Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a condition that affects many people who live in colder climates in the winter. Most people who exhibit symptoms of this mood disorder report mostly normal mental health throughout the year otherwise, but when the days get shorter, when the weather gets colder, and when it is darker and more overcast on a regular basis, they may sleep too much, may experience decreased energy levels, and may overeat. They may also report additional symptoms of depression. Furthermore, for individuals working on their recovery from drug or alcohol addiction, it can be a major trigger for relapse. People in recovery who are affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms must be aware of this risk, and must be vigilant to combat these symptoms before they lead them down a path that will be detrimental to their sobriety. Often, doctors can help diagnose SAD, and once a person is aware of his or her dual diagnosis of addiction and SAD, he or she can more easily make changes to help healing and recovery from both co-occurring disorders.
Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms
While SAD should be diagnosed by a doctor, there are many symptoms that can indicate that an individual may have this disorder. Although all of the symptoms of SAD can be symptoms of other mental disorders, the appearance of and prevalence of these symptoms during the dark and cold months of the year and not at other times are what indicate SAD in particular.
Symptoms of SAD may include:
- Feelings of joylessness and hopelessness
- Changes in weight (gain or loss)
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Fatigue and lethargy
- Lack of concentration and focus
- Lack of interest in hobbies and social events
- Isolation from others
- General anxiety
It is believed that SAD is caused by lack of exposure to sunlight during the winter months. It makes sense. On the winter solstice on December 21st , for example, there are fewer than eight hours of sunlight – and that is nine hours less than on the summer solstice in June. The months of October, November, December, January, and February can be very dark and depressing, certainly, but from a health standpoint, our bodies need Vitamin D. Vitamin D comes from the sun, and when we don’t have as much exposure to the sun, we suffer in many ways. During the darkest parts of the year, not only is the sun in the sky for much briefer periods, we are less likely to go outside when it is shining due to colder temperatures, and due to busy days at work.
If doesn’t help that the darkest times of year are also concurrent with one of the most stressful times of year for many Americans – the Christmas season. These two events are almost perfectly aligned and this combination can send many into a depressive downward spiral. Everyone must be conscious of the potential effects of SAD and stress on their health during the winter, especially people in recovery.
SAD, Drug Abuse, and Addiction
Unfortunately, some people who are affected by darkness and lack of activity in the winter months often attempt to self-medicate for their dips in mood by drinking more heavily or more frequently or by doing drugs to overcome their feelings of sadness. While this is not wise for anyone, it is even more risky for people who are suffering from SAD. An individual who self-medicates frequently may find that they are alcohol or drug dependent by the time springtime comes around and may continue this abuse and behavior even as the days grow longer. Self-medicating can be very dangerous for anyone because alcohol and drug abuse will just make the user more depressed and will exacerbate the symptoms of depression and SAD. Soon, a vicious cycle emerges, and the individual becomes even more depressed than he or she was to begin with.
For individuals already in recovery, the depressive dark months of winter can be very dangerous, as these people may feel more drawn to returning to using than they do when everything is bright and sunny in the spring, summer, and autumn. If they succumb to the temptations brought on by the darkness, they may soon find themselves in the midst of a downward spiral into full-blown relapse. This can happen very quickly, and it may be difficult to bounce back and get back on the right track without starting treatment all over again.
How to Avoid and Overcome SAD
Whether you are fully experiencing the symptoms of SAD and have been diagnosed by a doctor, or if you are simply trying to keep it from developing and advancing, there are steps you can take to avoid it or heal from it. The most commonly suggested treatment for SAD is getting more Vitamin D, which is necessary for a variety of bodily functions such as calcium absorption for bone health, disease prevention, and mood stabilization. Getting more Vitamin D can be achieved in several ways. First of all, Vitamin D supplements can be a big help. These are available over the counter in pill or gummy form. Secondly, light therapy can be very effective. Patients using light therapy sit a few feet away from a special light box every morning when they awake for about an hour. These lights mimic outdoor lighting and studies show they may stimulate brain chemicals linked to mood. Third, getting outside can help. This can be difficult in the cold and short days in the winter, but if you can plan a vacation to warmer, sunnier climate in the mid winter, it can do wonders for your mood and overall happiness.
Besides increasing your Vitamin D levels, there are other things that can help too. Exercise is always a fantastic mood enhancer and can help you any time you are feeling down for any reason. Work out regularly to experience the greatest benefits. And, getting not only ample sleep but regular, consistent sleep can be a big help as well. In the darker days of winter, our circadian rhythms can quickly become off kilter; by going to sleep and rising at the same time every day, you can help to keep them on track.
If these things don’t work for you, then you may have to seek professional help – but there is certainly nothing wrong with that. Psychotherapy and anti-depressants can be helpful to people suffering from SAD. If you are already seeing a therapist for your addiction and related issues, do not hesitate to mention your SAD symptoms to him or her so they can be addressed rapidly.
SAD is something you can easily overcome with the right tools and knowledge, but if it is left unchecked it can be dangerous, or, at the very least, can be detrimental to your quality of life. If you think you are experiencing the symptoms of SAD, act quickly. These simple treatments may help to keep you happy, healthy, and on the right path towards drug and alcohol recovery.
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