The Winter Months
In the winter–when temperatures drop, daylight lessens, and holiday stress overwhelms–it is pretty common for people to feel sad. But there’s sad and then there’s SAD—or seasonal affective disorder. For those struggling with this mood disorder, wintertime can feel especially difficult.
For some people, the overwhelming negative feelings associated with SAD can lead directly to misuse of alcohol or other drugs. That, in turn, could lead to a substance abuse disorder. Similarly, a person in recovery who is also struggling with seasonal affective disorder could be more likely to relapse.
Obviously, these are not desirable outcomes. To help avoid them, it is important to know what SAD is (and what it isn’t), what symptoms might indicate that you are dealing with SAD, what strategies might be effective against it, and the ways in which it can upend your sobriety if you don’t address it right away.
First Things First: The Difference Between Sad and SAD
All of us feel sad sometimes—no matter the time of year. So if you find yourself feeling a little down in winter, there is no need to automatically conclude that you have seasonal affective disorder. By the same token, it is important not to ignore the signs and symptoms of SAD should you encounter them. This is especially true if you have already been diagnosed with a major depressive disorder.
So what should you be on the lookout for?
Signs and Symptoms of SAD
Among the warning sides of Seasonal Affective Disorder are:
- Increased feelings of hopelessness or anxiety
- Lack of energy, excessive desire to sleep, and/or difficult concentrating
- Overeating and the craving of carbohydrates
Less Sunlight is a Possible Cause of SAD
The symptoms noted above may be related to reduced serotonin levels resulting from a lack of exposure to sunlight; a Vitamin D deficiency, which can also be related to a lack of sunlight exposure; and/or an increase in the levels of melatonin in the body, which may result in less overall energy and a strong desire to sleep more than usual.
The Slippery Slope from Seasonal Affective Disorder to Substance Use Disorder
It isn’t too hard to see how a person suffering from SAD-related anxiety, weight gain, or excessive sleep might be tempted to find relief from drugs or alcohol. Whether a person is looking for something to calm them down or something to wake them up, they may make poor choices that can have serious consequences—including addiction or relapse.
So if you are experiencing the symptoms of SAD, what are some better alternatives for dealing with the disorder?
The Importance of Seeing the Light – And Other Sources of Relief
As noted, a lack of exposure to sunlight seems to be a major factor for those suffering from SAD. As a result, making an effort to get under the sun—or an alternative to the sun—can be an important step toward finding relief.
That might mean putting on all your winter gear and heading out for a walk each day (and of course, the exercise is beneficial, too). If you just can’t bring yourself to spend time outside, you could get some benefit from simply letting more natural light into your home or workplace. There are also many light boxes available that simulate sunlight and can be beneficial to someone trying to overcome SAD. And, of course, if you have the means, a trip to someplace warmer and sunnier may be an excellent way to get ahead of SAD.
Since the sun is also an important source of Vitamin D, it might be necessary to make some changes to your diet if you aren’t getting enough sunlight. A variety of foods—including various fish, juices, milk, fortified yogurt, cereals, mushrooms, pork, and hard boiled eggs—are good sources of Vitamin D. And like exercise, good nutrition can give your recovery efforts—as well as your mood—a needed boost. Your doctor may also recommend Vitamin D supplements to help combat the seasonal deficiency.
You may also be able to acquire some coping strategies via therapy. You and your therapist may be able to define ways to lessen the impact of the negative thoughts that are caused by SAD. These strategies probably will not completely replace the need for increased access to sunlight and good dietary choices, but they can be additional tools at your disposal when feelings of sadness arise.
No Matter the Season, We Are Ready to Help
At Willingway, we understand that seasonal affective disorder is difficult to cope with—particularly if you are also struggling with a substance use disorder. But we are ready to shine a light into the darkness and help you move forward. The connections between SAD and the risk of addiction or relapse are real, but so are the treatments and resources we are able to provide to help you stay in the light and move confidently forward on your recovery journey.