Seasonal Affective Disorder and Addiction: Causes and Treatment

During the fall and winter months, the days start getting shorter and colder, it’s often too frigid or dark to enjoy outdoor activities after work, and the mix of it all can just be downright depressing sometimes. Although it’s normal to experience some winter blues from time to time, when the negative thoughts and emotions associated with the changing seasons begin to overtake our lives, something is wrong.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

The National Institute on Mental Health defines Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) as a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons. People typically experience it during the fall or winter months and it tends to go away during the spring and summer.

These depressive episodes are characterized by recurrent seasonal symptoms of depression, such as:

  • Feeling depressed on all or most days

  • Decreased energy

  • Experiencing feelings of hopelessness

  • Overeating

  • Oversleeping or having trouble sleeping

  • Withdrawing from friends and loved ones

  • Losing interest in hobbies

  • Having suicidal thoughts

Spring and summer SAD can also occur, but it is far less common than winter episodes of SAD.

Researchers still aren’t completely sure what causes SAD, but the Mayo Clinic cites three likely factors.

  1. Your circadian rhythm – Your body’s internal clock may be disrupted by the lack of sunlight you experience during the fall and winter months.

  2. Serotonin levels – This neurotransmitter transmits impulses between nerve cells, affecting feelings of well-being and happiness. Reduced amounts of sunlight can cause serotonin levels to drop, resulting in episodes of depression.

  3. Melatonin levels – This naturally-occurring hormone helps the body regulate sleep cycles. Changing seasons can disrupt the body’s production of melatonin, leading to sleep problems.

SAD and Addiction

The relationship between substance abuse and SAD is a strong one. Many people unknowingly suffer from symptoms of SAD and attempt to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol to numb the negative feelings. Unfortunately, drugs and alcohol will often exacerbate those feelings and add to feelings of depression and hopelessness. As the person continues to self-medicate, the drug and alcohol use may become compulsive and develop into full-blown addiction.

The disruption of a person’s circadian rhythm can also inhibit consistent and healthy behavioral functions and put a person at risk of developing an addiction. Additionally, individuals who are recovering from drug and alcohol addiction are particularly vulnerable during episodes of SAD and may be more likely to relapse.

Drug Rehab for Dual Diagnosis

Just as addiction and major depression should be treated simultaneously, the best way to achieve long-term sobriety is a long-term rehab program that treats dual diagnosis patients. Not all rehab centers have the capability to treat clients with multiple diagnoses, such as addiction and depression, but if you have SAD and a substance use disorder, it’s important that you find a rehab that does.

In treating both the addiction and the SAD, clients will have the opportunity to dive deep into the internal and external causes of their addiction, modify negative behaviors that may exacerbate one condition or the other, and receive ongoing support from treatment professionals and peers to overcome their disorders.

Both SAD and addiction can be effectively treated with cognitive behavioral therapy, individual and group therapy, various forms of psychotherapy, and ongoing recovery support services. Choosing to seek no treatment at all is a dangerous route to take and should be avoided at all costs.

Although it may take some research to find the right rehab center to suit your needs, a life in recovery from SAD and addiction will be well worth it.

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