Sobriety - Relapse Prevention

Coping With Seasonal Affective Disorder in Recovery

Coping With Seasonal Affective Disorder in Recovery

Seasonal affective disorder is a form of depression that occurs in the fall and winter. Healthy coping skills decrease relapse.

Written by

brian-mooreBrian Moore

Content Writer

Reviewed by

jeremy-arztJeremy Arzt

Chief Clinical Officer


Relapse Prevention

February 17, 2022

Sweater weather can be an exciting change as chilly air and snowy days set in. However, for some, shorter days and longer nights can negatively affect their mental health.

The lack of sunshine can affect your brain's production of serotonin and dopamine, which are your body's natural happy chemicals, causing seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD comes around at the times of the year when sunlight hours are few and far between. This can be difficult for anyone to deal with and can have even more detrimental effects for people in recovery from addiction.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal affective disorder is a form of depression that occurs during the fall and winter. Depression, whether SAD or otherwise, can affect or disrupt daily habits, friendships, jobs, education, and family relationships. For those who have had a substance use disorder, SAD can increase their risk of relapsing.

Researchers aren’t sure why SAD develops in some people. Scientists think the decrease in serotonin and dopamine production combined with an increase in melatonin production may be a factor in this mental illness. Serotonin and dopamine are natural feel-good chemicals, while melatonin regulates circadian rhythms and sleep. 

The amount of sun exposure an individual gets during the day plays an essential role in SAD. Therefore, where one lives does matter. Those who live closer to the equator are at a decreased risk of experiencing SAD. For example, someone who lives in Southern California may be less likely to experience seasonal affective disorder than someone who lives in the northern reaches of Canada. Why? The human body needs approximately 10-30 minutes of natural sunlight each day to produce Vitamin D, which plays a role in serotonin production. Without the recommended amount of Vitamin D, the brain’s ability to release serotonin decreases. 

Like any other mental illness, SAD can increase the risk of relapse for those in recovery if they try to self-medicate the depressive feelings rather than seek help for the disease.

How Do You Know if You Have Symptoms of SAD? 

According to The National Institute of Mental Health, some symptoms are: 

  • Low energy

  • Extreme fatigue or trouble going to or staying asleep

  • Excessive eating

  • Weight gain

  • Cravings for carbohydrates

  • Withdrawing from social activities

Ways to Combat Seasonal Affective Disorder

Coping with the symptoms of SAD is a challenge for many. While some can find relief in specific activities, one may need to try a few coping techniques before finding what works. As a general rule, staying cooped up inside can worsen the effects of SAD. Rather than isolating, engage in social or physical activities. Those in recovery should share their struggles with loved ones and involve them in their recovery.

Because SAD can cause fatigue, people may feel sluggish in the morning, crave sugary carbs, and have an increased appetite. To combat this, they can make a schedule that requires them to get out of bed each morning. Putting a meeting with friends, a household chore, or exercise on the agenda are good places to start. Exercising can increase dopamine and serotonin levels.

Eating healthy can help mitigate the symptoms of SAD. As mentioned above, the body will crave more food, especially sugary carbs. Using good nutrition skills learned in substance addiction treatment will go a long way. Healthy food helps heal your mind and body. An increase in foods like these can boost your mental well-being:

  • Foods like fish, chicken, turkey, eggs, nuts, broccoli, spinach, or lentils are high in dopamine and can give you a mood boost.

  • Spices like saffron, turmeric, peppermint, or cinnamon help your mental health.

  • Some serotonin-rich foods include those rich in dopamine plus healthy carbohydrates like sweet potatoes and quinoa.

Research shows maca root can decrease depression.

Exercising is also essential to reduce the effects of SAD. The American Psychological Association (APA) discusses the results of SAD, weight gain, and fatigue. An article from JAMA Psychiatry shows that resistance exercises regularly decreased depressive symptoms. The study reported that higher levels of exercise reduced the risk of depression. Some winter-friendly forms of exercise are:

  • Strength training: weights, resistance training, pilates, or barre sessions can be done indoors.

  • Yoga: yoga creates a connection between your body and mind. When practicing yoga, you learn to understand what you need to maintain your well-being.

  • Cardiovascular exercise: Indoor cycling, running, walking, or skiing can increase your cardiovascular health and stimulate the production of dopamine and serotonin.

Seek Help

Exercise and nutrition can help you, but sometimes they're not enough. Before you think there's nothing you can do to counteract the effects of SAD, talk with your doctor or therapist. They can provide the help you need to get through those gloomy winter feelings. If you think SAD has put you in danger of relapse, reach out to your substance addiction center's alumni group for help.

If you have symptoms of depression during the fall and winter, talk with someone at The Edge Treatment Center about seasonal affective disorder, especially if it has led to self-medicating through the use of drugs or alcohol. The Edge Treatment Center is a comprehensive substance addiction and co-occurring mental illness treatment center.

Let us guide you to a healthy, drug-free life. Call us at (800) 778-1772.

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