If summer is a period of long days, time in nature, and welcoming weather, winter is the opposite. With the sun disappearing long before we are ready for the night, it can be difficult to keep our spirits up. In fact, the changes associated with winter can actually trigger a specific type of depression in some people. This is known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and it is something to keep in mind as we all wait in anticipation of the return of spring.
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal affective disorder falls under the umbrella of depressive disorders. While other types of depression, like major depressive disorder (MDD), are ongoing and may not be linked to a specific cause, seasonal affective disorder is tied to specific seasons.
Most people who experience this condition generally have it in the fall and winter months. While it is possible to experience seasonal affective disorder during spring and summer, the vast majority of people have symptoms that begin in the fall and resolve in the spring.
Sunlight has incredible power over our mental and physical health. For example, sun exposure helps to set our biological clock, which is also known as our circadian rhythm. This controls the quality and quantity of our sleep, and when there are disruptions, we can experience insomnia. Similarly, sunlight can impact mood.
In people with SAD, the reduction in day length and amount of sunlight seems to be associated with changes in the brain. One change that could be a potential factor in seasonal affective disorder is an increase in the production of melatonin and a decrease in serotonin.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
While anyone can experience SAD, it is most commonly seen in women over the age of 20. Those with seasonal affective disorder experience many of the following symptoms:
- Sadness present most days, and persistent feelings of hopelessness
- Lack of energy and increased drowsiness
- Sleeping more than usual
- Lack of desire to engage in pleasurable activities
- Increase in appetite and desire for carbohydrates
- Weight gain
- Withdrawal from friends and family
- Low libido
- Difficulty with concentration and thinking
- Thoughts of suicide
Tips for Coping With Seasonal Affective Disorder
If you are experiencing some of these symptoms and can’t shake them this winter, there are steps you can take to feel better.
See a Professional
One crucial element of staying well this winter is seeking support from a mental health professional. Working with a therapist or counselor can help you develop coping strategies to provide a buffer against these distressing symptoms.
Practice a Healthy Routine
It is also important to establish a healthy routine. Paying attention to your nutrition and incorporating exercise into your day can help you feel better. Try to stick to a regular sleep schedule and cut back on the time you spend napping.
Balance Your Time
It is essential to find a balance between getting an adequate amount of rest and sleeping too much, which can make you feel worse. Additionally, spending time with people who care about you and taking the time to engage in activities you enjoy can help your mood. Once again, working with a mental health professional can make these objectives more obtainable.
Get Light Exposure
Sunlight is an important piece of the puzzle. Try to get sunlight exposure while it is light out by going for walks or even sitting near a window. Sunlight exposure can have the most benefit during the first two hours of being awake. Artificial sunlight produced by light boxes can also stave off symptoms of SAD. Light boxes used for phototherapy can be purchased online, but you should consult with a healthcare provider first to learn more. If it is feasible for you, you could also plan a trip to a warmer, sunnier place during the winter.
How Does SAD Apply to Substance Use Disorder?
Mental health conditions are linked to substance abuse, and seasonal affective disorder is no exception. If you struggle with depressive symptoms, you may be more likely to develop an addiction. This is because of the potential for drugs and alcohol to be used as a method of coping.
Over time, this can create mental and physical dependency on substances. This relationship between mental health and mental health conditions also goes the other way. The changes that occur in the brain as a result of substance use can lead to mental health conditions.
As with other forms of depression or other mental health conditions in general, it is essential to seek treatment for SAD. This is especially the case if you are in recovery from addiction. Treating seasonal affective disorder can reduce the risk of developing an addiction or exacerbating a current substance use problem. Working with a provider who understands co-occurring disorders and how to treat them can help you find relief from the symptoms of both conditions while keeping you on the path to recovery.
If you are struggling with feelings of depression this winter, you do not have to go through it alone. It is crucial to seek professional help before seasonal affective disorder impacts your recovery goals. Family-Centered Services is here to support you and your family during every season of the year. We offer a range of services designed to meet your individual needs and provide a comprehensive path to sustained sobriety. We provide individual and family therapy, a Family Recovery Program, case management, sober monitoring, treatment placement consultation, and sober companion transport. If you have been trying to find a solution for addiction in your family, call us at (509) 991-5822 to learn how we can help.