It’s not uncommon to use alcohol to cope with difficult feelings and experiences.
You might have a drink or two when you want to:
- unwind after a hard day
- calm anxiety before a date
- ease feelings of loneliness or sadness
- take your mind off a disappointment
In small to moderate amounts, alcohol can temporarily lift your spirits and help improve your mood.
The more you drink, however, the more likely your emotional state will begin plummeting back down. Sometimes, alcohol can make you feel even worse than you did before.
Alcohol affects people in different ways. Some people never notice feelings of depression — or any negative effects at all — after drinking moderately. Others might begin feeling depressed or anxious after just one drink.
Understanding the link between alcohol and depression can help you better manage depression after drinking, or better yet, prevent it from happening in the first place.
While alcohol use can directly trigger feelings of depression, it can also contribute to symptoms in more indirect ways.
Alcohol acts as a depressant
You might feel depressed after drinking because alcohol itself is a depressant.
Drinking activates the reward system in your brain and triggers dopamine release, so alcohol often seems to have a stimulating effect — at first.
Dopamine produces positive emotions that make you feel good and help reinforce your desire to drink, but alcohol affects your central nervous system in other ways, too.
Namely, it interferes with the release of neurotransmitters linked to mood regulation, including serotonin and norepinephrine.
Lower-than-normal levels of these important chemical messengers can temporarily affect your speech, coordination, and energy.
The long-term impact, however, can be more serious: Persistent changes in brain chemistry can factor into depression and anxiety over time.
To sum up: Even though it seems to improve your mood in the moment, alcohol can actually bring you down, especially with long-term use.
Alcohol disrupts your sleep
Ever had a night of bad sleep after drinking? Maybe you tossed and turned, had bizarre dreams, or woke up with your heart racing.
These unpleasant experiences are all pretty normal. Troubled sleep can relate to the changes in brain chemistry associated with alcohol use.
Drinking can also interfere with your sleep-wake cycle and keep you from getting enough REM sleep.
Don’t forget: Drinking can also have physical consequences — nausea and dehydration can keep you from getting restful sleep.
Bad sleep can easily affect your mood the next day, since exhaustion and lingering physical symptoms can make it tough to concentrate. This can leave you feeling pretty low.
Alcohol can worsen negative emotions
A low mood after a night of drinking can feel pretty awful. If you already have depression, you might feel even worse, since alcohol can magnify the intensity of your emotions.
Alcohol can affect the areas of your brain that help regulate emotions. You might start drinking in order to forget what’s on your mind, but once the initial boost begins to wear off, you might end up wallowing in those feelings instead.
Since alcohol can cloud your brain, it can keep you from seeing helpful solutions to problems.
It also lowers inhibitions, so if you’ve been trying to keep some difficult emotions, like sadness or anger, under wraps, they may come flooding in when you drink.
This can lead to a tricky cycle. You might begin drinking more regularly in order to feel better or forget about those unwanted emotions and memories.
Increased alcohol use usually won’t help, though. It’s more likely to worsen negative mood states, along with physical health.
Drinking to cope can become a pattern
When you regularly turn to alcohol to manage challenges and negative feelings, you may not take other actions that could help you address those problems effectively.
As a result, any troubles you’re facing, from work stress to relationship issues, may get worse.
If you tend to rely on alcohol to ease anxiety in social situations, for example, you might never address the underlying causes of your discomfort.
And those lowered inhibitions mentioned above? They can lead you to make decisions you normally wouldn’t. This, combined with heightened mood states, can have some unpleasant effects.
Increased anger might lead you to pick a fight with a loved one, for example, while extreme sadness or self-loathing could lead to intense depression symptoms.
If you wake up feeling miserable after a night of drinking, you don’t have to wait it out. Here are a few strategies to help you lift your spirits in the moment.
First, try not to get down on yourself
If you already feel a little low, giving yourself a hard time for overdoing the alcohol probably won’t improve matters.
It often feels very tempting (and easy) to keep drinking until you feel better, especially when you have less access than usual to more helpful coping methods.
Try not to blame yourself for your current mood. Instead, remind yourself you can do things differently next time. Then, try distracting yourself to help take your mind off how you feel.
Drink plenty of water
Alcohol can dehydrate you, causing head pain and generally adding to your misery.
Drinking water may not have a direct impact on feelings of depression, but rehydrating can absolutely help you start feeling better physically. As hangover symptoms begin to subside, the emotional effects may follow.
Even if they don’t improve immediately, you’ll probably have an easier time doing something about them when you don’t have to deal with physical symptoms, too.
Take a walk
You might feel a little unwell physically, but as long as the room doesn’t spin when you stand up, try to get outside for a short walk — or a longer one, if you can manage it.
Exercise often provides a natural mood boost, so you’ll probably feel better once you get moving.
Spending time in nature can also have health benefits, including improving your mood. If the sun is out, that’s even better — sunshine can trigger the release of serotonin, which can help relieve depression.
Do something you enjoy
Taking some time for productive relaxation can also help ease feelings of depression.
When you feel down, a favorite activity may help improve your mood.
If you don’t feel like anything too strenuous, you might consider:
Even when you don’t have much time to spare, spending 15 minutes reading a good book, drawing or doodling, or even looking at cute animal videos can offer a positive distraction.
Talking to someone you care about can also help counter feelings associated with hangover-induced anxiety and depression after drinking. Consider calling up a friend or taking a walk with your partner.
The only certain way to prevent depression after drinking is to avoid alcohol entirely. You can, however, take steps to lower your chances of emotional side effects when drinking.
Stick to moderate drinking
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, moderate drinking means one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.
Having an extra drink or two once in a while doesn’t automatically translate to heavy drinking.
But regularly drinking more alcohol than these guidelines recommend can pose a number of health risks, including depression.
Responsible drinking doesn’t just refer to staying off the road. By following safe drinking guidelines, you can help reduce your risk for depression as well as other hangover symptoms.
Keep these tips for safer drinking in mind:
- Drink slowly. Limit yourself to one drink each hour.
- Eat before drinking. A nutritious meal may help blunt some of the harmful effects of alcohol, including dehydration and depression.
- Don’t forget the water. Following each alcoholic beverage with a glass of water can help keep you hydrated.
- Avoid alcohol when you’re already feeling low. Instead of drinking to forget a bad day, consider chatting with a friend, watching a favorite movie, or trying some quiet meditation.
Stop drinking if you start to feel bad
If you begin to notice any unwanted side effects — physical or emotional — while drinking, it may be best to call it a night.
Haven’t had much to eat or drink, besides alcohol? A glass of water and a light snack can help you avoid a bad hangover.
It can also help to unwind with a warm bath, soft music, and other soothing or calming activities before putting yourself to bed.
Address negative feelings when they come up
Taking action to manage negative emotions as you experience them can help keep them from getting too overwhelming.
When you have healthy habits in place to cope with unwanted feelings, you’ll probably find it easier to use these strategies to push back against distressing emotions you might experience while drinking.
Helpful strategies for navigating difficult emotional experiences include:
It’s fairly common to feel a little low after drinking. These blues usually don’t linger, though, so you’ll probably feel better in a day or so.
When other factors beyond alcohol play into your mood, however, feelings of depression might persist even after your hangover improves.
It may be time to reach out for support when feelings of depression:
- last for more than a week or two
- affect your ability to work or take care of daily responsibilities
- keep you from enjoying time with loved ones
- involve thoughts of suicide or self-harm
- affect sleep or appetite
Depression typically doesn’t improve without treatment. It can get worse over time, especially when combined with regular or heavy alcohol use.
If you feel depressed even when you don’t drink, or you drink because you feel depressed, it’s best to reach out to a mental health professional.
A therapist can help you:
- identify underlying causes of depression
- explore more helpful strategies for managing symptoms in the moment
- find effective treatments, including medication and behavioral strategies
Alcohol use can sometimes complicate depression treatment. If you drink regularly to manage depression symptoms, it may have be beneficial to work with a therapist who specializes in treating co-occurring depression and alcohol use.
Drinking can seem like an easy way to cope with difficult emotions in the moment, but it’s generally not effective in the long run.
If you’re concerned alcohol has become your go-to method of managing negative feelings like depression, there’s no shame in reaching out for support.
Your primary care provider can refer you to a therapist, but you can also try directories, such as this one through Psychology Today.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration also offers confidential, free guidance on seeking treatment. Call 1-800-662-4357 any time, any day of the year.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.