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Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and Addiction

Each year in the late fall and winter months, many people are affected with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). The stress of the holidays, combined with dreary days and night that falls early, can bring on depression that’s hard to overcome. While it’s often minimized as “the winter blues,” SAD can actually be quite severe, interfering with a person’s ability to function. It may not surprise you to learn that, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), an estimated 20 percent of people struggling with SAD also have a substance abuse disorder.

What makes SAD so challenging that people often turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with it? For one thing, it comes during a time when people feel like they’re supposed to be happy. The holidays happen in fall and winter, and it can seem to someone who is depressed like everyone else is merry and bright. For people with SAD, all the merriment can intensify the feelings of depression, and the emotional triggers the holiday season can bring may seem overwhelming. Symptoms of SAD include low energy, irritability, lack of interest in hobbies or other activities, lack of concentration or focus, and the desire to “hibernate,” isolating from friends and family. People struggling with SAD may oversleep, crave carbohydrates, gain weight, and feel hopeless and joyless.

All of those negative feelings can make people feel like self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, but there are better ways to handle SAD. Alcohol abuse is particularly prevalent during this season of parties, but the depressive effects of alcohol can actually worsen the symptoms of SAD, creating a vicious cycle of negative emotions and substance abuse. If you’re struggling, professional help may be warranted. If you’re not ready to seek that kind of support yet, you can try to manage it at home, using these healthy strategies.

  • Take care of your body. Eat a healthy diet, even if you feel like packing in the carbs. This can be tricky during the season of parties and treats, but it’s a big part of staying healthy. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep, too, and try to get outside for some exercise each day. Whenever there is sunlight, be sure to take advantage of the opportunity to soak it in.
  • Take care of your mind. Do things that make you happy, and participate in your normal activities, even if it feels like a difficult thing to do. Be gentle with yourself, treating yourself as kindly as you’d treat a loved one struggling with similar issues.
  • Build a strong support system. Talk to someone. It might be a friend or family member, it might be a member of the clergy, or you might need to seek out a support group. While it can be tempting to isolate yourself, locking yourself away until this season is over, your mental health will greatly benefit from the support of others.

Ultimately, many people find that SAD is not something they can handle on their own. Fortunately, there are several interventional strategies that can help. In most cases, an integrated treatment plan is recommended, especially for those battling both SAD and substance abuse disorders.

  • Therapy: Individual and group therapy have both been shown to be effective in combatting SAD. Discussing and addressing the issues you’re facing can be helpful, as can sharing with people who are facing similar issues. Perhaps most effective, though, is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This is a form of therapy that helps people change harmful thoughts, beliefs, and behavior into more accurate and functional ones. It’s used for many different conditions, but a type of CBT adapted specifically for people dealing with SAD is extremely beneficial in helping cope with winter.
  • Phototherapy: Because lack of sunlight is thought to be a contributing factor in Seasonal Affective Disorder, vitamin D supplements and phototherapy may help. Phototherapy involves sitting in front of a light therapy box for at least 20 minutes a day. Light therapy boxes give off bright light while filtering out ultraviolet rays. There have also been some studies that show promising results for small LED light sources that can be used at home for light therapy.
  • Medication: In addition to supplements like melatonin and vitamin D, doctors sometimes prescribe selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) for their patients with SAD. This a type of antidepressant that increases the amount of serotonin in the brain.

When a person is dealing with SAD and substance abuse, these issues need to be addressed separately but simultaneously. If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, BriteLife Recovery is here for you. A one-on-one approach to addiction recovery is at the heart of BriteLife’s philosophy, and it’s key to the success of the program. Individual therapy can give patients tools and help them find the strength they need to survive addiction and rebuild their lives. If you know someone who you think would benefit from the BriteLife approach to addiction recovery, visit our website to learn more. You can also find us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter to find out how we can help.

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