the afterglow of former forms of happiness. Yes, I exercise, go on long distance hikes, lift weights, have meaningful work, attend concerts, see friends, have occasional sex and all the rest of it, but the flavour is gone. Everything is a task, a project, and somehow something that needs to be done, and not something that is done, because I feel a desire or need to do it. And that is the major difference. Some would call it mature, responsible living and they may be right. I do hope it gets better, and I do hope that the effort pays off at some point, that a general state of humbly ‘feeling good about life’ is something attainable without stimulants of any kind. Best of wishes for all of you.

    1. Thanks, Peter! I wish I had the perfect answer for you. For whatever reason your brain is not registering joy from things that should be giving you a nice dopamine boost. I know you said you suffer from chronic depression. Are you getting any treatment for that? (Totally fine if you don’t want to say so publicly one way or another.) Full transparency, seven years in the game, I still have to get treatment for anxiety and depression and that’s with doing all the right things – meditation, exercise, eating decent-ish. But things don’t feel joyless for me and it sounds like you’re doing way more fun stuff than I am, so that’s where my concern would be for you. I wish I knew how to help more!

  2. Thanks Alicia,
    That was very informative and made feel less alone with a whopping 63% of us suffering from depression….I put a plug in the jug about 60 days ago and I am definitely experiencing anhedonia!
    Hopefully I can grow some new receptors this month….peace,out.

  3. I’m experiencing depression way over 90 days post quitting and not sure what to do. I already do all of the suggestions in this article besides talk therapy. I don’t want to take medications. Is it common to have depression later than 4 months after quitting?

    1. Hey Jenny! It’s definitely not uncommon, but if I were in your shoes, I’d reach out to my doctor to see what options I have. I know you don’t want to do medication, and you may not have to! Have you done any bloodwork with your doctor since quitting drinking? They can check for vitamin deficiencies that can also contribute to depression and low mood. But it’s worth having a conversation. I know how frustrated you must feel!

    2. Yes I relapsed twice on 6th month . Be careful . It will drive you crazy

  4. Whilst “it gets better” sounds like an empty promise, all I can say is that at the time when you hear it, and you are swimming in despair and sadness, it is effectively, for the one receiving this message, an empty promise. However, it is more akin to a prophecy (has not happened yet, but it will). This was my experience:

    During the first months I quit drinking, I had normal and depressed moments. I have suffered for depressions throughout most of my life and I just thought it was “another depressive episode” so I just braced myself and went into my “depression management mode”, I never thought it could be related to alcohol (I quit cold turkey; no real reason, no real incentive, no cathalyst, no visitation from angels in my dreams – just thought that I should give it a go as 1/3 a bottle of whisky and 2 to 3 beers a night was perhaps a bit too much and I wanted to see whether quitting would give me a slight boost in energy).

    My depression management is something I previously did as I knew I needed a system to help me navigate on autopilot the tought times – I put down on paper the things I needed to do and when to do them and when “the shadow” visited me, I would just follow the list of things that I wrote down, without thinking. So I did. No voice in my head talking, no ideation… just doing. Focusing on what I am doing, participating with all my senses but with mental silence. If this didn’t work, then I would repeat a mantra in my head (usually it is, “trust the process”), listen to music or make weird synthesiser sounds.

    This comes from the idea that 2 thoughts cannot coexist in your head at the same time. The less you wander into self pity or ideation, the less you’ll go back to that mental room of loss and despair. The more you engage your attention with whatever you are doing or what is in front of you, the better. Just avoid words or play movies in your head, don’t trust the little voice… trust the list. Avoid grand plans, focus on little things like selecting and preparing healthy food. Taking your vitamins. Brushing your teeth. Getting your laundry done, etc. When meetings with friends (avoid negative people, but as well the mega happy ones… preferably meet someone where you can have those comfortable moments of silence, without any pressure to say something at all and avoid retelling the story of how rubbish you feel), just limit them for one or two hours and don’t feel pressured that you have to entertain them. Just like when you have the flu, you can’t really expect to run a marathon with a fever. Take it easy.

    At the beginning of month 2 after quitting, after a few depression and manic episodes, I realised that something was not in order, this had gone for too long. Whilst I started to sleep better, I would still spend entire weekends in bed, just standing up to do the things in the list. Not depressed but definitely not content and with cero motivation. I started to read news and get lost in youtube videos but quickly realised that these were not the solution so I started to listen to Allan Watts, which helped me to walk with my thoughts rather than struggle with them. At the same time it is when I started reading about the huge impact alcohol has on brain chemistry, read a few studies and found out that my symptoms were almost 1 by 1 in the diagnostic parameters of alcohol withdrawal. Suffice to say, that is the moment when I realised that the ups and downs would not have a quick fix and surrendered to the idea that this would take time, as resistance would be futile, and to trust the healing process. I would be a zombie, albeit a self-compassionate one, for the next foreseeable future – and this was OK.

    One thing that started to happen around month 4 is that I had these brief moments of absolute mental clarity, which I loved! Things just flowed. Ideas, solutions, thoughts, emotions, everything was just aligned. Whatever emerged from my subconscious was pristine, quick, effective and positive for me and others. Yes, these moment would go away, yet they started to happen more often and lasted longer as time went by.

    Fast forward to today and I am in that state most of the time; there is clarity, I definitely enjoy my company alone and that of others, challenges seem to always have a solution (and if they don’t, there is always a way to minimise damage). I feel, again, like an active participant in my own life.

    Looking back and knowing what I know now, I would have probably consulted with a specialist before doing this by myself, as it is tough. Very tough. It feels like you have traded a state of artificial happiness for complete despair and hopelesness, and your mind somehow blames you and pushes you to correct – yet during this time, your compass is not well calibrated, so you usually end up in worse places than when you started. Thus, during this period, it is helpful to have a guide to steer you to better decisions.

    In time, you will end up in a place where you have clarity and energy, the problem is that the map is all sketchy, there is no clear destination and there is no estimated time of arrival – so, it is only rational to doubt whether walking makes any sense at all. But if you keep walking at your own pace, you’ll eventually get where you need to be.

    You’ll fall, you’ll get scratched, a bridge may have collapsed and will need to find another way to cross a deep river – so yes, get ready (and creative) as it will be a serious challenge. You may get lost and backtrack a bit and this is ok. But at the end of the day, you are learning the road the hard way and finding your way will become easier each time you travel it. I wish you all the best of lucks in your journey.

    PS: Yes, the grass IS greener.

    1. Thank you for sharing this, Roland! I really appreciate your perspective and I think people will get a lot of value out of hearing it.

  5. Gave up in the past (after 50+ years of heavy drinking, though back then it wasn’t thought so), and relapsed. Last year only drank on 45 days (397 units {yes, I kept a diary! lol}) Jan to March ’22 slipped too. Gave up 3 1/2 weeks ago and had brain fog, and now de-realisation or similar; but I will get through it. Cold turkey is my way (heroin and cigarettes quit same way in the past), and good luck to all: best without!

  6. Sober for 3 months now and depression is awful. I have lost all my friends. I don’t want to exist anymore. I used to do so many things like crafts and go for walks and hikes. Now I don’t even want to leave the house.

    1. It sounds like you are experiencing some major depression. As much as you might not want to, please reach out to a doctor and see about getting some help. This will pass!

    2. Two months sober and counting. Have never dealt with depression before and it’s paralyzing. Eating properly before and now, I’m shape before and after as well, probiotics and all that good stuff. Always been disciplined with food and nutrition. This depression is really hard. No desire to socialize or spend time with my friends and that used to be number one on my list!! Hardest thing ever, but I sure don’t want to go back to the booze to artificially enhance my mood as tempting as it is. Talking to my health practitioner in a week. Help!!

    3. Makes one wonder why we quit only to face emotional collapse, loneliness and a feeling of such great loss and happiness that day to day life is a big drag. I suppose everyone has a reason why they are doing it but it does make me wonder.

  7. That is a very good point nils. I was hoping for more after just over a month of quitting. Anxiety has not improved at all. In fact I feel less inclined to get on and do things. Depression raises its head too from time to time. I guess it must be early days, but I feel that I was seduced somewhat from many of the utube vids extolling how great it was going to be.

    1. It is definitely not great and wonderful in the early days. It’s so so hard. But it does get better gradually. Then after some time has passed, you realize how much better your life is without alcohol. But it is by no means sunshine and rainbows when you’re in the thick of it.

  8. Everyone involved in recovery, whether they’re counselors or other alcoholics, have this idea that all alcoholics, while they drink, do nothing but stare at the wall and eat greasy food. No hobbies, no exercise, no vegetables, probiotics, meditation or even tea until they stop drinking. What about those of us that doesn’t apply to? I always exercised and mediated every day (the latter only before drinking), ate healthily most of the time, and never gave up hobbies. Is there any advice for someone in my situation other than “iT gEtS bEtTeR”, given that even people at AA will tell you you just need to exercise and take a hobby and literally tell you you’re lying if you say you’ve always done both? I have no empty time to fill in.

    1. I agree with you. I was never an alcoholic in the traditional way of thinking. I was just drinking chronically like maybe 3 or 3.5 bottles of wine per week and doing that for about 10 years. Other than this activity I am extremely healthy. I decided due to my age I could not longer process the alcohol and wanted to nudge up my health to ward off the ‘older’ age hitting me. It seems that most assumptions you are just a total drinker and have no sense of fitness and health. There are alot of us in the middle and probably most of us are actually.