Depression and addiction can happen at the same time. And while some may find solace in depression, you can’t become addicted to it.

Redheaded woman against windowShare on Pinterest
Westend61/Getty Images

Depression may cause feelings of sadness, worthlessness, and loss of interest. This common condition can lead to physical symptoms, like trouble sleeping, appetite loss, and fatigue.

For some people with depression, symptoms may have the potential to affect quality of life.

Addiction also can affect a person’s actions and behaviors. While many believe that addiction can only happen with substances like tobacco or alcohol, behaviors may be addictive, as well. 

Although depression and addiction can occur together, depression itself is not an addiction. You or a loved one can’t actually be addicted to depression. 

Is depression addictive? 

Depression is not addictive in the same way as drugs or alcohol may become addictive. With substances like drugs or alcohol, use may damage or replace the brain’s survival mechanisms which help it to identify pleasure or impending danger.

According to the National Institutes of Health, as a person develops substance use disorder, the substance takes over the pleasure-seeking aspect of the brain, which makes you want more and more.

The substance can also take over the part of the brain that alerts you to danger. When this occurs, you may feel anxious when not using the substance, which could make you want to use more of it. 

Depression symptoms

Depression is a common mental disorder, affecting 6.7% of adults a year and up to 16.6% of adults during their lifetime.

Depression symptoms can vary from person to person and range from mild to severe. Common symptoms of depression include:

  • feeling sad, down, or experiencing low moods
  • feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • disinterest in activities you once enjoyed
  • insomnia or sleeping too much
  • lack of energy
  • unintentional weight gain or loss 
  • difficulty concentrating
  • thoughts of self-harm or suicide

To be diagnosed with depression, symptoms must last for 2 weeks or more and negatively impact a person’s everyday functioning.

Finding comfort when depressed

Depression can make you feel bad physically and emotionally. Some people may try to find ways to make themselves feel better by seeking comfort from a variety of sources.

As Jennifer Crall, PhD, a psychologist in Quakertown, Pennsylvania, says, “People tend to find comfort in what they are familiar with.”

For people living with depression, this may mean trying to self-comfort through familiar behaviors or feelings associated with depression, like sleeping or eating.

“I wouldn’t use the language of addiction to describe this,” Dr. Crall continues. “It has to do more with fixed cognitive patterns and possibly even fixed neural pathways.”

Depression treatment may take time

While depression is treatable, treatments like medication and therapy may take time to work.

Antidepressants can take anywhere from 2 to 4 weeks to begin working and up to 2 to 3 months before the medication’s full effects are felt. It may take a trial and error to find the right antidepressant and dosage for you. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) might also take time to work, since CBT involves learning how to recognize negative thinking and how to change thoughts and behaviors to a more positive response.

For some people, therapy may help you feel better in just a few weeks, but for others it may take longer.

Substance use disorders

Addiction to substances like drugs is formally called “substance use disorder,” while alcoholism or alcohol addiction is known as “alcohol use disorder.”

If you use a substance over and over, it may change how the brain functions even after the effects of the substance have worn off. These substances can often cause a period of intense pleasure or a sense of calm.

Non-substance use disorders

Non-substance addiction is similar to substance use disorder. However, rather than becoming dependent on a substance, it may be possible to become addicted to behaviors, such as:

  • gambling
  • eating
  • using the Internet
  • using your cell phone

Research published in 2017 suggests non-substance addiction uses similar rewards mechanics in the brain.

The non-substance addictions can be complex and difficult to diagnose as they require ruling out other conditions that may explain the behaviors. For example, food addiction may be mistaken as an eating disorder and a doctor must rule it out as a possibility.

Depression and addiction connection

Depression and addiction can, and often do, occur together. However, it is not always easy or possible to determine which came first or which caused the other.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there are at least three possible ways they connect:

  • mental health conditions, such as depression, can lead to substance use disorders
  • substance use can cause symptoms of mental health conditions, like depression
  • overlapping or underlying conditions can cause both mental health and substance use disorders to occur at the same time

Many people living with depression may turn to substance use to seek a break from painful thoughts or symptoms of depression. 

However, it’s important to note that living with depression does not automatically mean you’ll become addicted to a substance or activity. 

Next steps

Depression can feel overwhelming, particularly if you have been living with it for a long time. However, you’re not alone.

Depression is a treatable condition, and many people with depression live happy, well-balanced lives. Finding the treatment plan that works best for you can often make all the difference in living well with depression.

Talking with your doctor or therapist about a treatment plan may be the best first step. Like all mental health conditions, it may take time and effort to find what works for you, and you might have to try multiple strategies.

Treatment plans for depression can include:

  • therapy
  • medication
  • self-care

If you are ready to get help for depression or a substance use disorder, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) hotline offers free, 24/7 support. Call 800-662-HELP (4357) or visit their online treatment center locator.