With the winter months come holidays, plunging temperatures, and shorter days. How can this change of season affect your mental health and even lead to potential concerns for drug and alcohol addiction?
We will discuss the connection between Seasonal Affective Disorder and substance abuse, the signs to look out for, and what to do if you have concerns.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a relatively common mental health condition brought on by the cold winter months. Affecting about 5% of the population, Seasonal Affective Disorder is most common in climates with long, heavy winter seasons. Because winter is often associated with shorter days, the lack of sunlight and vitamin D can cause a chemical disturbance in the body, leading to depressive symptoms.
These symptoms include:
- Feeling low energy and tired
- Sleep disruptions (sleeping too much or not enough)
- A general sense of sadness that lasts throughout the day and is hard to shake
- Lack of interest and motivation in social activities and hobbies
- Weight changes and fluctuations, as well as appetite disruptions
While Seasonal Affective Disorder and its symptoms tend to affect people most during the harshest of the winter months, the symptoms of SAD can present themselves during the rest of the year, too. A prime example of this is when Seasonal Affective Disorder leads to addiction.
How Seasonal Affective Disorder Can Lead to Addiction
As we know, SAD comes with a host of adverse side effects that can leave people feeling depressed, lonely, withdrawn, and isolated. When someone lacks a robust support system, the winter holidays can be even more challenging, as everybody else is seemingly happily celebrating with their families. This can lead many to drugs, alcohol, and other unhealthy coping strategies to get through the winter.
Examples of using substances to manage SAD symptoms can include:
- Using stimulants to combat the lethargy that comes with a lack of sun exposure and vitamin D.
- Drinking alcohol to numb the feelings of depression, anxiety, and hopelessness associated with Seasonal Affective Disorder.
- Consuming marijuana to cope with loneliness and isolation during the long winter days.
Many addiction professionals will tell you that using drugs and alcohol to manage mental health symptoms is a recipe for addiction. Not only does the substance simply mask the mental health symptoms and not actually help solve them, but it can also lead to a cycle of dependence where the person only feels relief for their symptoms when using their drug.
Contrary to what many believe, addiction is usually less about pleasure seeking and is often more about pain avoidance. Managing mental health symptoms with chemicals is often how substance use spirals out of control and becomes a full-blown addiction before the person even realizes there’s a problem. The transition from trying to “feel a little bit better” to drinking and using drugs to avoid the devastating effects of withdrawal happens subtly and yet quicker than most realize.
For many, this is how addiction starts. Drug and alcohol use begins as a way to cope with a difficult time, a period of adverse mental health, or a loss (such as a death, a layoff, or the end of a relationship). The person feels like they’re suffering and looking for a reprieve, so they turn to something that will numb or distract like drugs, alcohol, and other addictive habits. Periodic drug or alcohol use becomes more frequent, and because addiction is progressive, they need more of the substance to get the same effect. Eventually, they can’t stop even if they want to, and drinking to manage the effects of SAD is no exception.
How to Reach Out If You’re Concerned About SAD and Addiction
So now that we know how Seasonal Affective Disorder can (and often does) lead to addiction, what can we do about it? Because SAD is statistically less common than other mental health disorders and because the sufferer often conceals the warning signs from those around them, many people miss the effects of SAD on those around them.
And some don’t even notice the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder within themselves because the signs can be subtle. Knowing what to look for (namely, those symptoms listed in the first section) can help you recognize if you or someone you love is dealing with seasonal depression.
Addiction and a growing chemical dependence can also be tricky to spot. People tend to hide their substance use from others, especially when they start relying on it to get through the day.
Questions to ask about yourself or a loved one who might be heading towards an addiction:
- Are they isolating, drinking, using substances privately, or exhibiting signs of frequent substance use (such as smelling like alcohol or bloodshot eyes)?
- Has their appearance and personal hygiene changed?
- Do they seem agitated, snappy, or withdrawn?
- Are they missing important daily activities, like work, family functions, or social events?
- Do they make comments or jokes about using substances?
If someone you care about exhibits any of these symptoms, or if something feels off, ask them about it. People suffering in silence often don’t know how to reach out and start that conversation. Letting them know you’re worried about them and thinking about their well-being might be the first step to them getting help. You can offer to contact a counselor with them, attend a Twelve Step meeting together, or seek medical intervention if it has escalated to that point.
If you yourself are struggling, reach out to someone. It could be as simple as picking up the phone and calling a friend or family member, finding a Twelve-Step group near you, or looking into attending addiction counseling.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is serious and can lead to significant addiction issues that last well past the winter months. If you’re in the San Diego area and would like support in identifying possible SAD-related addiction for you or a loved one, contact Confidential Recovery today. If you’re elsewhere in the United States, contact the National Alliance on Mental Illness hotline at 1-800-950-6264 for more resources.
About the Author
Scott H. Silverman is a high-profile expert on addiction and recovery, making frequent public and media appearances for the last 40 years. He is the author of The Opioid Epidemic and the Founder and CEO of Confidential Recovery, a San Diego substance abuse treatment center that specializes in helping Veterans and First Responders get and stay sober.