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Winter Blues: Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and Substance Abuse

(781) 622-9190
Seasonal Affective Disorder and Substance Abuse

The winter season can be a challenging time for many people. The shorter days, colder temperatures, and lack of sunlight can all contribute to feelings of sadness, fatigue, and even hopelessness. For some individuals, these feelings may be more severe and could lead to seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

This is a subtype of major depression disorder that occurs during specific seasons. This is commonly known as winter depression, though seasonal depression can happen at any time of the year.

While seasonal affective disorder is a legitimate mental health condition that affects millions of people worldwide, it can also be linked to substance abuse. In fact, research has shown that individuals with SAD are more likely to develop a substance use disorder (SUD) compared to those without the disorder.

Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder

The exact cause of seasonal affective disorder is not fully understood, but it is believed to be related to changes in the body’s circadian rhythm and levels of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and melatonin.

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are commonly prescribed to treat seasonal affective disorder, as they can help regulate neurotransmitter levels and improve mood. Therapy is also an effective way to treat SAD, whether an individual is participating in talk therapy or light therapy to help with seasonal depression.

SAD Symptoms

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) can disrupt mood, sleep, and appetite, leading to symptoms such as:

  • Persistent feelings of sadness
  • Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
  • Social withdrawal
  • Changes in sleep patterns (oversleeping or having trouble sleeping)
  • Changes in appetite (carbohydrate cravings and weight gain)
  • Low energy levels and increased fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • Negative thoughts and feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness

If these symptoms occur during the same season for two consecutive years and are unrelated to any other underlying medical condition, a healthcare provider may diagnose seasonal affective disorder.

When Symptoms of SAD Begins in Summer

Often times, these symptoms occur about the same time in early winter, though depressive episodes from SAD can also begin in the early summer or other times of the year.

Seasonal depression is a mood disorder that can be treated, and individuals should not feel ashamed or embarrassed to seek help, whether dealing with summer or winter blues.

For individuals with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), the symptoms can be difficult to cope with, leading them to seek relief through self-medicating with drugs or alcohol. This can temporarily alleviate some of the symptoms, but it can also create a dangerous cycle of dependence and addiction.

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Self-Medicating Symptoms of SAD

Moreover, substances like alcohol and drugs can further disrupt the body’s chemical balance, worsening SAD symptoms and increasing the risk of developing a substance use disorder. If an individual is struggling with other mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, they may choose to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, worsening the symptoms.

Treatment Options for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and Substance Abuse

If you or someone you know is struggling with both seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and substance abuse, it is important to seek professional help. A comprehensive treatment plan that addresses both disorders simultaneously can provide effective relief and promote long-term recovery.

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Talk Therapy with a Mental Health Professional

Talk therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), can help individuals with SAD and substance abuse learn coping skills to manage their symptoms and develop healthier behaviors.


Antidepressant medication may be prescribed to treat SAD by regulating an individual’s mood to help improve symptoms. However, it is essential to monitor medications closely, as some substances can interact with certain antidepressants.

Light Therapy

Light therapy, also known as phototherapy, involves sitting in front of a light box that emits bright light to simulate natural sunlight. Light therapy can help regulate circadian rhythms and improve mood for individuals with SAD, as less sunlight may contribute to symptoms when SAD occurs.

Substance Abuse Treatment

For those struggling with substance abuse, seeking treatment at a rehabilitation center or attending support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous can provide the necessary support and resources for recovery.

Additional Tips for Helping with SAD and Substance Abuse

While SAD is a seasonal pattern that may require antidepressant medications, light therapy, and professional care, there are ways to help prevent depressive episodes, whether in winter, early spring, or any specific season:

  • Practice self-care: Engage in activities that promote relaxation, such as yoga or meditation.
  • Stay active: Exercise regularly to boost mood, improve sleep, and reduce stress.
  • Eat well-balanced meals: A healthy diet can help regulate mood and energy levels.
  • Get enough sleep: Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep each night.
  • Spend time outdoors: Getting exposure to natural sunlight can improve mood, boost vitamin D, and alleviate symptoms of SAD.

Coping with SAD during Winter

In addition to seeking professional treatment, there are other ways to cope with SAD and promote overall well-being during the winter months:

  • Engage in regular physical activity, such as exercise or outdoor activities.
  • Get plenty of natural sunlight by taking breaks outside during the day or sitting near windows.
  • Practice relaxation techniques like yoga, meditation, or deep breathing.
  • Eat a balanced and nutritious diet to maintain energy levels and support overall health.
  • Connect with loved ones and seek social support to combat feelings of isolation.

Dealing with SAD during Spring and Summer Months

While Seasonal Affective Disorder is often associated with the winter months, a smaller percentage of people experience a form of SAD during the spring and summer months. This is often referred to as reverse seasonal affective disorder, and while the exact cause is unknown, longer daylight hours and increased heat and humidity may play a role. Symptoms may include insomnia, poor appetite, weight loss, agitation, and anxiety.

During spring or summer months, it’s critical to maintain a stable routine to help regulate your body’s clock. Try to wake up and go to bed at about the same times each day, take meals regularly, and stick to a consistent exercise schedule. Stay properly hydrated, avoid excessive exposure to heat, and consider getting less sunlight, as it can exacerbate symptoms.

Seeking Help for Summer Depression

Just like with winter-based SAD, seeking professional help is crucial if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms. Treatments may include talk therapy, medication, or changes in your lifestyle or environment. Also, be mindful of any signs of substance abuse, as individuals with SAD can sometimes turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with their symptoms.

Co-occurring Disorders Require Specialized Treatment

It is essential to recognize and address the relationship between SAD and substance abuse. Both disorders can have a significant impact on an individual’s daily life, and seeking treatment for one without addressing the other may not lead to successful recovery.

If you or someone you know is struggling with SAD and substance abuse, remember that there is hope, and help is available. Seek support from professionals and loved ones, and remember that recovery is possible with proper treatment and ongoing self-care.

Individuals may struggle with other mental health conditions as well as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). These mental disorders can include bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, and anxiety disorders. It is essential to seek treatment for all co-occurring disorders to achieve optimal health and well-being.

Reach Out to Woburn Wellness for Comprehensive Treatment

At Woburn Wellness, we provide personalized and integrated dual-diagnosis treatment programs for individuals struggling with SAD, substance abuse, and co-occurring disorders. Contact us today via our online form to learn more about our programs for treating depression and how we can help you or your loved one on the path to recovery.

Whether it’s winter or any other season, taking care of ourselves should always be a priority. By understanding the connection between SAD and substance abuse, we can better recognize the signs and seek appropriate help when needed. Let’s continue to break the stigma surrounding mental disorders and promote overall well-being for ourselves and those around us.

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Medically Reviewed By

Inessa Maloney, MS, LMHC Clinical Director
Learn about Inessa Maloney

Inessa Maloney, MS, LMHC has been dedicated to the mental health and substance abuse field for a decade, providing her expertise to guarantee quality and accuracy.

  • Specializes in outpatient services with a focus on substance abuse
  • Expertise in reality-based therapy, CBT/DBT, and motivational interviewing
  • Holds a Master’s Degree in Professional Counseling
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