For many, the arrival of winter means cuddling up on the couch with a cup of hot chocolate and a good movie, but for others, gloomy days and longer nights can spark feelings of sadness, anxiety, and despair. In fact, 10 million Americans suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of depression that occurs during specific times of the year ⎼ most commonly in the fall and winter. Often referred to as the “winter blues,” these feelings of depression can deeply impact an individual’s life. For some, such as for those struggling with addiction, consequences can be severe.
What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Although the exact cause is unknown, research shows that reduced exposure to sunlight can affect serotonin, melatonin, and vitamin D levels, increasing feelings of depression. There are also several contributing factors that make certain individuals more likely to experience the condition.
Factors that increase risk include:
- Mental Health – Having a personal or family history of depression
- Gender – Females are four times more likely to experience SAD
- Age – SAD is most common among young adults
- Location – Living in areas that receive little sunlight during the fall and winter months
Signs of Seasonal Affective Disorder
Symptoms of SAD and their severity vary depending on the individuals, but these are common symptoms you should be mindful of.
- You feel constantly tired and have low energy
- You find yourself feeling more anxious and stressed than usual
- You crave carb-rich foods and find yourself overeating
- You are oversleeping
- You have difficulty concentrating
- You are isolating yourself
- You have stopped doing things you enjoyed
- Your body feels heavy, particularly your arms and legs
- You constantly feel sad or depressed
- You are getting sick often
Seasonal Affective Disorder and Addiction
How It Can Lead to Addiction
Countless studies have found that feelings of depression, anxiety, and stress can lead to substance abuse. If you are experiencing SAD, you may be tempted to self-medicate using drugs and alcohol. While drinking and using might provide some relief, it will only be temporary, as drugs and alcohol have been found to actually exacerbate feelings of depression, anxiety, and stress. For some, SAD can be the beginning of substance abuse that spirals into a full-blown addiction.
How It Can Cause an Overdose
If you are currently struggling with substance abuse, symptoms of SAD might cause you to increase your frequency of use or try more potent drugs to manage the added feelings of sadness and the physical discomfort you are experiencing. Because you won’t find the relief you seek, you will likely use even more, which could potentially lead to a deadly overdose.
How It Can Trigger a Relapse
What triggers a relapse varies depending on the individual, but depression, anxiety, and stress are common triggers for most. The poor sleep and lack of proper nutrition associated with SAD also weakens your mind and body, making you more susceptible. The added isolation may cause you to alienate yourself from your support system, skip out on meetings, and prevent you from reaching out for help, further increasing your relapse risk.
What to Do If You Are Suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder
If left unmanaged, SAD can have serious side effects. Fortunately, there are several things you can do to manage its symptoms.
Get Some Light
Try to spend as much time outdoors as possible. However, if you live in a particularly cold state, this can be challenging. So, be sure to keep your curtains open to let light in and consider purchasing a light therapy box. These lamps mimic the sunlight that your body is craving, triggering the production of serotonin in your brain. According to research by Harvard Medical School, for some, light therapy boxes can be just as effective as antidepressant medications when it comes to treating seasonal affective disorder.
What you eat not only affects how you feel physically, but also mentally. Be mindful of what you are eating and how much you are eating. Avoid simple sugars and refined carbohydrates, as they can increase feelings of depression and make you feel lethargic. Instead, consume complex carbs such as whole grains — which boost serotonin levels — and protein-rich foods, which help give you energy. Staying hydrated, eating berries, and consuming vitamin B rich foods can also help promote mental health.
If you are struggling with the winter blues, you probably don’t have the energy or desire to leave the comfort of your house and go to the gym, but studies show that just 30 minutes of exercise a day can significantly reduce depression. If you can’t get yourself to the gym, bundle up and take a short walk around your neighborhood, or do a simple at-home workout.
Ask for Help
There is a misconception that SAD is less severe than depression, but SAD is a form of depression and can pose serious risks, including suicidal ideation, if left untreated. If you believe that you are experiencing SAD, confide in a loved one or reach out to a professional. Being able to openly discuss your feelings can make a real difference. And if necessary, a professional can prescribe you medications to help manage your symptoms.