For many people, alcohol is a way to escape mental health issues like depression and anxiety. The science tells us 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?
Why Depression is Common in Sobriety
For individuals who suffer from depression and abuse alcohol, it’s not that giving up alcohol makes you depressed. That implies sobriety is the root cause of your depression, which it’s not. In fact, alcohol actually exacerbates existing mental health problems by chemically changing the brain.
It’s that latter point combined with the withdrawal process that has you feeling like things will never be good again. Understanding why it happens can help you get through it with realistic expectations.
What is Dopamine?
A big reason many people experience depression after giving up alcohol has to do with 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 in 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!”
In the future, the anticipation of that same thing will raise your dopamine levels. 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 came up and you were no longer able to stay and enjoy Thanksgiving dinner, your dopamine levels would drop and take your mood right along with it.
How Alcohol Impacts Dopamine Levels
Alcohol artificially elevates dopamine levels in your brain in ways Thanksgiving dinner simply can’t. The reward system in the brain gets switched on and we start to feel amazing. We’re buzzed and life is grand.
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.
It’s why as you continue to drink, your disposition goes from euphoric to slow, slurred, and sloppy.
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on Dopamine Levels
If dopamine levels in your brain are constantly elevated by alcohol, your brain will come to rely on alcohol for dopamine. It will make less and 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 way of reacting 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.
How Long Does Depression Last After You Quit Drinking?
That is the million-dollar question with an unsatisfying answer: it depends.
There are so 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 depression after giving up alcohol, this is what they are referring to. 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 levels of dopamine after you quit drinking, with fewer receptors available, it can’t get where it needs to go.
The result is a pretty miserable feeling that nothing will ever be good again.
How Do You Recover From Anhedonia?
First and foremost, you need to give yourself time. Drinking didn’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 should try to increase dopamine naturally. You can do this by:
- Exercise regularly
- Get enough sleep, 7-9 hours
- Probiotics – you can get these through naturally fermented foods or take them in supplement form. I recommend this one.
- Supplements – There are supplements you can take to help boost dopamine. Consult with your doctor before starting. They include magnesium, ginkgo biloba, and curcumin.*
- Get enough protein.
- Listen to music.
*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?
It’s really important to go into sobriety understanding that you might feel bad in the beginning, why that happens, and ultimately, it is temporary.
One of the best things you can do for your sobriety is to keep the bigger picture in mind. The reason you feel bad now is a result of your brain trying to repair the damage from drinking. It is temporary. Your brain will readjust and the fog will lift.
It takes work, commitment, and a positive mindset. Sure, things suck now, but not as bad as when you were drinking and not nearly as much as they will in the future should you continue to drink.
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.
Recovery is possible. Unfortunately, it can be a rough journey in the beginning, but it does get better.