Seasonal Affective Disorder, also aptly known by the acronym SAD, is a disorder characterized by diminished energy and a feeling of sadness or depression. Seasonal Affective Disorder is typically related to reduced sunlight exposure during winter months, resulting in reduced serotonin production in the brain. This creates many of the same side effects of depression disorder, increasing the risk of depressive episodes, suicidal ideation, and general lethargy and inability to act or socialize.
SAD affects 8-10% of the American population, with an estimated 10-20 million people suffering from a mild form of SAD and another 10 million suffering from a stronger form. Of these, most report overlaps with other disorders such as substance use disorder (34%), and depression or anxiety (55%). If you’re struggling with SAD, you’re definitely not alone. But, if you’re struggling with SAD while going through recovery, the two can overlap and make things harder for you, increasing the medical significance of SAD, and, without help, possibly pushing you into a relapse. Getting help, taking steps to ensure you have support networks in place, and making decisions to take care of yourself will ensure you stay in recovery and stay safe.
Contacting your Doctor
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a serious medical condition. SAD can contribute to suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. It can negatively interact with existing disorders you might have including depression, anxiety, PTSD, nutritional-deficiency related depression, and many others.
It’s important to contact your doctor for a diagnosis. Symptoms of SAD overlap with other disorders including depression, hyperthyroidism, viral infections, and hypoglycemia. Self-diagnosing can prevent you from getting much-needed treatment for these disorders. In addition, if you have a severe form of SAD, which prevents you from engaging with daily life, you likely need medication to prevent serotonin reuptake.
Symptoms of SAD
Seasonal Affective Disorder heavily overlaps with the symptoms of depression as well as some disorders such as hyperthyroidism. Most people will experience:
- Fatigue or reduced energy
- Feelings of sadness or hopelessness
- Suicidal ideation
- Weight gain
- Difficulty concentrating
- Mood swings and irritability
- Social avoidance
- Sensitivity to rejection
- Loss of interest in activities/hobbies
- Feelings of guilt
- Physical side-effects such as stomach issues
If you’re experiencing these symptoms, it’s important to see a doctor and discuss them with your recovery and previous medical history in context. Seasonal Affective disorder is typically treated through a combination of light therapy, counseling or behavioral therapy, and medication such as serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Your doctor’s treatment prescription will heavily depend on your previous history as well as your initial reaction to light therapy.
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How Seasonal Affective Disorder Overlaps with Addiction
Persons with seasonal affective disorder are significantly and statistically more likely to suffer from a substance use disorder. Less than 10% of the general population struggles with addiction but more than 34% of persons with SAD do. This means that seasonal affective disorder makes you more vulnerable to addiction and may cause complications when in recovery.
However, the link is likely complex, in that persons who are depressed are more likely to self-medicate, persons with adverse childhood experiences are more prone to both SAD and substance use disorder, and melatonin production and serotonin regulation issues contributing to SAD likely contribute to substance use disorder as well.
Taking Steps to Prevent Relapse
If you know that you suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, it’s important to take steps to prevent it from harming your health. Even if your SAD is relatively mild, you likely need additional support to prevent complications.
Seek Treatment – SAD is easily treated and doctors routinely treat millions of people each year. Introduce the problem to your doctor in light of your substance abuse and recovery, highlight your stage of recovery, and take appropriate steps. Most doctors will start you on 60-90 minutes of light therapy per day, unless you have a disorder or issue that would cause this to be an issue. If light therapy doesn’t work, you may be moved into group therapy or counseling, and, as a last resort, prescribed medication such as a serotonin reuptake inhibitor. This drug is designed to prevent your brain from absorbing as much serotonin on the reuptake, meaning more is present at once, reducing the symptoms of depression.
Create a Support Network – Feeling sad and tired can leave you wanting to isolate yourself. As a recovering addict, this is a bad idea. Being alone and sad or feeling guilty will leave you more open to relapse and less-likely to be able to find motivation to resist cravings. It’s crucial that you maintain your social networks and seek out regular support. You can do so by regularly meeting up with friends and family, attending self-help groups like 12-step or SMART, and making time to engage in social activities. You also want to ensure that you have a sober buddy or someone you can call to ask for help if you’re experiencing cravings or need help.
Stay Healthy – SAD can make you feel lethargic, you might find yourself oversleeping, and you might find yourself constantly reaching for snacks such as sweets or starches. It’s important that you create a strict schedule for yourself including diet, exercise, and a sleep rhythm.
- Wake up at the same time every day, including on weekends. Getting 8 hours of sleep per day can help regulate melatonin production, which may improve SAD. Oversleeping will do the opposite and may aggravate seasonal affective disorder and any mood drops you’re facing as a result of recovery.
- Exercise regularly. It’s important to get at least 30 minutes of light exercise in every day. Consider taking a 30-minute walk as part of your morning routine. You can also go for heavier exercise such as running, biking, or swimming, however, you don’t want to exhaust yourself. It’s better to go for more moderate exercise and have more energy left for the rest of the day. Importantly, doing exercise earlier in the day means you’ll have a harder time forgetting to do it or pushing it off because you’re too tired.
- Eat well whenever you can. Nutrition will actively impact your mood and your health. Make sure you eat at least 80% healthy foods. This is especially important in recovery, because nutrition affects your total mood and mental health and a lack of it may contribute to relapse. Most rehab clinics offer some form of nutrition therapy as part of recovery. If you don’t have time to plan meals and eat healthy, you can consider a number of food-service subscriptions or meal prepping on weekends to ensure you always have something healthy and nutritious when you get home. Importantly, you should avoid purchasing sugary and starchy snacks, because it’s difficult to avoid eating too much of them when suffering from SAD.
Seasonal Affective disorder massively impacts individuals but if you’re already struggling with recovery, it will be worse. SAD impacts the same areas of the brain as substance-abuse related depression, because both are caused by reduced serotonin production in the brain. Taking steps to ensure you have support, are balancing out side-effects wherever possible, and are getting professional help are the best things you can do to stay on track.
Good luck seeking help and congratulations on your recovery.
If you or your loved-one is seeking help for substance addiction, call us at (714) 443-8218 and look into our recovery programs. Our Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center in Huntington Beach helps clients by providing them with addiction intervention services, detox, and residential addiction treatment.
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