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With the winter months approaching quickly, it is important to address the signs and symptoms of seasonal affective disorder and its correlation with addiction. With sunlight decreasing in the winter months, many people may unknowingly struggle with seasonal affective disorder and use unhealthy coping mechanisms to try and get a handle on it. Luckily, there are many treatment approaches that can help balance the unpleasant symptoms associated with this condition. Although winter is inevitable, accompanying depression doesn’t have to be. There are ways to find beauty and appreciate the fall and winter seasons.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), commonly referred to as the “winter blues,” is a condition related to major depressive disorder. The difference is that SAD is depression that occurs with a seasonal pattern. The pattern usually begins in mid to late fall and continues throughout the winter months, although SAD can happen in a spring/summer pattern as well. 

People that have SAD experience dysregulation of an important neurotransmitter called serotonin. Serotonin is our body’s natural mood stabilizer, influencing feelings of balance and contentment. It regulates sleep, promotes balanced cognitive functioning, maintains mood, and stabilizes sexual desire. SAD may also interfere with the overproduction of the hormone melatonin, responsible for feelings of sleepiness and maintaining sleep. Melatonin responds to darkness. As the winter days produce more darkness and sunlight decreases, melatonin production increases. With the combination of decreased serotonin and increased melatonin, individuals may experience difficulties adjusting to the winter months.

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Symptoms of SAD are similar to those associated with major depression, although there are specific symptoms to the condition as well. Not every person with SAD will experience all of these symptoms, as some symptoms may be more severe than others. Symptoms of major depression include: 

  • Intense feelings of sadness or hopelessness
  • Low energy
  • Feeling sluggish or easily irritated
  • Experiencing issues with sleep
  • Losing interest in activities normally found pleasurable
  • Difficulties with concentration or attention
  • Suicidal ideation

Winter SAD symptoms, in addition to the symptoms of major depression, may include: 

  • Oversleeping
  • Overeating or weight gain
  • Social withdrawal (human hibernation)

Summer SAD symptoms, in addition to the ones previously mentioned, may include: 

  • Insomnia or issues with sleep regulation
  • Not eating enough or weight loss
  • Anxiety or irritation
  • Periods of violent behavior

Individuals that are more susceptible to developing SAD may include people already experiencing depression diagnoses, personality disorders, or other mood disorders. SAD commonly co-occurs with other mental disorders like ADHD, anxiety disorders, or eating disorders. The genetic component of depression may contribute to susceptibility to developing SAD, meaning the condition may also run in families. 

Coping With SAD: Toying With Addiction

As many individuals with SAD are likely to remain in the comfort of their homes, addiction becomes a very important topic to address in terms of coping with the unpleasant symptoms associated with SAD. Unfortunately, many individuals struggling with SAD often use illegal substances or alcohol as a way to cope. As Seasonal Affective Disorder involves a reduction in serotonin, it is no surprise that people will turn to drugs to fill the void in happiness or emotional regulation. 

While drug use temporarily compensates for the negative effects that SAD has on the brain’s reward center, the risk of developing an addiction is very real. If you find yourself suffering from distressing symptoms of SAD and using substances as a result, it is crucial that you take extra precautions to protect yourself from the consequences that come from regular substance use. 

Treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder and Addiction

If you are vulnerable to experiencing the combination of substance use and SAD, there are many healthy coping mechanisms and treatments available to avoid falling into the pattern of addiction. The easiest thing you can do for yourself during the winter months is to allow sunlight to come through your windows and blinds. While winter months are certainly cold in some areas, opening blinds is a proactive approach that allows sunlight to transfer into your home without having to open up your windows. Another easy thing you could do is spend more time outside, giving yourself the opportunity to breathe fresh air and experience direct sunlight. Exposing yourself to sunlight first thing in the morning is a great way to start your day off on the right foot. 

Mindfulness is another factor that can play a positive impact on your health and well-being. There are many ways to fall into mindfulness specific to the fall and winter months, although yoga and meditation are two common practices that can be done in any setting. Engaging in relaxation techniques can help you focus on the present moment and focus on the things you can control (such as your breath). 

Another treatment for SAD is light therapy. With light therapy, you sit in front of a lightbox every morning, acting as direct exposure to artificial light. This treatment is to replace the sunshine that is reduced during the winter. Treatment may also include antidepressant medication. It is important to talk with your doctor if you experience symptoms of SAD or addiction. 

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a condition that reoccurs annually as a pattern of depression. While it is possible to experience SAD during the spring and summer months, SAD typically occurs during the fall and winter. This is because sunlight decreases significantly during this time and important hormones and neurotransmitters associated with mood regulation are reduced. SAD and addiction commonly co-occur, as individuals experiencing the challenging effects of the condition turn to substance use as a coping mechanism. It is important to understand your own vulnerabilities with each condition and take preventative measures to find healthier coping alternatives. West Coast Recovery Centers wants you to know that you are not alone. Seasonal affective disorder is very common, and there are treatments available to help you get a handle on your symptoms. For more information about the treatment options we offer for mental health and substance use recovery, please give us a call today at (760) 492-6509.