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Depression, Addiction and Your Brain: How to Tackle a Co-Occurring Disorder

“Addiction and depression are tough enough to deal with alone. Together their negative effects multiply. But the good news is that treatment that works on both issues can lead to good outcomes.” ~ Dr. David Sack, writing for PsychologyToday The difficulty of dealing with depression is indescribable. The seemingly impossible feat of overcoming addiction is inexpressible. Facing both depression and addiction at the same time may seem unsurmountable. Thankfully, it’s not. We are here to help you understand depression, addiction and your brain as your learn to tackle a co-occurring disorder. Overcoming addiction while also dealing with depression is not exactly as easy as one, two, three. But there are several steps that you can take to educate yourself about your situation and to reach out for both personal and professional help. Understanding your co-occurring disorder – the effect of both depression and addiction on your brain – is the very first and most important step to tackling a dual diagnosis. To get you on the right track, we highlight the most important aspects of a dual diagnosis to understand. Only then can you reach out for treatment and know what you are getting into.

What is a Co-Occurring Disorder – or Dual Diagnosis?

In simple terms, a co-occurring disorder means that you have two mental disorders affecting your brain, your behavior, your emotions and more: addiction and either depression or anxiety. This is what used to be called a dual diagnosis, and has now been rebranded as a co-occurring disorder. There are other forms of dual diagnoses, of course. But the interaction of depression and addiction seems to be one of the most common co-occurring disorders combination. Co-occurring disorders and substance abuse often go hand in hand, unfortunately. The key to co-occurring disorders is in understanding addiction or alcoholism as just that: a mental disorder. When someone faces a dual diagnosis, it means that he or she will often face twice the challenge. It means learning to function with depression and learning to overcome addiction, before either takes over completely. “People with mental health disorders are more likely than people without mental health disorders to experience an alcohol or substance use disorder.” ~ The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration This understanding of co-occurring disorders is straightforward enough. Not only is it possible to suffer from depression and addiction at the same time, but it is actually more likely to have both a mental health issue and a substance abuse issue. But just because it is simple to understand what dual diagnoses are does not mean that addressing them is easy.

It’s a Big Deal: Co-Occurring Disorders Statistics

The reality is that co-occurring disorders and substance abuse are not uncommon in the United States. As of just a few years ago, close to 8 million American adults had been diagnosed with a co-occurring disorder. Overall, four percent of American adults suffer from both a mental illness and a substance use disorder. More concerning are the statistics about treatment for co-occurring disorders and substance abuse. Of the millions of adults that are curring living with a co-occurring disorder (such as depression and alcoholism), less than half receive any kind of treatment for either mental disorder. On top of that, less than ten percent receive treatment for both substance abuse and depression. This means that the majority of those living with a co-occurring disorder are treated for only one of the two disorders that are affecting their brain and their life.

So What Can We Do About Co-Occurring Disorders?

This is a big deal. It means that roughly nine out of ten individuals struggling with both drug addiction or alcoholism and depression or anxiety do not receive the integrated treatment for co-occurring disorders that they need. These co-occurring disorder statistics paint a clear picture. It is not enough to only address alcoholism through group support, for example, or to only address depression through one-on-one counseling. These are helpful measures, but the co-occurring disorder statistics about treatment make it clear that we need to use integrated treatment for a dual diagnosis – that is, treating both the depression and the addiction simultaneously.

How Can You Tackle a Co-Occurring Disorder?

Our discussion of dual diagnosis, addiction and depression above makes at least two things clear: dealing with a co-occurring disorder is not easy, and it is actually not all that uncommon. But that does not mean that overcoming both depression and addiction is impossible. We are here to help you take some of the first steps toward this recovery.

Insight: Co-Occurring Disorders Create a Vicious Cycle

“People with co-occurring disorders often experience more severe and chronic medical, social, and emotional problems than people experiencing a mental health condition or substance-use disorder alone. Further, addiction relapse often leads to psychiatric distress, and worsening of psychiatric problems often leads to addiction relapse.”

~ Psychology Today

In other words, suffering from both depression and addiction can tend to make both disorders relatively worse. The depression causes one to turn to substances for relief, continually abusing these substances causes one to become even more depressed, and so on.

Tackling Your Co-Occurring Disorder: Understand & Get Help

Even after someone has entered treatment, the fact that they have to learn to deal with their depression also makes more likely to relapse. So how can you tackle a co-occurring disorder? Getting treatment for co-occurring disorders and substance abuse may not be as easy as 1, 2, 3. But if you take the time to understand depression, addiction and your brain, you are well on your way to getting the help that you need for a dual diagnosis. From there you can get the professional integrated treatment to give you a brighter future. These steps to tackling your co-occurring disorder may not be the solution to all of your problems. But they should get you on the right track toward overcoming the debilitating effects of depression and the long-term negative effects of addiction.

Step One: Understanding Depression and Your Brain

The very first step in tackling a co-occurring disorder is to understand depression, addiction and your brain. Of course, to do that you have to first understand how depression impacts your brain – and what depression even is, for that matter. “There are many possible causes of depression, including faulty mood regulation by the brain, genetic vulnerability, stressful life events, medications, and medical problems. It’s believed that several of these forces interact to bring on depression.” ~ Harvard Health Publishing People often assume that depression stems from a chemical imbalance in the brain. This is partially true, but it doesn’t actually capture just how complex depression is. Instead, there are many factors that interact to bring about depression in a person. Because of that, there is very rarely one single cause of depression in a person. It is a kind of cycle between your brain’s chemistry, your life circumstances, and your genetic and family history. All of these interact to determine your mood, how you perceive certain events or difficulties, and how you experience life as whole. This is important to understand for one major reason: no matter what the cause of depression is, there is no question that it has a huge impact on the brain. Depending on the length of depression or the severity of the diagnosis, the disorder impacts everything from emotions to sleep patterns to stress levels. In other words, depression often works as a precursor to substance abuse disorders because of its effect on the brain.

Step Two: Understanding Addiction and Your Brain

If you are suffering from both addiction and depression, the second step in overcoming this co-occurring disorder is to understand how addiction works. The most important thing to understand is that addiction (both drug addiction or alcoholism) changes your brain in dramatic ways. After a certain point, taking drugs no longer becomes a choice. It is a ‘need’ driven by the physical and chemical dependence on the substance. This is why addiction can be so debilitating. The key point is this: addiction, in any form, is a mental disorder. It is not a character flaw, it is not a weakness, and it is not something you can simply choose to give up one day. “Even if taking a drug for the first time is a “free” choice, the progression of brain changes that occurs after that involves the weakening of circuits in the prefrontal cortex and elsewhere that are necessary for exerting self-control and resisting the temptations of drug use. Once addiction takes hold, there is greatly diminished capacity, on one’s own, to stop using. ~ Dr. Nora Volkow, writing for The National Institute on Drug Abuse In other words, the biggest effect of addiction on the brain is to reduce the brain’s ability to make clear, rational decisions. Instead, the brain shifts into a mode that drives it to find drugs no matter what. Despite the scientific fact that addiction is not a choice, many people will become anxious or depressed that their damaging “choice” of drugs continues. This is where the cycle of co-occurring disorders continues. Thankfully, it can be stopped.

Step Three: Understanding How Depression and Addiction Interact

Clearly, both addiction and depression have a negative impact on the brain. But what happens when these two mental disorders interact? The interaction between co-occurring disorders and substance abuse (or any other mental disorder, for that matter) creates a kind of cycle. If someone is depressed, they may begin drinking too much wine or beer to try to make themselves feel better. As their brain gets used to the effects of the alcohol, they may become physically dependent on the substance. Over time, they may become even more depressed that they are unable to quit drinking. And so the cycle continues. While the symptoms of a co-occurring disorder vary widely from person to person, one thing is clear: the interaction of depression and addiction heighten the effects of both mental disorders. Dealing with a co-occurring disorder means experiencing physical, emotional, social and psychological symptoms. In short, there is one way that you can address depression, addiction and the impact on your brain: getting professional help for the co-occurring disorder. More specifically, co-occurring disorders are best addressed through integrated treatment.

A Step Beyond: Getting Integrated Treatment for Co-Occurring Disorders

Getting co-occurring disorders treatment is not very common, as we have already seen above. But getting professional help through integrated treatment is one of the best ways to tackle a co-occurring disorder, dealing with both drug abuse and mental illness. “People with co-occurring disorders are best served through integrated treatment. With integrated treatment, practitioners can address mental and substance use disorders at the same time, often lowering costs and creating better outcomes.” ~ The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Integrated treatment for a dual diagnosis is essentially a dual recovery: it treats those living with co-occurring addiction and mental health disorders. Through the treatment, professionals help patients understand the impact of their addiction and develop strategies for coping with the substance use disorder. Simultaneously, they address the depression through cognitive behavioral therapy, group counseling, and sometimes even medication. The long and short of it is this: if you are living with co-occurring addiction and mental health disorders, the best thing that you can do for yourself is to reach out for help. If you still have questions about what addiction and depression mean for your life, feel free to contact us today.