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Depression, Anxiety, Alcohol and Other Drugs

Part of the essence of being human is experiencing moods (e.g., anxious or depressed) and fluctuations in mood over the course of our lifetime.

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Moods, anxiety and  substance use: Part of life

Feeling depressed or anxious

Much like the weather is both stable and always-shifting, so too, are our emotions. As such, we may feel ‘low,’ ‘blue’ or ‘down’ sometimes or feel grief over a loss, crisis or disappointment. Similarly, we may get anxious before a high-pressure event, a move or entering any setting that makes us feel insecure or self-conscious. We may worry about our health, the well-being of our friends and family members, about paying off our bills. If we never felt sad, anxious or worried in our lives, we wouldn’t be human.

Using substances

We all use substances, many of which affect our mood. Whether we eat something that gives us pleasure (such as chocolate), enjoy a glass of wine to enhance a meal, or take a prescribed medication to control pain from a recent injury, the use of substances is an accepted part of life.

Many people can use substances in moderation (whether legal or illegal), without experiencing problems. What we need to remember is that all substances have effects; some have greater risks.


When is it a problem?

The feelings won’t go away

It is neither normal nor healthy to be in a constant state of dread, despair or worthlessness. This is true whether you’re male or female, or whether you’re a child, teenager or adult. When these depressed feelings, and/or worries and anxieties persist, when they’re interfering with daily life, and/or when they’re out of proportion to any triggering event, there may be an underlying clinical disorder that requires intervention.

Over 30% of people diagnosed with a mood or anxiety disorder have both existing at the same time. The most common symptoms of co-occuring depression and anxiety disorder are distressing thoughts, fatigue, insomnia, difficulties concentrating, and a lack of motivation.


Benzodiazepines are a class of minor tranquilizers including sleeping pills (e.g., Valium, Ativan, Xanax, Serax, Rivotril) that are prescribed to help people deal with sleep problems, muscle tension, anxiety, depression and stress. They are also known as sedatives or nerve pills. They can be helpful in the short-term for reducing anxiety and aiding sleep during a crisis in a person’s life. Prolonged use is not recommended and can result in physical and mental dependency and severe withdrawal symptoms.

Antidepressants are a class of medications that relieve symptoms of major depression. Antidepressants work to correct a chemical imbalance in the brain by acting on neurotransmitters (serotonin, noradrenaline and dopamine) which act as chemical messengers between brain cells. There are several different families of antidepressants, each having a slightly different effect on one or more of these chemicals. Several kinds of antidepressants can also help alleviate symptoms of anxiety disorders including panic or obsessive thoughts. Antidepressants aren’t addictive, but discontinuing use must be a gradual process, and supervised by a treating physician.

Potential problems with substances

Binge drinking on the weekend, over-use of prescription drugs, consuming ‘club drugs’ at a rave, drinking more than five cups of coffee, and smoking cocaine are all potentially problematic forms of substance use. Usually when problems arise from substance use, there are a range of other factors at work. And when depression or anxiety are in the mix, substance use may be a sign of self-medicating.

‘Self-medicating’ is using substances (without physician supervision) to attempt to dull, numb, or

distract oneself from negative symptoms, pain and stress. Through substances like alcohol and other drugs, a person may be seeking to alleviate a sense of anxiety, depression, powerlessness, pain or boredom that may pervade their life. They may also be using the substances to try and relieve physical symptoms or side-effects of medications.

Inappropriate use of some prescription medications to address depression or anxiety can lead to substance use problems. Some medications such as benzodiazepines (a class of tranquilizers frequently prescribed for anxiety) can result in physical and mental dependency, and withdrawal can be very difficult.

The interactions between anxiety or depression and substance use are complex. While substances may be used as coping mechanisms by people with mental health problems, the substance use can also worsen or trigger anxiety or depression. For example, alcohol may temporarily relieve feelings of anxiety; however, long-term alcohol misuse and acute alcohol withdrawal can often increase anxiety levels. Depression and anxiety are also associated with long-term use or withdrawal from many substances, including stimulants, club drugs, cannabis, opiates and alcohol.

Another consideration is that there may be a common underlying cause that contributes to both mental health and substance use problems. For instance, people who have experienced ad-verse experiences such as trauma or abuse in childhood are much more likely to experience substance use problems, depression, and/or anxiety.


Warning signs

Major depression

Anxiety disorder

Substance use problem

Three of a kind

Mood disorders, anxiety disorders and substance use problems have a lot in common: they can each result in negative thoughts and feelings including helplessness, shame and guilt; they can each lead to avoidance behaviours and isolation from social life; and they can each strain personal relationships and coping resources, and interfere with daily functioning.

COMMON warning signs

As you can see, mood, anxiety, and substance use disorders have unique symptoms as well as symptoms common to all three conditions. The more information you can give your health care practitioner about the complete range of physical and psychiatric symptoms you feel, the better he or she will be able to identify the primary problem as well as any co-occurring problems


Where do I go from here?

In addition to talking to your family doctor, check out the resources below for help or more information.

BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information

Visit for our toolkits, fact sheets and personal stories about depression, anxiety, and substance use.

BC Alcohol and Drug Information Referral Service

For information on treatment options and resources throughout BC, call 1-800-663-1441 (toll-free in BC) or 604-660-9382 (in Greater Vancouver).

Mood Disorders Association of BC

Visit or call 604-873-0103 for resources and information on mood disorder support groups.


Visit or call 604-525-7566 for information and community resources.

Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division

Visit or call 1-800-555-8222 (toll-free in BC) or 604-688-3234 (in Greater Vancouver) for information and community resources on mental health or any mental disorder.

HealthLink BC

Call 811 24 hours a day or visit to access free, non-emergency health information for anyone in your family, including mental health information. Through 811, you can also speak to a registered nurse about symptoms you’re worried about, or a pharmacist about medication.

Crisis lines aren’t only for people in crisis. You can call for information on local services or if you just need someone to talk to. If you are in distress, call 310-6789 (do not add 604, 778 or 250 before the number) 24  hours a day to connect to a BC crisis line, without a wait or busy signal. The crisis lines linked in through 310-6789 have received advanced training in mental health issues and services by the BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information.

© 2010

This info sheet was prepared by CMHA BC Division on behalf of the BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information and HeretoHelp. Funding was provided by BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services, an agency of the Provincial Health Services Authority. For more resources visit

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