6 Effective Ways to Manage Depression in Addiction Recovery

In our post-COVID world, where everyone’s lives were turned upside down to some extent or another in 2020, more and more people are now succumbing to something far worse than a simple case of the “blues” – they are being diagnosed with depression.

Depression, a clinically-defined medical condition and a recognized mental health disorder, can be a life-changing experience in itself, especially for the more vulnerable members of our society, such as those in recovery from substance addiction.

At the best of times (and take it from someone who knows), addiction recovery is a tough place to be, and if depression is further diagnosed, the chances of the recovery actually continuing beyond where it is now will get slimmer and slimmer by the day. Potential relapse triggers become far more dangerous, and unless the depression is properly treated – and medicated, if that is required – those triggers can easily fire the person in hard-fought recovery right back into a pattern of heavy substance use.

Let’s first look at the possibly life-changing symptoms of depression, or major depressive disorder (MDD), to refer to the condition by its correct clinical name.

Depression: The Symptoms

Depression, as a mental health disorder, is usually diagnosed following the regular occurrence of “major depressive episodes,” which are defined as experiencing 5 or more of the following symptoms daily (or frequently) for a period of 2 weeks or more:

  • Depressed / Irritable mood
  • Change in normal interests / Low motivation
  • Poor concentration
  • Excessive guilt or unrealistically low self-image
  • Problems sleeping, eg. sleeping too much or too little, or sleeping mainly during the day
  • Fatigue and/or change in self-care, eg. lack of washing
  • Changes in appetite, eg. eating too much or too little
  • Agitation / Severe anxiety / Panic attacks
  • Suicidal ideation (thoughts of suicide thoughts) or behaviors, including self-harm


Important: Please understand not everyone who is depressed is also suicidal, and you should speak to your family physician as soon as is practical. However, if you are feeling suicidal, please get help immediately. National suicide hotlines exist in the vast majority of countries, such as in the U.S.:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

6 Effective Ways to Manage Depression in Addiction Recovery

During my active years of addiction, depression plagued me throughout, and so when I finally sought help for my substance abuse, it was made clear to me that the depression had to be treated simultaneously. The occurrence of both a substance use disorder (SUD) and a mental health disorder, like MDD, is known as “co-occurring disorder,” and also as “dual diagnosis.”

During the beginning of my recovery, which actually (and very gratefully) began in a drug rehab in Allentown, Pennsylvania, the separate elements of my own co-occurring disorder  – the SUD and the MDD – were treated together, and during that time, I was educated about a number of practical and effective coping skills and techniques I should continue to use from then onwards.

This article, “6 Effective Ways to Manage Depression in Addiction Recovery,” will provide you with the best of those skills (all of them were supported by both scientific research and the medical psychiatrist community). However, if your physician has prescribed medication for you, keep taking it as directed. These skills and techniques are an addition to your approved medications and therapy, and not a replacement.

1. Daily Exercise

How many people may have just switched off at the very mention of these 2 words together, I wonder? Well, for those still here, R-E-L-A-X. You are not preparing for the Olympics, or the latest world body-building championships – you are preparing to lead a far better life, substance-free and with your current depression a hard lesson from the past.

Regular exercise, preferably daily, will help get you there. Exercise is a primary method of releasing dopamine, the brain’s “happy chemical,” and the reason drugs or alcohol (or both) got a hold of you in the first place. However, this dopamine is a natural response to the exercise, unlike substance use.

Improving blood flow and oxygen levels around the body will also naturally increase your energy, and so, your mood. You are not expected to live in the gym 24-hours a day. Half an hour a day is great. Join a cycling club, go hiking, clean the house – any exercise is good exercise.

2. Nutritious Diet

Eat healthily. Every single day. Without fail. Nutritional deficiency, common in early-stage recovering addicts, is strongly linked to depression and other mood disorders. Your diagnosed depression will not be helped by fatty or sugary foods, but with a healthy, nutritious diet.

3. Counseling / Mutual Aid Meetings

Extensive research studies continue to show the benefit to addiction recovery of attending and interacting in mutual aid or “self help program“; for example, the 12-Step programs of both Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA), or or SMART Recovery meetings. Additionally, if you feel the need for counseling for your depression or your general mental wellbeing, nothing is stopping you. Ideally, you should find a qualified therapist offering support for dual-diagnosis patients.

4. Social Circle

You may well have to make changes to your social circle during this time. If you are still friends with people from your “addicted life,” and other users or drinkers, it’s best that you keep your distance for the time being. You and your recovery come first.

In fact, you may wish to slim your social circle done to those who you really trust and are supportive of your recovery. You are vulnerable – be careful.

5. Stress Management

Stress is the biggest reason for addiction relapse. It is, by far, the most potent relapse trigger out there, so you need to be extra wary of your stress levels. Managing your stress is a proactive way of keeping yourself safe. Activities such as yoga, meditation, and mindfulness will all help to dissipate stress naturally.

6. Mindfulness

Mindfulness gets a special mention here as, from experience, the simple act of “living in the moment” does more for those struggling in early recovery and with depressive symptoms than anything else (personally, mindfulness and 12-Step meetings were essential for me in the beginning).

Practicing mindfulness through organized classes is highly beneficial – the most important aspect is that it gives you an overriding sense of calm, which is certainly a state not many drug addicts and alcoholics are used to.

Never give up on your addiction recovery. Yes, it can be hard, and some days it can feel impossible. If one day at a time feels simply too long, when your depression is really taking a toll on you, try one hour at a time. Every hour, minute and second is taking you closer to where you really want and need to be.

Author Bio: Gerard Bullen has been working in the field of the U.S. addiction treatment for several years, and is a member of the American Medical Writers Association. His writing includes white papers, medical research reports, guides, opinion-editorials, and short articles for informational purposes. Just like this one.

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