How Winter Can Affect Depression and Substance Abuse

Winter is here and, for many of us, so are the blues. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is estimated to affect 10 million Americans according to Psychology Today. After the merriment of the holidays fade, we can all relate to feeling spent once the dreariness of winter days and the bills from December roll in. But what makes SAD different? And how can you prevent it from leading you down a darker path towards depression and substance abuse? Let’s find out.

SAD Defined

SAD is actually a type of depression. In most cases symptoms appear during late fall or early winter and go away during the spring or summer each year.

According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of SAD may include:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Having low energy
  • Having problems with sleeping
  • Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty
  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide

It’s important to note the difference between this type of clinical depression and ‘the blues.’ The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 4th Edition (DSM-IV) states that clinical depression lasts for at least two weeks and interferes with your ability to work, maintain healthy relationships and function socially. On the other hand, ‘the blues’ won’t affect your ability to pursue your usual activities.

What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Although the specific cause of SAD is not known, the reduced level of sunlight during these times of year is thought to play a key role. Lack of sunlight can disrupt your body’s internal clock and can cause a drop in serotonin, a brain chemical that affects mood and sleep patterns.

Depression and Substance Abuse   

Depression is often seen as a gateway to substance abuse because people may take drugs or alcohol to escape their feelings of despair. In fact, the National Bureau of Economic Research has reported that people diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in life consume 69 percent of the nation’s alcohol and 84 percent of the nation’s cocaine.

However that’s not always the case; the relationship between depression and substance abuse is actually bi-directional which means that people who abuse substances are also more likely to suffer from depression. For example, alcohol can increase feelings of sadness or fatigue because it’s a depressant itself. When a person struggles with mental illness, such as depression, and substance abuse it’s known as a dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorder.

Getting Help

The best thing you can do for yourself if you feel you may have SAD this winter is to act early on.

Self-Care for SAD

Self-care can play a part in treatment and includes:

  • Monitoring your mood and energy level
  • Taking advantage of available sunlight whenever and wherever you can
  • Exercising regularly and planning fun activities to do in winter
  • Approaching the season with a positive attitude; keeping a gratitude journal can help

Seek an Expert

If you are depressed and using drugs or alcohol, these issues should be addressed simultaneously with an integrated treatment approach for the best chance at long-term recovery. With three licensed clinicians on our team and a wealth of dual diagnosis experience, we specialize in getting clients to the appropriate facility for psychological evaluation and testing – a critical component in the recovery process.

For more information on depression and substance abuse treatment, call 800-335-0316 or email today.

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