Winter can be hard. It’s cold, it’s dark, the holidays are…the holidays. Some people may leave for work before the sun rises and come home after the sun sets, barely seeing the sun the entire work week. Saturday, December 21st is the winter solstice—the shortest, darkest day of the year.
This season can be even more difficult—and in some cases intolerable—for people who have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of major depression tied to the seasons. The symptoms of SAD include feeling hopeless, loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy, changes in sleep patterns, irritability, and low energy. Most people with SAD experience depression in the fall and winter, with symptoms improving come spring and summer. Less commonly, people with SAD have the opposite response to the seasons.
Co-Morbidity of Seasonal Affective Disorder and Addiction
People with SAD may turn to alcohol or substances to self-medicate. Co-occuring disorders are common; about 50% of people diagnosed with a mental health disorder also have a substance use disorder.
Below are some tips to help cope with seasonal depression without using drugs or alcohol. These options are meant to be used in conjunction with any necessary professional treatment, not as a substitute.
Phototherapy involves sitting in front of a light therapy box, which mimics outdoor light. It should be one created specifically to treat SAD, as there are light boxes out there made to treat other disorders. There are also alarm clocks available that simulate sunrise, which could help if it’s still dark outside when you wake up.
These methods could be beneficial because—while the causes of SAD are unknown—many potential ones are related to winter’s notorious darkness:
-The decrease in sunlight may mess with your circadian rhythm, causing symptoms of depression
-Lower levels of sunlight may also cause your serotonin—a neurotransmitter that affects mood—to drop
-Melatonin, a hormone that helps you feel tired at night, rises when it gets dark and lowers in response to light. The winter affects levels of this hormone, which people with SAD may already overproduce, making you want to sleep more.
It may seem silly to sit in front of a light in order to feel better, as comedian Maria Bamford demonstrates in an episode of her YouTube series. But light boxes can significantly ease symptoms of SAD. They are a great option if you are unable to get natural sunlight because of your work schedule or other reasons.
Add more vitamin D to your diet
Making sure you get enough Vitamin D during the winter months can be useful, as less sunlight means less vitamin D. Some foods rich in vitamin D are egg yolks, mushrooms, oysters, shrimp, and salmon. Some foods that are fortified with vitamin D—meaning vitamin D is added—are milk, soy milk, orange juice, instant oatmeal, and some cereals. Another option is to take vitamin D supplements.
Stay in contact with your support network
If you’re experiencing depression, you may be prone to self-isolate. This could be due to low energy levels making it harder to socialize, loss of interest in maintaining relationships, not wanting to burden friends, or any number of reasons. But if you’re struggling, it’s important to stay in contact with people who care about you.
This doesn’t mean you have to socialize if you’re not feeling up to it, but don’t isolate to the point of losing contact with your support system. Reaching out to friends or family can be grounding. Times of struggle are when we need people in our corner the most.
I don’t want to be “that guy,” but working out can be helpful for people with SAD. This is especially true if you’re experiencing low energy levels.
It may sound counter-intuitive, but if you feel overly tired, working out can help you increase energy. Exercising also releases dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin, neurotransmitters responsible for regulating mood. Working out is certainly not a cure for any mental health disorder, but it can be a great supplement to treatment.
Seeking Professional Addiction and Co-Occuring Disorder Treatment
As with any other mental health disorder, people with SAD may require professional treatment and/or medication. However, the above can help ease SAD symptoms, possibly even giving you the energy to seek treatment in the first place.
Someone once told me an interesting way of looking at the winter solstice: after the darkest day of the year, it keeps getting lighter and lighter. December 21st isn’t only the start of winter—it’s the beginning of the end of darkness.
At Amatus Recovery Centers across the country, we provide treatment for substance abuse and co-occuring mental health disorders. We get to know you on an individual basis, finding a recovery plan that works for you. At our treatment centers, we will help your life feel more manageable and, ultimately, more fulfilling.