Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that many people also refer to as “winter depression.” No matter what you call it, it can have a huge impact on drug addiction. Because of its effects, it’s important to find a rehab center that offers seasonal affective disorder treatment. Below is more information about this disorder and how it interacts with addiction.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as SAD, is a seasonal type of depression that typically starts in the fall and gets worse during the winter. However, depression from December through February is often the most severe. Once spring rolls around, it starts to improve if not disappear completely. It is less common but sometimes seasonal affective disorder causes summer depression.

Scientists say that this disorder is more common in people who live far away from the equator. Studies indicate that it likely occurs as a result of low levels of sunlight and vitamin D during the winter. This depression is also common in areas of the world that are overcast more often.

There’s no specific test to help doctors diagnose someone with seasonal depression. However, there are signs and symptoms that go hand in hand.

Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms

Approximately 20 million Americans suffer from depression, but for some people, they start to notice that their depression hits an all-time low around the same time every year. To be medically diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder, you must experience symptoms of major depression in specific seasons for a minimum of 2 years. The following are some of the signs of seasonal affective disorder.

  • Depression that lasts the majority of the day
  • No interest in things you once enjoyed
  • Little or no energy
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Changes in appetite
  • Easily agitated
  • Hard time focusing/concentrating
  • Feeling worthless
  • Frequent thoughts of self-harm/suicide

Fall and Winter SAD

The symptoms of depression become severe and sometimes manic in the fall and winter months and include these specific symptoms:

  • Excessive sleeping
  • Craving foods high in carbohydrates
  • Weight gain
  • Lack of energy
  • Becoming a homebody (isolation)

Spring and Summer SAD

Seasonal affective disorder in the summer months is less common than SAD in the winter months. The symptoms of depression become severe and sometimes manic in the spring and summer months and include these specific symptoms:

  • Lack of appetite
  • Insomnia
  • Weight loss
  • High anxiety/agitation
  • Violent behavior

Seasonal Changes in Bipolar Disorder

Around 25% of people with bipolar disorder also have seasonal affective disorder. For people who suffer from bipolar disorder, SAD causes mania or hypomania in the summer and severe depression in the winter. It is also mainly associated with Bipolar ll disorder, rapid cycling, depression, and eating disorders. It’s important to note that females have a higher number of eating disorders and it is rapid cycling, while males have more depressive episodes. 

Risk Factors

Living farther from the equator has been a proven factor in those who suffer from seasonal affective disorder. For example, only 2% of people in Florida have reported suffering from SAD while 10% of people in New Hampshire suffer from this disorder. Other risk factors include:

  • Family History- People with a family history of depression are at a higher risk to get SAD.
  • Gender- Females are 4 times more likely to suffer from SAD.
  • Age- The first signs of SAD appear between the ages of 18-30 but can be seen in teens and kids.
  • Existing mood disorders – People who suffer from bipolar disorder or depression are at risk of suffering from SAD.
  • Serotonin – This neurotransmitter is believed to be responsible for our feelings of happiness and wellbeing. A release of serotonin is stimulated by sunshine, so shorter days mean less sunshine, gray winter skies mean little to no sunshine. This could result in a lower amount of serotonin in the body.
  • Melatonin – This is a hormone that regulates sleep. Darkness increases the production of this hormone so there may be higher levels of it in the winter.
  • Vitamin D – This vitamin is believed to be linked to the release of serotonin. So, a lack of vitamin D leads to a lack of serotonin.

Seasonal Affective Disorder and Drug Abuse

People who suffer from seasonal depression are subject to the same dangers as normal depression. These risks include thoughts of suicide and failure to complete normal tasks such as going to work. Another concern is drug abuse, which often accompanies depression of any form. Approximately 50% of all people who suffer from mental health disorders also suffer from drug abuse. 

People who suffer from SAD often turn to drugs to cope with their feelings of sadness or apathy. Self-medicating with drugs causes more harm as it increases the symptoms of the disorder.  It is the search for the feeling of happiness or to numb the pain of the depression, that makes people turn to drugs. And in the beginning, they find that feeling but it quickly fades and they have to use more drugs or alcohol in order to find that same high.

SAD zaps all the energy out of you so people turn to stimulants to find the energy to get through the day. Drug abuse only compounds the issues even though most people don’t see it in the beginning. It may start out as “experimenting” to see if a substance will make you feel “normal”. Then as time goes on it takes more of that substance to feel “normal” and the addiction has begun.

Signs of Addiction

Mental health disorders and addiction feed off each other. The result is a downward spiral in which each condition fuels the other. And for that reason, everyone should know the signs of drug addiction so that, if a loved one starts down the road of addiction, it can be caught early. But our friends and family who suffer from SAD need to be especially watched. If you notice someone you love is portraying signs of this disorder and you see any of the following signs in addition to that, please reach out for help.

  • Spending  more money/borrowing money
  • Not paying bills
  • Change in social groups
  • Very secretive
  • Defensive when questioned
  • Weight loss
  • Lack of energy/desire
  • Tired/bloodshot eyes
  • Change in physical appearance/dirty/unkempt
  • Bad grades/lack of interest in school
  • Decline in work performance/chronic tardiness
  • Challenges in personal relationships

Seasonal Affective Disorder Treatment

Seasonal affective disorder is first treated with phototherapy, since it is believed to be the lack of sun that causes SAD. Phototherapy is a 20-minute session in which the patient sits in front of a lightbox that emits UV filtered bright light. Seeking treatment for SAD in sunnier climates is more beneficial as you get natural sunlight year-round. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy is an important form of treatment as it helps the patient learn a new way of living. When a person suffers from SAD they need to change everything from their harmful thoughts to their behaviors into functional behaviors and thoughts.

Selective serotonin reputable inhibitors (SSRIs) are prescribed as they are an antidepressant. SSRIs prevent cells from reabsorbing serotonin which increases the available serotonin in the brain. 

There are things you can do for yourself to help alleviate some of the symptoms of SAD. 

  • Go outside – The quickest way to feel better is to step out into the sunshine. Let the sun hit your face and soak up some Vitamin D. Focus on how good the sun and the breeze feel on your skin, and then start looking for the positive things in your surroundings.
  • Open the windows – Pull back the curtains and open the blinds. At work and at home, the more sunlight that enters the room, the better you will feel.
  • Eat healthier – When you start to eat healthier (more vegetables, fruits, and fish), your body starts to feel better which increases your mental health. 
  • Exercise – Whether it is a walk around your neighborhood or going to the gym, just get up and get moving. 
  • Support – Friends and family want to help you so be sure to reach out to them. Spend time with them. SAD can make you want to be alone or isolate yourself. But have at least one person you can call that will keep you company. Having someone to talk to can prevent depression from getting worse.

Get Dual Diagnosis Treatment at 1st Step Behavioral Health

1st Step Behavioral Health takes a proven approach to drug addiction treatment. Our methods don’t involve trying to offer every addiction treatment model available. Instead, we focus on providing individual treatment in a caring environment. Creating an individualized plan that caters to your needs gives you a higher chance of recovering.

When looking for dual diagnosis treatment centers, it’s important to examine all available types of treatment. We use therapy to help our clients understand the root causes of their addiction and other mental disorders. Some of the different programs that we offer include:

  • Relapse treatment
  • Music and art therapy
  • Inpatient
  • Outpatient

Don’t let addiction or depression impact your life any longer. Get the addiction and seasonal affective disorder treatment that you need at 1st Step Behavioral Health. Contact us today.

Reviewed for Medical & Clinical Accuracy by Brittany Polansky, MSW, LCSW

Brittany has been working in behavioral health since 2012 and is the Assistant Clinical Director at our facility. She is an LCSW and holds a master’s degree in social work. She has great experience with chemical dependency and co-occurring mental health diagnoses as well as various therapeutic techniques. Brittany is passionate about treating all clients with dignity and respect, and providing a safe environment where clients can begin their healing journey in recovery.