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Seasonal Affective Disorder and Depression

Debra Wallace, MA.Ed, LPCC-S, LICDC-CS

Medically reviewed by

Debra Wallace, MA.Ed, LPCC-S, LICDC-CS

March 11, 2019

Seasonal Affected Disorder can be a deliberating condition to experience. It is estimated that between 4%-6% of Americans deal with this problem at some point in their lives. For those that struggle concurrently with an addiction, this can be a doubly daunting and difficult situation to engage. Understanding this condition is crucial to avoid falling victim to it.

What Is Seasonal Affected Disorder?

Seasonal Affected Disorder (SAD) is a depressive disorder that occurs due to the changing seasons. It is classified as a Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) that primarily affects those that live in northern regions and experience a notable change in the seasons. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen in the summer, but the most severe symptoms arise in winter.

As the days shorten and lengthen, your body’s circadian rhythm is upset by these changes. SAD is usually cyclical in nature, meaning it has a tendency to reoccur on an annual basis.

SAD originates for two reasons. First, the winter conditions drive people to spend more time indoors/ Second, as the days shorten, the amount of sunlight each day is drastically reduced. For these reasons, people have limited exposure to the sun which in turn decreases their production of serotonin, an elemental neurotransmitter. This variance in the day’s length may also interrupt Melatonin production, causing it to either be produced too early or too late in the day.

Serotonin is a chemical that plays an important role in regulating mood functions while melatonin is responsible for maintaining a positive mood and regulate your sleep/wake cycle.

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What Are The Symptoms Of SAD?

There are two classifications of SAD: winter onset (which may begin in fall) and summer onset (which may begin in spring). Some symptoms vary and are unique to the season. They are as follows:

  • Intense periods of depression lasting for longer than three weeks. Symptoms are present for the majority of your day, nearly every day.
  • The prevailing sense of hopelessness or worthlessness and extreme sensitivity to rejection.
  • Lethargy
  • Decreased interest in previously important activities.
  • Sleep difficulties, such as oversleeping in the winter and trouble sleeping in the summer.
  • Fluctuation with your appetite or weight, including weight gain in the winter and weight loss in the summer.
  • Craving carbohydrates (winter onset).
  • Changes in your libido usually decreased in winter and increased in summer.
  • Experiencing a feeling of weighted limbs (winter onset).
  • Easily agitated and prone to irritable or anxiety
  • Impaired concentration.
  • Impending thoughts of suicide or death.

SAD can be severely crippling and it should be taken very seriously. If you or someone you love is struggling with any of the aforementioned systems, you should contact a doctor immediately.

Are Some People More Susceptible To SAD Than Others?

Research suggests that some people may have a genetic predisposition to SAD. It has also been determined that women struggle with it more than men. For those that currently struggle with a substance abuse disorder, they are at greater risk for experiencing SAD. And once they develop SAD, they are at a greater risk of increasing their substance abuse.

Does SAD Increase The Risk Of Addiction?

SAD can put some people at a greater risk for a substance abuse disorder. As a person struggles to contend with their symptoms, their drug or alcohol use could increase as they struggle to self-medicate. As the body contends with the roller-coaster of physical, mental, and emotional turmoil of abuse, their depression can deepen further and fuel their dangerous journey into substance abuse.

Though substance use may initially seem to alleviate the symptoms, ultimately the substance abuse will leave a person feeling drained, depressed, and disconnected with their life—all of these are also hallmarks of SAD. If left untreated, both can perpetuate the other until they reach dangerous proportions and dependency or addiction can occur if the substance use remains unchecked.

SAD Poses Specific Dangers To Those In Recovery

Seasonal Affective Disorder can be especially harmful for those in recovery. If left untreated, it can endanger their sobriety. One reason that SAD is harmful is that people often fail to realize what it is that is causing their depression. As they contend with these difficulties, they may miss their addiction and its alleged positive effects. As a result, the temptation to self-medicate may be appealing.

The symptoms of SAD can be a stumbling block for a person in recovery. These disturbances in your life can threaten the stability, health, and well-being that is essential for successful sobriety. As depression deepens, a person can be in jeopardy of losing sight of themselves and the people and things that they hold important—the very people and social elements that can be so crucial in creating accountability and hope for a person within their recovery journey.

How To Treat SAD

SAD can vary in its severity and the most viable treatment method can vary by individual. Keep in mind that the list that follows is merely an outline of possible treatments and we recommend that you speak to a professional immediately to determine which approach will be tailored best to your needs:

  • Light Therapy: This is one of the most common and recommended approaches to treating SAD. Around 60-80% of individuals benefit from this therapy. This treatment utilizes a specially designed machine that emits wavelengths of light that are similar to daylight. Its best if light therapy is applied during the early morning hours. These units are designed to supplement the decreased exposure to natural light and many models are compact to fit easily on a desk or end table.
  • Getting Outside: This provides an opportunity for the sufferer to experience natural sunlight. Exposure is most useful if the individual gets outside shortly after waking.
  • Exercise: Consistent exercise can be a great way to bolster your mood as exercise increases your body’s natural production of endorphins, the “feel good” chemicals that create a natural sense of well-being. Finding activities that you can do outdoors increases the benefit of this approach.
  • Brighten Things Up: Sedentary behavior can be detrimental, especially when you’re shut up in a dark room. Try to open your blinds to allow in more natural light throughout the day. Get up, move, and involve yourself in productive or entertaining activities that give you a sense of accomplishment or levity.
  • Natural Supplements: Some studies suggest that a variety of natural supplements may aid in lessening the symptoms of SAD. These include: omega-3 fatty acids, melatonin, and St. John’s Wort. It is important that when you consider taking any supplement or herbal remedy that you approach a doctor before beginning use. You can also increase your intake of omega-3’s by eating foods rich with it, including, nuts, grains and plant sources.
  • Vitamin D: Your body derives most of its Vitamin D from sunlight. Your skin produces this vitamin when exposed to the sun. In the winter when your exposure is extremely limited, your production radically drops. Some studies show that Vitamin D plays a direct role in maintaining a sense of well-being and combating SAD symptoms.
  • Meditation: There is some evidence that certain activities, such as yoga and Tai Chi, may help alleviate the signs and symptoms of SAD.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: This therapy has gained greater support as a means to treat SAD. Through this treatment negative behaviors and thought patterns are monitored and the individual is aided in learning methods to alter these behaviors. This treatment is shown to be useful when combined with light therapy.
  • Prescribed Medication: Under the guidance of a trained and licensed medical professional, certain antidepressant medications may be useful at alleviating these symptoms.

Staying On Top Of Substance Abuse

If you find yourself self-medicating, contending with substance abuse, or if you are afraid of relapsing, contact us at We can help direct you towards the answers and resources you need to achieve lasting recovery.

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