Depression is one of the most common mental health conditions, but seasonal depression often goes overlooked. Many people think the symptoms of season depression are simply the “winter blues.” But, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is much more than that. This mental condition can cause serious emotional and psychological distress if left untreated.
SAD is treatable, but recognizing and acknowledging the problem is the first step toward recovery. You should understand what seasonal depression is, what causes it, and what treatments are available.
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
Seasonal Affective Disorder is characterized as a mood disorder that causes depressive symptoms during the colder and darker months of the year. People with this disorder may show the typical signs of depression in winter. Then, their symptoms fade away in the summertime.
Because the symptoms of SAD come and go throughout the year, individuals struggling with the disorder may not seek treatment. They may think that their low mood or fatigue are normal or unavoidable effects of the cold weather. Friends and family also might not notice that something is wrong because the depressive symptoms ease up as the weather improves.
However, when it goes untreated, seasonal depression can lead to several serious problems. Not only does it cause emotional pain for a significant part of the year, but it can affect your self-care, your job performance, and your relationships with loved ones.
The Link Between Vitamin D and Depression
There are several possible causes of SAD, but one of the most common factors is vitamin D. You can get vitamin D from some foods, but the seasonal main source of the vitamin is sunlight. When UV rays reach your skin, they trigger your body to synthesize vitamin D, which plays an important role in a variety of body and brain functions.
Researchers are still exploring the connection between vitamin D and depression. However, studies do show that vitamin D deficiency is correlated with mood disorders. In the winter, the shorter days and colder weather make it difficult to spend sufficient time outdoors. If you live in an area that experiences harsh winters, you may hardly get any sun exposure at all for several months of the year.
Other Causes and Risk Factors
Vitamin D isn’t the only factor involved in seasonal depression. Another possible cause is a decrease in serotonin, one of the neurotransmitters responsible for elevating your mood. Research shows that many people with SAD have higher levels of a protein that removes serotonin from the brain. Your serotonin levels may drop in the winter due to the lack of sunlight, and they may increase as the days get longer.
Melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate your sleep cycle, could play a role as well. Your body produces more melatonin in the dark, so your melatonin levels could increase in the winter. The hormone can also affect your mood, so people with SAD may feel lethargic, hopeless, or unmotivated in the winter because their melatonin levels have increased.
In addition to problems with hormones or brain chemistry, winter is simply a difficult time for many people. If you have a lot of outdoor hobbies, you may feel bored or isolated during the cold and snowy weather. The short daylight hours can make it feel like the days pass too quickly, and the lack of greenery can affect your mood.
There could be a genetic component to SAD as well. If you have a blood relative who struggles with seasonal depression or another mood disorder, you might be more likely to experience the condition.
Signs and Symptoms of SAD
Knowing the signs of seasonal depression will help you notice the disorder in yourself or a loved one. The following are the most common indicators of SAD:
- A depressed mood that lasts for most of the day
- Loss of interest in hobbies or activities
- Difficulty concentrating
- Stigma: feelings of guilt, shame, or hopelessness
- Changes in weight or appetite
- Thoughts of suicide
The signs of seasonal depression are very similar to the signs of major depression and other depressive disorders, so the condition can be difficult to diagnose. However, identifying that there’s a problem is the first step toward getting help.
SAD and Substance Abuse
Depression and substance use disorders often go hand-in-hand. Mood disorders can be incredibly difficult to cope with, so many people turn to drugs or alcohol as a form of self-medication. Some people with SAD use stimulants to try to boost their mood or increase their energy levels. Others use alcohol or opiates to try to block the pain of the depressive symptoms.
At first, these substances may provide short-term relief from feelings of sadness, guilt, or hopelessness. Over time, though, self-medicating can lead to addiction. Drugs and alcohol can worsen the symptoms of depression in the long run, too. This leads to a vicious cycle of self-medicating that only makes the depression and the addiction worse.
Co-occurring disorders are very common among people who struggle with substance abuse. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, around 20 percent of Americans with an anxiety or mood disorder struggle with substance use. Additionally, about 20 percent of people with a substance use disorder are also diagnosed with an anxiety or mood disorder.
SAD can put you at risk of relapsing if you’re currently in recovery from a substance use disorder, too. If you aren’t receiving treatment for seasonal depression or don’t realize that you’re struggling with a mental health disorder, you may feel particularly vulnerable as the cold weather sets in. Without the proper coping skills for depression, you might be tempted to relapse with your substance use in search of relief from the mental health symptoms.
Treatment for Seasonal Depression
Overcoming SAD isn’t easy. However, you can manage it with a combination of professional treatment and natural remedies for seasonal depression. Although you may not be able to change the circumstances that have caused your seasonal depression, you can learn to cope with the symptoms and take control over the negative thoughts.
Counseling is one of the most popular and effective forms of treatment for SAD. Different therapists take different approaches to mental health counseling. Most focus on addressing the negative thoughts that may be impacting your mood, motivation, and overall well-being. You and your therapist can also explore the possible causes of your depression in winter and discuss coping skills that may help you get through difficult days.
Phototherapy is another treatment option for seasonal depression. This involves sitting in front of a specialized bright light for about 30 minutes per day. The light is designed to suppress your brain’s melatonin production and provide similar benefits to natural sunlight.
Certain lifestyle changes may be helpful natural remedies for seasonal depression, too. Keep in mind, though, that low energy is one of the most common symptoms of SAD. Try not to feel upset with yourself if you can’t find the motivation to dramatically change your lifestyle to combat your depression. However, activities like meditation, exercise, and art can all be great ways to lift your mood and increase your energy levels.
Medication can be an effective way to manage seasonal depression as well. Everyone responds differently to antidepressants, so you’ll have to work closely with a therapist and psychiatrist if you decide that medication is the right option for you. Your doctor’s recommendation may also vary if you’re currently in recovery from a substance use disorder. This is why it’s so important that you treat both disorders simultaneously.
Dual Diagnosis Treatment
If you have a substance use disorder and SAD, dual diagnosis treatment is the key to recovery. Both disorders may have the same underlying cause, or one may have caused the other. Dual diagnosis treatment helps you overcome both disorders and strengthen your overall mental health, reducing the risk of relapse.
When you attend a dual diagnosis treatment program, your team will take a comprehensive approach to your care. Instead of focusing solely on the substance use disorder, they’ll simultaneously address the other mental health problems that may play a role in your addiction.
An effective program will begin with a mental health evaluation. This allows your team to create an individualized treatment plan based on your unique needs. Your plan might include medical services during drug or alcohol detox, individual therapy, group therapy, and medication. You may also receive ongoing outpatient services after you leave the full-time program.
Seasonal affective disorder can take a serious toll on your quality of life. It’s especially difficult if you struggle with addiction or are working on recovering from a substance use disorder. You don’t have to manage seasonal depression on your own, though. With support from mental health professionals, you can overcome your dual diagnosis and improve your quality of life.
Granite Mountain Behavioral Healthcare offers individualized addiction treatment programs that address co-occurring disorders and promote long-term wellness. We believe in empowering our patients by helping them develop the skills they need to succeed. To learn more about our programs, contact us today.