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As the seasons change, so can our moods. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression marked by the changing seasons. SAD can play a role in drug or alcohol addiction by exacerbating underlying causes of substance abuse. This article will explore the symptoms of SAD and coping mechanisms for managing the dysregulation associated with the disorder.

Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder

As mentioned previously, SAD is marked by changes in season. You may be most familiar with SAD as “winter blues;” however, according to Depression Research and Treatment, SAD can also happen in the spring or summer months. It is characterized by a “down” feeling and often accompanied by feelings of lethargy. With a wide-ranging set of symptoms, it can have a major impact on daily life. 

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

The symptoms that overlap with those of depression include:

  • A general lack of joy or feeling down or depressed most of each day
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities
  • Changes in weight
  • Changes in appetite
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Feeling agitated, sluggish, worthless, or hopeless
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Frequent thoughts of suicide or death

Winter Symptoms 

Some winter symptoms may include:

  • Sleeping more or experiencing hypersomnia
  • Craving carbohydrates and overeating
  • Gaining weight
  • Withdrawing socially

Summer Symptoms

In summer, SAD symptoms may include:

  • Sleeping less or experiencing insomnia
  • Lowered/poor appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Feelings of restlessness, agitation, and anxiety
  • Episodes of violent behavior

Seasonal Affective Disorder and Addiction

The journal Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience reports the potential relationship between sunlight and skin, which may impact serotonin production. Lowered serotonin production is a facet of depression. This can also be influenced by a deficit in vitamin D. 

When thinking about seasons, sunlight, and SAD, imagine a sunny day that suddenly goes dark and gloomy. How does the shift impact your mood? Likewise, imagine a cloudy day that suddenly becomes sunny and clear. 

It’s possible that the first example lowers your mood while the second perks you up. These are examples that can give you insight into how your body and brain immediately respond to changes in light. As seasons change, sunlight reception becomes lesser or greater, causing a more progressive impact on serotonin — rather than the immediate impact — such as can happen in one day. These shifts in serotonin production may be what triggers SAD. 

Research draws a relationship between seasons and alcohol misuse. Those who exhibit seasonality in their alcohol misuse may be self-medicating symptoms of SAD. Using the examples of shifting daylight above, lowered or elevated mood is considered a player in substance use. Extending the example to correlate with symptoms, in summer, alcohol might be consumed to aid sleep. In winter, it might be to offset agitation and other negative feelings. 

Seeking Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder 

SAD can onset at any age but is most common in women and those living farther north, where the daylight hours grow shorter in winter. Additionally, it is more common in people with major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder. Receiving a SAD diagnosis requires that you have experienced seasonally specific depression for at least two consecutive years and be more frequent than other depressive episodes. 

Treatment begins with diagnosis, after which any of the following modalities may be employed:

Light Therapy

Light boxes with full spectrum lighting are available for purchase at many major outlets. Sitting in front of a light box for a few minutes a day can help to alleviate SAD symptoms, as it mimics sunlight in your eyes and boosts serotonin production. This has been an option for treatment since the 1980s. 

An alternate form of light therapy, albeit less accessible, is to head to warmer, sunnier climates during the winter months, much like migratory birds. If you experience SAD in spring and summer, you might choose to do the reverse, heading to colder climates where your moods feel more balanced.


Sometimes, antidepressants are prescribed to people experiencing SAD to help regulate serotonin production in the brain.

Vitamin D

A blood test can determine whether you have a vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D has a big role to play in serotonin production, so taking over-the-counter or prescription vitamin D can help alleviate SAD symptoms by increasing serotonin.


Talk therapy can support you by helping you identify struggles associated with SAD. With your therapist, you can develop a plan to mitigate the negative impact of seasonal change so that you have tools going into every seasonal shift. 

While there is no known way to prevent SAD, it is possible to use the above techniques to mitigate its effects before you expect SAD to onset. If you know you will be “blue” in the winter, there is evidence to show that beginning antidepressants prior to when SAD is at its worst can ease its impact on your life. The best first step is always discussing your concerns with a medical health professional.

Seasonal affective disorder is characterized by the symptoms of depression. SAD takes effect as the seasons change and can occur in the spring and summer months or winter and fall months. Additional symptoms vary based on the time of year it is experienced. SAD symptoms overlap with depression and can contribute to substance use disorders and addiction through mood dysregulation. Knowing if you are experiencing SAD takes the help of a medical health professional. If you or someone you know is experiencing SAD symptoms that you believe are contributing to addiction, West Coast Recovery Centers is staffed with professionals who are ready to help. Call WCRC today at (760) 492-6509.