The link between depression and addiction

While addiction is fairly complex, it is, at its core, a biological process. But what does this mean?

Quite simply, the substance (alcohol or a narcotic) at the root of the addiction impacts the brain at a cellular level by binding to certain areas, thus creating that particular substance’s response. Depending on the drug, this can include feelings of euphoria, enhanced energy levels, or the feeling of slowing down.

However, when ingested continuously over time, these substances actually change some of the brain’s neural circuits. This ultimately alters the person’s reward and motivation systems, resulting in the person being in an “addicted state.”

These addiction-impacted areas of the brain are thought to be the same general areas responsible for depressive symptoms, many of which are also related to reward and motivation. Thus, it only makes sense that these two conditions — addiction and depression — would likely occur at the same time.

But what exactly is depression?

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) defines depression as a “common but serious mood disorder” that ultimately impacts various areas of your life, from the way you feel and think to your behaviour at home and work.

There are many different kinds of depression, but the general symptoms tend to include:

•    Feeling sad or hopeless a lot of the time;
•    Being irritable or pessimistic;
•    No longer finding joy in activities that you used to enjoy;
•    Having less energy;
•    Sleeping too little or too much;
•    Not thinking clearly or trouble remembering;
•    Physical aches and pains with no apparent cause; and
•    Thoughts of hurting yourself, or actively trying.

These symptoms would have to persist for two weeks or more to be labelled as depression.

Individuals who are at the greatest risk of developing some type of depressive disorder are those with:

•    a family history of depression;
•    individuals struggling with a sleep disorder;
•    people who are facing a serious illness such as cancer, dementia, or Parkinson’s disease;
•    those who are/have been abused; and
•    and people with a poor social support system.

Gender makes a difference as well. Women are two times more likely to experience depression compared with men. And sometimes life circumstances are what tip off depressive thoughts, like the end of an important relationship or the loss of income.

Even the medications that you take can lead to depression. For instance, some blood pressure medications have been linked with depression, as have certain steroids, pain killers, sedatives and sleeping pills.

Adding these depressive thoughts and behaviours to an addiction to drugs or alcohol can be extremely dangerous, but does one actually cause the other?

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) shares that it’s important to understand that there is no one-size-fits-all causal relationship. In other words, the appearance of one does not necessarily guarantee the appearance of the other. We know this because not all addicts are depressed, and not all people suffering with depression are also struggling with an addiction.

The NIDA explains that there’s also a third option that occurs when these two issues appear at the same time because of something else entirely. For instance, there could be “underlying brain deficits, genetic vulnerabilities, and/or early exposure to stress or trauma” leading to both the depression and addiction. In other words, one did not cause the other at all.

That being said, when depression and addiction occur simultaneously, it’s what is often referred to as a dual diagnosis. A dual diagnosis is when an individual has two different issues occurring at the same time, and both are negatively impacting his or her life.

Even though one does not necessarily cause the other, some people use alcohol and drugs as a way to “self-medicate” against their depression. They have difficulty coping with their feelings, so they take substances that help ease their emotions. In this way, it’s entirely possible that issues with depression can lead into issues with addiction.

Of course, this makes finding treatment a little more complex because more than one issue needs to be addressed. Plus, some people notice that they have feelings of depression long after they’ve started the addiction rehabilitation process.

If you or someone you know needs help, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit its website.

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