Addiction and Winter Seasonal Affective Disorder

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The winter season, with its change in weather and holiday stresses, can be a particularly difficult time for recovering addicts and those in treatment. For people affected by seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, the “winter blues” deepen into a type of depression. For most sufferers, SAD begins in the fall and continues through the winter (although some people do experience it in spring and summer); it robs you of energy and makes you glum.

Because SAD begins and ends at about the same time each year, it can be planned for, and an important part of treating and recovering from addiction is planning. Don’t discount the effect that SAD can have upon your sobriety. It isn’t a seasonal bad mood that you have to wrestle with independently.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

The causes of seasonal affective disorder are unknown, however, The Mayo Clinic identifies some factors that come into play:

  • Your biological clock (circadian rhythm). The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may cause winter-onset SAD. This decrease in sunlight may disrupt your body’s internal clock and lead to feelings of depression.
  • Serotonin levels. A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, might play a role in SAD. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin that may trigger depression.
  • Melatonin levels. The change in season can disrupt the balance of the body’s level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.

Fatigue, irritability, and oversleeping are common symptoms of SAD.

SAD tends to manifest in young adulthood and is more common among women than men. It is a subtype of major depression and therefore shares symptoms with it, including these identified by the Mayo Clinic:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless
  • Having low energy
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Having problems with sleeping
  • Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide
  • Irritability
  • Problems getting along with other people
  • Hypersensitivity to rejection
  • Heavy, “leaden” feeling in the arms or legs
  • Oversleeping
  • Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates

Dealing with these symptoms on their own can be crippling, but dealing with them on top of dealing with an addiction may seem like more than you can handle. However, a good plan and a healthy support system can help you make it through fall and winter.

A Reminder

A plan is an important component to dealing with both SAD and addiction, but no plan should be developed and undertaken without the help of a qualified medical professional. Often, people face issues of comorbidity: the simultaneous presence of two chronic diseases or conditions. Having both an addiction and SAD means that they are comorbid and treating them independently of one another won’t work.

It is important that your treatment, recovery, sobriety plan take SAD into consideration and the reverse is true as well. If your SAD developed after you went through treatment, be sure to visit a doctor and tell them about your symptoms and about your addiction. In the case that medication is prescribed, it will be important for the doctor to choose prescriptions that will best fit your needs.

The Plan

Try the following tips to help you make it through the winter.

  • Practice good self-care
  • Reduce your responsibilities
  • Remain mindful
  • Be active
  • Don’t overindulge
  • Don’t procrastinate
  • Get plenty of rest
  • Increase visits to your therapist or support group
  • Practice saying “no”
  • Develop new holiday rituals
  • Challenge yourself to socialize in a healthy way
  • Don’t expose yourself to temptation
  • Focus on your recovery
  • Try light therapy
  • Look into cognitive behavioral therapy aimed at treating SAD
  • Go outside

SAD can make an already complicated winter season feel impossible, but it doesn’t have to be. Your plan should include improved self-care, enhanced support from others, and extra attention dedicated to treating your addiction and your SAD.