Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a mood disorder that arises when the seasons change. When people turn to substance abuse to cope with SAD symptoms, it can worsen mental illness and lead to drug and alcohol addiction. Explore the answers to these common questions about Seasonal Affective Disorder and alcohol addiction if you experience seasonal depression and have concerns about substance use disorder.

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What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Do you experience the “winter blues” when the colder weather comes? Feelings of sadness, fatigue, dread and hopelessness can result from SAD, a form of major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern. In rare cases, Seasonal Affective Disorders can cause major depression in the spring and summer months, then SAD symptoms resolve in the fall and winter.

The most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) does not define SAD as a separate disorder. Still, it puts it in the category of depressive disorders. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 4% of American adults experience Seasonal Affective Disorder, with women more commonly affected than men.

depressed woman with Seasonal Affective Disorder in the fall and winter months 1

Causes of SAD

While the causes of this mental health disorder aren’t apparent, researchers suggest that the shorter daylight hours in the colder months likely play a role. It can impact your circadian rhythms, which tell the body when to sleep and wake. In other words, you could experience depressive disorder when you aren’t getting enough natural sunlight.

Circadian rhythm disruption can also affect your hormones. Specifically, lower serotonin levels and elevated melatonin may lead to depressive episodes during seasonal changes.

Many people find SAD symptoms improve with light therapy. You should seek professional treatment if you notice that you develop sad and hopeless feelings or any of the other symptoms described below in the late fall when the days get shorter.

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, people who have this mental health condition typically experience the following:

  • Depression for at least several hours on most days of the week
  • Unexplained weight or appetite changes (often an increase in food intake that results in weight gain with winter-pattern Seasonal Affective Disorder)
  • Loss of interest in favorite hobbies and activities
  • Withdrawal from social events and relationships
  • Feelings of agitation, restlessness or anxiety
  • Sleep disorders such as insomnia or hypersomnia (oversleeping)
  • Low energy
  • Sense of worthlessness or hopelessness
  • Thoughts of suicide or death

The APA says that SAD symptoms usually last for about 40% of the year, typically in the fall and winter, depending on where you live. Younger people more commonly experience Seasonal Affective Disorder, particularly those ages 18 to 30. Some people with bipolar disorder experience increased depression during the winter, with manic symptoms developing during the warmer months.

Your healthcare provider may recommend antidepressant medications, psychiatric therapy and/or the use of light therapy box to help resolve symptoms of SAD. It’s also critical to treat underlying substance use disorder, a common co-occurring condition. For example, you may find your alcohol use increases when you begin to experience signs of depression. Over time, this pattern can lead to addiction.

Relationship Between SAD and Alcohol Abuse

A 2004 study published in the journal Comprehensive Psychiatry found that, like Seasonal Affective Disorder, some cases of alcohol addiction arise or worsen during the winter months. Researchers theorized that these individuals might self-medicate with alcohol consumption for undiagnosed SAD, which explains why these conditions are often co-occurring disorders. 

The study authors also report that substance abuse and depressive disorder have environmental and genetic causes among the general population, so your medical professional must take a thorough family history.

A more extensive population-based study, published in 2017 in The Journal Psychiatry Research, surveyed more than 5,000 Finnish individuals. The researchers found that participants with symptoms of SAD are more likely to also struggle with substance abuse, theorizing that these individuals spend more time indoors with increased access to alcohol when the days get shorter. 

They also found a genetic link, meaning you’re more likely to develop these conditions if your family members have similar symptoms. Understanding this dual diagnosis can help scientists develop treatment options for clinical practice.

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Effects of Alcohol Abuse on SAD Symptoms

Self-medicating with alcohol can exacerbate depressed mood and other symptoms of SAD. In fact, the research journal ISRN Psychiatry estimates that nearly two-thirds of people with alcoholism also have depression. Because alcohol acts as a depressant, it slows the nervous system and can permanently impact brain function.

These are some of the ways alcohol and other drugs can make your mood worse and increase the severity of SAD:

  • Using alcohol consumption to sleep better, relieve anxiety and alleviate symptoms of depression
  • Increasing alcohol use during depressive episodes, which creates a cycle that exacerbates both disorders
  • Decreasing the effectiveness of prescription medications you take to treat depression
  • Leading to poor decisions, which can affect relationships, work, finances and other areas of life
  • Increasing the frequency and severity of depressive episodes
  • Lowering the body’s levels of dopamine and serotonin, hormones that help regulate sleep and mood
  • Increasing the likelihood of developing suicidal thoughts or attempting self-harm

Some people begin abusing alcohol or drugs before they develop depression. Others start using alcohol or their drug of choice in response to symptoms of SAD.

Circle of trust. Group of people sitting in circle and supporting each other.

How Changing Tides Can Help With SAD and Alcohol Abuse

Changing Tides provides comprehensive dual diagnosis treatment for those affected by SAD and alcohol abuse. Located in Outer Banks, our Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, offers intensive hospitalization for severe cases of alcoholism and Seasonal Affective Disorder and a partial hospitalization or day treatment for alcohol rehab and mental health treatment.

Both programs include medical treatment for withdrawal from alcohol abuse, individual therapy, group therapy and family therapy with loved ones. Connect with our team online today or call 252-715-3905 to schedule an appointment. 

You’ll learn how we can help you overcome drug and alcohol addiction along with Seasonal Affective Disorder and other mood disorders such as bipolar and major depressive disorders.

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