Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of recurring depression pattern that is brought about by changes in the season or other specific seasonal periods. SAD is not widely studied but it is likely to affect up to 10% of the population, with women comprising close to 80% of those affected. SAD may be more widespread than previously considered, as many people may also experience milder depressive symptoms without realizing it.1,2,3
Interestingly, SAD is probably a contributor to substance misuse as well as relapses of people recovering from substance use disorder (SUD). Given how common SAD is, especially among women, it’s important to understand what it is so that substance misuse and relapse risks are mitigated.
Symptoms of SAD
People with SAD who live in temperate climates commonly experience it during late autumn or winter, experiencing a reprieve during spring or summer. People who live in tropical climates may experience it during the onset of the rainy season or the height of the dry season. Those who live in or near polar climates may be more likely to experience it in times with limited daylight hours. SAD can, however, be linked to any season or weather change, depending on the individual.1,2,3
Some signs of SAD mirror those of regular depression. Symptoms may include:2
- Feeling a deep sadness
- Loss of interest in activities
- Cravings for carbohydrates
- Suicidal or nihilistic thoughts
How Can SAD Trigger Drug or Alcohol Use?
The presence of depression symptoms can trigger substance use as a coping mechanism. This is true regardless of whether one has a diagnosed substance use disorder or has no other drug problems.1,3
For those experiencing SAD related to colder weather, alcohol use is particularly common, as it is widely regarded as a socially-accepted way to “warm up” during cold weather.1,3
There is also evidence linking circadian rhythms to the genes associated with mental health conditions like depression and SUD, possibly explaining the links to SAD. However, this area may require further study.2
Regardless, people recovering from SUD may be particularly at risk from SAD, as SAD can disrupt their emotional regulation. This can make it easier for some individuals to justify drinking or drug use.1,3
Strategies for Coping With SAD
If you suspect that you have SAD, depression, or any other mental health disorder, please see a qualified mental health professional. Outside of recommendations made by your physician or therapist, there are a few ways you could mitigate some of the effects of SAD, potentially preventing relapses or substance misuse.3
1.) Take Care of Yourself Year Round
SAD is characterized by its yearly recurrence, which means you may have to deal with it again next year. Having a healthy lifestyle, to begin with, can help reduce its worst effects and help you become more resilient to it, if and when symptoms return.
2.) Be More Acquainted With Your Emotions
You cannot counteract what you cannot describe. Lacking emotional and mental health literacy can leave you more vulnerable to SAD and other mental health conditions. This makes it important to engage in self-care routines that aid in emotional introspection, such as mindfulness, yoga, thoughtful prayer, or other relevant practices.
3.) See a Therapist Regularly
You should see your therapist about as frequently as you would your dentist, if not more often. This will allow you to get a better handle on your current experiences and progress. Your therapist should also be able to work with you to come up with a more timely personalized coping and recovery strategy.
4.) Engage in a Hobby You Enjoy
This may be counterintuitive, as depression causes you to lose interest in your hobbies. However, focusing on your hobbies regardless can give you an emotional anchor and sense of purpose that may help you better cope with SAD for the duration.
5.) Pick Up Journaling
It’s very difficult to put our own emotions into the right context during times of crisis. Journaling can be a good way to do just that, allowing a way to detach ourselves from specific emotions and observe them more objectively. Your journal can also provide you and your therapist with a good way to contextualize your journey through SAD and SUD recovery.
6.) Turn Up The Heat or AC
Being physically comfortable can help you when you’re in a negative mental state. Physical discomfort can send you spiraling in a feedback loop that can cause you to progressively feel worse. Thus, identifying sources of discomfort and addressing them can help keep you in the right frame of mind for your long-term recovery.
Find Help for Co-occurring Mental Health Conditions in North Texas
The presence of co-occurring mental health conditions can seriously complicate recovery from SUD. If you’re in North Texas, you can call Dallas Drug Treatment Centers at +1(214) 935-2287 to find aftercare and rehabilitation options that can address depression and other mental health issues that can coincide with substance use disorder.
- Sandyk, R., & Kanofsky, J. D. (1992). Cocaine addiction: relationship to seasonal affective disorder. International Journal of Neuroscience, 64(1-4), 195-201.
- Morales-Muñoz, I., Koskinen, S., & Partonen, T. (2017). Seasonal affective disorder and alcohol abuse disorder in a population-based study. Psychiatry Research, 253, 91-98.
- Falcón, E., & McClung, C. A. (2009). A role for the circadian genes in drug addiction. Neuropharmacology, 56, 91-96.