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Alcohol Addiction And Mental Health Disorders

An alcohol use disorder affects how the brain functions, increasing the risk of developing co-occurring mental health disorders.

Mental Health Disorders And Alcoholism

Alcohol is a depressant that disrupts the neurotransmitters in the brain, affecting how we feel and process emotions. Over time, these chemical changes in the brain can lead to negative feelings, such as sadness, anger, or worry, regardless of your current mood. This is why alcoholism is often linked to mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety.

Consistent unhealthy drinking patterns can lead to an alcohol use disorder (AUD), and the more alcohol consumed, the more the brain is affected. Therefore, alcohol addiction can contribute to and worsen mental health conditions.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that having an AUD can increase your risk of developing a mental health disorder or increasing your risk of self-harm behaviors and suicide. Their research also found that drinking excessively not only increases your risk of developing a mental health disorder but also creates a cycle of self-medicating that is difficult to break.

Common Mental Health Disorders That Occur With Alcohol Abuse

A co-occurring disorder is when someone has a substance use disorder (SUD) and an additional mental health disorder diagnosis. For people with addiction, there is often the presence of multiple underlying mental health and SUDs.

Depression And Alcohol Addiction

Individuals with depressive disorders have a higher likelihood of an AUD dual diagnosis. People with depression have lower-than-normal levels of dopamine and serotonin, which may contribute to feelings of sadness and the inability to feel pleasure. They may use alcohol to experience joy and temporary relief from psychological pain. The hallmarks of mood disorders are recurring episodes of disruptions in mood, energy, activity, sleep, and behavior. 

Anxiety And Alcohol Addiction

Anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and social phobia, are the most common mental health disorders in the United States, and they are often diagnosed along with AUD. The hallmarks of anxiety disorders are excessive and recurrent fear or worry that interferes with your daily life. People with anxiety disorders may have both psychological symptoms, such as apprehensiveness and irritability, and physical symptoms, such as fatigue and muscular tension.

Since alcohol is widely available, many people with anxiety disorders use alcohol to help curb their anxiety symptoms, as alcohol can reduce these symptoms temporarily. However, once the alcohol wears off, anxiety symptoms worsen, creating a dangerous cycle of self-medication, alcohol dependence, and withdrawal. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can also exacerbate anxiety symptoms. People without an anxiety disorder can experience anxiety-like symptoms after a single heavy drinking episode, termed “hangxiety.” These symptoms can increase between drinking episodes and peak during alcohol withdrawal. 

PTSD And Alcohol Addiction

Trauma-related disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) are common co-occurring conditions with alcohol use disorder, especially among veterans and military personnel. PTSD is characterized primarily by changes in arousal and recurrent intrusive thoughts that follow a life-threatening traumatic event. Symptoms include nightmares, flashbacks, disrupted sleep, changes in cognition and concentration, and symptoms of depression.

Individuals often use alcohol to “numb” the memories of a past traumatic event or to cope with symptoms of PTSD. Alcohol disrupts sleep patterns and can increase anxiety and depressive symptoms, therefore worsening the underlying symptoms of PTSD and causing a disruption in your ability to cope with traumatic events. Additionally, having an AUD can increase your risk of experiencing a traumatic event such as violence or assault because alcohol lowers your inhibition and arousal. 

Schizophrenia And Alcohol Addiction

Schizophrenia is a psychotic disorder that is characterized by hallucinations, delusions, and disturbances in cognition that affect a person’s ability to communicate. Although AUD is not as common in people with schizophrenia as it is in people with other mental health disorders, it can still be a dual diagnoses. Alcohol use disorder can worsen the symptoms of a psychotic disorder, and having a family history of alcoholism can increase the risk of developing an AUD in a person with schizophrenia. 

Which Disorder Comes First?

People with an undiagnosed or untreated mental health disorder may use alcohol as an unhealthy coping mechanism to deal with the symptoms associated with their mental health disorder, eventually leading them to develop an alcohol use disorder. In this case, a mental health disorder comes first.

People can also struggle with alcoholism and eventually develop depression or another mental illness, as alcohol misuse is known to predispose people to develop mental health disorders, illustrating that an AUD can come first.

Additionally, alcoholism and mental health disorders both share underlying genetic risks and environmental triggers such as trauma and adverse childhood experiences, and as a result, both may occur simultaneously. Regardless of which disorder presented first, it is essential to diagnose and treat them at the same time, as each disorder can exacerbate or complicate the other, especially if one is left undiagnosed or untreated. 

Symptoms Of A Co-Occurring Disorder 

Symptoms of a co-occurring disorder include symptoms of an AUD and symptoms of a mental health disorder. Often, these symptoms can overlap. For example, alcohol can result in a depressed mood and changes in sleep, which are symptoms of depression. 

Diagnostic symptoms of AUD include the following: 

  • Wanting to cut down on how much you drink but being unable to do so 
  • Spending excessive time drinking, getting alcohol, or recovering from alcohol use
  • Feeling intense cravings to drink 
  • Failing to fulfill significant obligations at work, school, or home due to alcohol use
  • Continuing to drink even though it’s causing physical, social, work, or relationship problems
  • Giving up or reducing social and work activities and hobbies to use alcohol
  • Drinking in situations where it’s not safe, such as driving or swimming
  • Developing a tolerance to alcohol
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms, such as sweating or shaking, when you don’t drink or drinking to avoid these symptoms

Common symptoms of mental health disorders include the following:

  • Trouble concentrating
  • Restlessness
  • Experiencing intense highs or lows in mood
  • Changes in weight and appetite
  • Sleep problems
  • Agitation
  • Sweating
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Heart palpitations

How Is A Co-Occurring Disorder Diagnosed?

When an individual enters treatment for either an alcohol use disorder or a mental health disorder, the treatment team will assess for any underlying disorders upon admission. Many treatment professionals will try to develop a timeline to discern whether the mental health disorder is alcohol induced or a pre-existing disorder that drives heavy drinking.

However, if an individual is undergoing treatment for an AUD, they may portray signs and symptoms of a mental health disorder that were difficult to diagnose at the time of admission because there are many overlapping symptoms. Therefore, it is common to screen for symptoms of a mental health disorder throughout the treatment course for an AUD.

Treatment For A Mental Health Condition And Alcohol Addiction

Many clinical symptoms of alcoholism have significant overlap with mental health disorders, including sleep disturbances and negative emotional states such as worry, apathy, sadness, or irritability that often occur during cycles of alcohol intoxication, withdrawal, and cravings. Hence why, people with alcoholism and mental health disorders tend to return to using alcohol more frequently, as well as experience more severe mental health symptoms. Without appropriate treatment, this pattern may result in increased rates of hospitalization and suicide. Therefore, treating all conditions simultaneously or in parallel is essential to prevent any future relapse.

Treatment is tailored to the specific mental health condition and substance abused, and in general, a combination of medications and psychotherapy approaches are frequently used. If a person is in an acute state of mania, psychosis, or dangerous substance withdrawal, then these symptoms are treated immediately to stabilize the individual. Medications are often used in these situations, and once the individual is stable, a more formalized treatment plan can be established to treat the diagnosed disorders. 

How Can I Reduce My Risk Of A Co-Occurring Disorder?

Mental health disorders and addiction are both brain diseases, and therefore, you can’t prevent them, but you can take steps to reduce your risk of them developing by:

Learning about your family history

Is there a history of mental health or substance use disorders in your family? If so, you can learn about these disorders to recognize signs, symptoms, or warning signs. If you see symptoms in yourself, you can be proactive and speak with a medical professional about what you are experiencing. 

Reducing your alcohol and drug use

Since alcohol and drugs can exacerbate mental health disorders, you can stay away from alcohol and drugs to reduce your risk of developing a co-occurring disorder. 

Assessing your environmental risk factors

If you have a history of trauma or are experiencing unhealthy relationships or stress, you can take steps to reduce this or prevent it from worsening by seeking therapy or joining a support group. 

Building a strong support system

Whether it is family, friends, a mental health provider, or a support group, it is important to surround yourself with individuals who want to see you thrive, can lend a helping hand, and give you sound advice. 

Getting Help For Alcohol Addiction And A Co-Occurring Disorder

The effects of a mental health condition and alcohol addiction can be hard to deal with on your own. Thankfully, treatment is available to provide direction and support in your recovery journey.

Contact a treatment provider today to discuss the treatment options available to you.

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