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?
- Why Depression is Common in Sobriety
- How Long Does Depression Last After You Quit Drinking?
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. Alcohol actually exacerbates existing mental health problems 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 plays a big part.
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.
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 come to 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.
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 it is temporary.
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 can try to increase dopamine naturally.
Here’s how you do that:
- Exercise regularly
- Get enough sleep, 7-9 hours
- Take 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.
- Spend time in nature.
*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.
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. 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.
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 initially, but it does get better.
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 stay in communication 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.