Byline: Content reviewed by Gillian Bieler, LCSW, CSAT, Clinical Director at ARC

If you are not looking forward to the winter season ahead, you are not the only one. It is common to struggle with mental health and substance use during these months. There is something about the cooler, dreary days at higher latitudes that can cause sadness and lethargy. Despite the ways in which exercising can help mitigate the effects, this season may be the best time to get treatment for drug or alcohol addiction.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

The seasonal sadness that you are experiencing is called “winter-pattern” seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD is a type of depression that reoccurs around the same time of year, starting in late fall and lasting until early spring.

Your likelihood of developing SAD is higher if you:

  • Are female
  • Are a young adult
  • Have a family history of depression
  • Live far from the equator (higher latitudes)
  • Have a major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder
  • Have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), an eating disorder or an anxiety disorder

Signs & Symptoms of SAD

Even though SAD is often nicknamed “the winter blues,” this condition is more than just feeling sad or unusual, which is common to experience when the seasons change. SAD is accompanied by significant mood and behavioral changes that hamper your ability to do normal daily activities.

SAD may cause you to withdraw and self-isolate, putting you at risk of using unhealthy coping mechanisms like drinking or using drugs. Because SAD is not a separate condition, the signs and symptoms are similar to major depressive disorder:

  • Overeating
  • Oversleeping
  • Gaining weight
  • Feeling lethargic
  • Having sleep problems
  • Losing interest in hobbies
  • Craving for carbohydrates
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless
  • Using drugs or alcohol excessively
  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide
  • Feeling depressed most of the day almost every day

In order to be diagnosed with winter-pattern SAD, you have to have experienced depressive episodes exclusive to the winter months for at least two consecutive years. In addition, these episodes must occur more frequently than depressive episodes during other parts of the year.

Exercise & Supplementing With Vitamin D

One thing that you can do to reduce depressive symptoms from SAD and avoid using substances is to take care of your physical and nutritional health. For many individuals, the onset of their SAD symptoms is at the beginning of the fall season, where, in the Northern Hemisphere, it gets darker earlier in the evening and less overall sunlight is available. This is important for two reasons: i.) gloomy, cold weather can induce lethargy, causing people to succumb to inactivity; and ii.) the skin is not exposed to as much sunlight, a necessary precursor for the production of vitamin D.

A meta-analysis published in Sports Medicine demonstrates the benefits of exercise to include reduced symptoms of anxiety, positive and negative symptoms of schizophrenia, and depression in adults with major depressive disorder. Researchers also found that physical activity yielded positive mental health benefits among individuals who experienced elevated symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, and substance use disorders.

Vitamin D supplementation has also been shown to have important implications for managing depressive symptoms that can lead to drinking or drug use. Supplementation may help patients prevent or reduce the severity of depressive episodes. Some studies also suggest that vitamin deficiency is associated with alcoholism and more severe opioid use disorders.

Knowing When It’s Time to Get Help

Although activities such as exercising can help your mental health maintenance, this might not be enough to deter you from numbing negative thoughts and feelings with alcohol or drugs. The following are some signs that you may have an addiction and should seek treatment:

  • You drink or use drugs despite negative consequences to your finances, health, and relationships.
  • You avoid social situations where you cannot drink or use drugs.
  • You are hiding your substance use from family and friends.
  • You experience withdrawal symptoms when you stop using for a few hours or days (depending on the substance).
  • You need to take more of the substance to get the same effects (increasing tolerance).
  • You are having trouble limiting your intake despite wanting to (feeling out of control).
  • Substance use is taking up more and more of your time.
  • You make increasingly risky decisions and sacrifices in order to obtain or use the substance.
  • You keep trying to quit but you keep relapsing.

If the above situations sound familiar to you, it is time to get clinical help. Addiction is a brain disease that will prevent you from thinking and behaving like you normally would while sober. Finding a treatment program that treats both SAD and substance use disorders is essential to getting your life back on track.

Change Your Life With Addiction Treatment

It is normal to feel down or out of the ordinary when winter rolls around. However, if you have SAD, you may experience mood and behavior changes that make it challenging, if not impossible, to go to work, take care of the kids or just get out of bed. The symptoms of depression can be intolerable, leading you to drown feelings of hopelessness with substances. Because SAD typically occurs during the long, winter months, this may be a prime time for you to get treated for your drug or alcohol problem.