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Sober Nation

Putting Recovery On The Map

12-11-18 | By

What You Should Know About Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

It’s winter.

The cold weather has set in and the winter chill permeates through your bones. The days are shorter and the nights are longer. You have to dig out your car from under the snow to get to work. Maybe you feel yourself getting depressed as you feel stuck inside. Maybe you joke with friends and tell them you hibernate during the winter, however your depressive symptoms are starting to interfere with your day-to-day life.

This could be a sign of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), is a subset of major depression recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5). SAD typically begins and ends at the same time every year, during fall and winter months, and eases in the summer as days get longer. However, there is a less common form of SAD that gets worse during spring and summer.

SAD can be more common in areas that have darker, colder winter months. Additionally as with depression, SAD is diagnosed more often in women than men, and to be diagnosed with SAD, a person must have this pattern for at least two years in a row.

Brain Changes

The first studies on Seasonal Affective Disorder confirmed the condition affected thousands across the United States in the 1980s, and since, the diagnosis has been altered. Like other types of depression, the underlying cause of SAD is unknown, however there are some factors that can trigger the condition. Living in a high altitude, close to either pole where winter days are very short and summer days are long, changes in circadian rhythms to the point that mental health is affected.

Those with Seasonal Affective Disorder typically have lower levels of serotonin, the neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood, energy, sleep, and digestion. Because of the lower serotonin levels, these individuals brains are less effective at managing mood, energy, and sleep patterns. In addition, many people with SAD over-produce melatonin, the chemical that provokes sleep. This can cause more fatigue, lethargy, and disrupt circadian rhythms.

Those with SAD are also deficient in vitamin D, which can also add to a mood and energy depletion. Because this vitamin is absorbed from sunlight, the short winter days can compound deficiency. Doctors also believe that there can be a genetic component to SAD.

Signs of Seasonal Effective Disorder

Some signs of Seasonal Effective Disorder (SAD) can include:

  • Tiredness during the day
  • Low energy
  • Feeling antisocial
  • Trouble getting along with others
  • Withdrawn
  • Oversleeping
  • Weight gain
  • Heavy feelings in the limbs
  • Isolation

Symptoms of SAD can be similar to other mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder and other types of depression. They can also mimic symptoms of hypothyroidism and mononucleosis.

Seasonal Affective Disorder and Substance Abuse

Seasonal Affective Disorder and addiction, especially alcohol addiction, can be closely intertwined. The symptoms that make up SAD, such as hopelessness and low energy, can lead to addiction and alcohol use as a result of self-medication. Additionally, those in recovery from addiction are at particular risk of relapse if they suffer from SAD.

However, in adverse, addiction can contribute to the symptoms of SAD. The highs and lows of addiction can heighten the depressive symptoms of SAD, such as feelings of hopelessness. This is due to alcohol and similar substances altering brain chemistry which lead to chemical imbalances that cause depressive symptoms. In conclusion, alcohol abuse and addiction can cause and additionally be caused by depressive symptoms associated with Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Seasonal Affective Disorder In Recovery

Especially for those in recovery, Seasonal Affective Disorder can cause desperate feelings of sadness and isolation. They can often be subject to sleep disorders, and digestive tract issues. For someone that is already in recovery, this can be a high risk factor to self-medicate and a potential warning sign for relapse. Self-medication can oftentime feel like it’s working, but when alcohol and/or drugs leave the body, depression can come back hard.

Some ways for those in recovery to combat SAD include:

  • Maintaining a healthy sleep hygiene
  • Yoga
  • Eating a balanced diet
  • Limiting salt and sugar
  • Meditation
  • Regular exercise
  • Following a medication or vitamin regimen
  • Address issues with a therapist or medical professional

Treatment For Seasonal Affective Disorder

Treating Seasonal Affective Disorder starts with low-level interventions that are often very effective in improving mood. Once SAD has been diagnosed by a medical professional, a common treatment is light therapy. There are two kinds of light therapy that are common.

  • Light Box Therapy – Prescription versions or light-boxes can radiate daylight-like light, which include UV spectrum rays. The doctor will prescribe sitting with the box a specific distance away for a certain number of hours, so the skin, eyes, and brain can absorb extra light when it does not occur naturally.
  • Dawn Simulation – During winter months, dawn can become irregular in higher altitudes. By having a light that turns on while one is sleeping and gradually becomes brighter can help a person adjust to dawn occurring later in the morning during winter. Additionally, a combination of dawn simulation and blackout curtains can help a person adjust to a much earlier dawn during the summer.

A physician or therapist may also prescribe selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or other antidepressants to regulate mood throughout the year. This can help symptoms of SAD not be so magnified. However, these medications should be used in combination with therapy to understand triggers and risk factors, and additionally understand the risk of future episodes of depression.

Seasonal Affective Disorder can become serious, especially coupled with alcohol or drug addiction. If you feel you or a loved one is struggling with Seasonal Affective Disorder seek help today by calling Sober Nation’s 24/7 hotline now at: 866-653-7542


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