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Dealing With Depression in Early Recovery

It is a misconception that once an addict stops using their drug of choice or when an alcoholic stops drinking that their lives and relationships will immediately improve and be positive. This is because drugs and alcohol alone were not the only disruptors in the individual’s life. While many alcoholics or drug users may experience depression in early sobriety, this may come as a surprise to loved ones who believed abstinence would welcome instant happiness.

Depression during early recovery is very common. Even Bill W, the creator of the Alcoholics Anonymous Twelve Step program, experienced intense depression in his early sobriety. While this is normal, dealing with depression in recovery can take the enjoyment out of sobriety. There is joy and freedom in sobriety, which should be a journey of self-discovery, as long as individuals get the help they need to overcome depression.

Relationship Between Depression and Addiction

Many drug users and drinkers first became addicted because they were suffering from depressive symptoms. This means that when they stop using their drug of choice to numb their depression, the individual will arrive back where they started. However, without addictive substances, they must now acknowledge their depressive symptoms. Feeling their emotions fully may make individuals worry they are worsening. Fortunately, when sober, they can finally seek help for the root of their problems and discover how to handle their natural human emotions.

A dual diagnosis, clinically referred to as a comorbid diagnosis, exists when the addicted person or alcoholic also suffers from a mental health problem in addition to their addiction. In fact, studies suggest that 47% of those with mental health conditions will also abuse drugs and alcohol. A dual diagnosis can occur as a result of substance abuse, but in many cases, mental health challenges may have led to the addiction in the first place.

What Causes Depression in Recovery?

Giving up a drug of choice may feel like the loss of one of the most important relationships in an individual’s life. For some time, the drug or alcohol has acted like a loyal friend to the user, and was always there when they were upset, stressed, or anxious. The relationship was clearly unhealthy, but these relationships nonetheless became the center of these individuals’ lives. As a result, losing these substances can make the individual experience a wave of sadness, no matter what support systems they still have. This may cause their loved ones and romantic partners to also feel sad or alienated because they feel their love is not enough. During this period, the addicted person or alcoholic may feel lost or directionless in both their life and relationships. The individual may feel hopeless, lost, and will likely cycle through feelings of guilt and shame. They can develop depression as these feelings are finally able to surface and are no longer suppressed by substances.

Most individuals will not feel well, both emotionally and physically, following detox. In fact, when an individual is weaning off of alcohol or drugs, the body is still readjusting, causing the person to experience intensified emotions. For alcoholics specifically, alcohol is a depressant that alters their brain chemistry, especially after years of heavy usage. There is continued evidence of alcoholics experiencing depression in early sobriety.

An addicted person or alcoholic’s brain chemistry is one of the causes of this depression. Depression can develop due to the damage done to the brain’s chemistry when someone abuses drugs or drinks alcohol. When the person becomes accustomed to these chemicals consistently entering their body, they will physically struggle when these chemicals are no longer in their system. Especially in early recovery, the human body needs time to readjust.

Active addiction disrupts the body’s equilibrium. The individual’s mind becomes used to an incredibly abnormal amount of pleasurable neurotransmitters flowing through their system. By detoxing, getting sober, and participating in a rehab program, a user must adapt to a new abstinent equilibrium. The longer someone has misused drugs or alcohol, the more prominent the changes are to their brain. During early sobriety, their brain is beginning to compensate for the natural levels of dopamine and other neurotransmitters required for sober functioning. This adjustment can result in feelings of depression as an individual goes through initial recovery. This does not mean sobriety is impossible or that the individual is doing something wrong. In fact, this discomfort is a completely natural part of the process.

How Depression Interferes With Sobriety

Depression in early recovery may be a shock to the addicted person’s system since they used substances to block and suppress negative feelings for so long. But depression during this phase is more than just feeling blue, and if it is not addressed it can affect an individual’s recovery. Depression can make functioning feel impossible, making it more difficult for individuals to rebuild a new foundation and life after addiction.

Every addict is different so depression can be experienced differently for any individual in recovery. However, common symptoms of depression in early sobriety include:

  • Feelings of sadness
  • Hopelessness that is different than just having a bad day
  • Cycling negative thoughts about yourself, your life, and the future
  • Difficulty getting out of bed
  • Fear of facing the day
  • Lethargy and immense fatigue
  • Disrupted eating habits (either loss of appetite or overeating)
  • Not seeing the meaning of life
  • Inability to concentrate or focus on tasks
  • Possibly having suicidal thoughts or suicidal idealization

If these symptoms are present and linger longer than a few days, the individual could be experiencing depression. Even though it is common to experience depression during early recovery, such a mental state could be a threat to their sobriety. If an addicted person does not feel hopeful about their progress, they could relapse.

If the addicted person does not care about anything in their life due to their depression, their relationships or future sobriety can suffer. They may not see a reason to continue to stay sober. When these feelings associated with depression become so unbearable, they may even turn to drugs or alcohol again to cope, leading them back into the cycle of addiction. This makes it all the more important for any individual in recovery who is experiencing depression to seek counseling and professional help.

Help For Depression During Recovery

At Boardwalk Recovery Center, we have a team of intelligent and empathetic counselors and physicians who specialize in alleviating and treating depression during recovery. There is hope and help for individuals who have a dual diagnosis. By being aware of your mood and its effect on your recovery, it is possible to manage any feelings of depression that are a threat to your new life in sobriety.

There are many treatment options for depression and a healthcare provider will decide what is best for each patient. The best type of treatment depends on the severity of depression but can include medication. Medication works by interacting with the body’s chemicals that produce depressive symptoms. It can take a couple of weeks for this type of medication to alleviate symptoms. Psychotherapy and group counseling are useful alongside medication. At Boardwalk Recovery Center, we treat the whole person, not just their addiction. Help is possible.

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