Depression in Addiction Recovery: Working Through the Ups and Downs

When we’re struggling with depression, it can seem like nothing is going to get better. We can barely make it out of bed, we smile when we’re really feeling low and we can feel utterly hopeless. As the National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH) states, depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States. For those who don’t receive treatment for it, depression can make daily life nearly unbearable. Add that to addiction recovery, and it may feel like you’re living constantly in a whirlwind of emotions; the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) claims that of those with depression, 20% experience a substance use disorder (SUD) as well. If you’re going through both, you’re not alone – but you have to seek help in order to effectively work through it.

How Depression Affects Recovery

When we’re recovering from addiction, we’re already experiencing a plethora of thoughts and emotions. Many people, during the first year of recovery, go through periods where they feel excited and ready to embark on their sobriety journey – with other periods of time bringing them anxiety and grief over the major changes that have taken place in their lives. In 2013, researchers concluded that addiction recovery and depression brought about some similar symptoms, especially in areas of the brain that control stress responses.

The following are some other symptoms that can truly complicate addiction recovery:

  • Sleeplessness
  • Weight gain
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Loss of energy
  • And more

One person shared their story of depression via the National Institute on Mental Illness (NAMI). Here is an excerpt from their story:

“I have depression and my internal monologue still chastises myself for being lazy or just to snap out of it…I am not kind to myself…no matter what I am told.”

Thankfully, there are so many effective forms of treatment for both depression and SUDs. For many, the biggest step is simply seeking it out – and attending.

Treating Depression and Addiction at the Same Time

Co-occurring disorders occur when a person has both a mental illness and an addiction at the same time. It’s not uncommon for a person to have a co-occurring disorder, but it is important they seek help for both at once. In some cases, a person with depression may drink or use substances in an attempt to abate the symptoms of their mental illness; in others, a person with a SUD may develop symptoms of depression over time. For those that drink to reduce depressive symptoms, it can feel discomforting to change both thinking and behavioral patterns in recovery. Dr. Maclsaac, a psychologist in New York, told Everyday Health,

“They cling to drinking because they are terrified of losing that negativity.”

Both addiction and depression can become comforting over time, because our brain has come to crave what’s it’s been feeding into. In order to break these chains, however, formal treatment and support must be sought after. Douglas Bloch, M.A., is an author, teacher and counselor who talks about mental illness and addiction recovery on his website, He explains that to him, depression can be treated in a similar fashion to the principles of 12-Step programs.

He explains that just as a person must admit they were powerless over alcohol (or another substance), a person cannot “snap out of” depression. By applying the steps that 12-Step programs emphasize, a person can work through what has previously held them back. In addition to mutual support groups, depression can be treated through therapy and support from a formal treatment program.

The following are some of the most effective approaches to those with depression in addiction recovery:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) – an approach that helps those with depression, SUDs and more work through negative thought patterns so they can start changing them into newer, healthier patterns.
  • Holistic practices – just as with a SUD, depression can affect a person’s mind, body and spirit. Practices such as praying, meditating, yoga and more can alter brain activity for the better – previous studies have shown how powerful these practices can have on a person’s life.
  • Activity – releasing the stress hormone cortisol can not only help a person feel better, but can even help a person become stronger. Some activities in recovery – such as rock climbing and equine therapy (horse therapy) – can even help people connect with other people, other animals and themselves, better.

Seeking Support

Support is a crucial part of recovery. Those with depression tend to isolate themselves but being around others who care about them is truly the best thing for them. Supportive peers, group leaders, sponsors, therapists and more can all play a part in depression and SUD recovery. In many cases, even helping others through volunteer work can open a door full of opportunities for strength building, confidence and connection.

If you’ve been struggling with depression and addiction, don’t wait any longer to seek the help you need. Recovery is right around the corner – it’s time to get your life back on track.

Cumberland Heights is a nonprofit alcohol and drug-addiction treatment center located on the banks of the Cumberland river in Nashville, Tennessee. On a sprawling 177-acre campus, we are made up of 2 12-Step immersion campuses, 12 outpatient recovery centers and 4 sober living homes. We believe that each person has a unique story to tell – and that’s why we always put the patient first.