Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and addiction are one set of co-occurring disorders that are common in people who seek dual diagnosis treatment. Nearly 50% of all people with a mental health condition also experience substance use disorder, so it’s not surprising that people with this type of depression turn to drugs or alcohol to cope. 

Since SAD typically doesn’t affect people year-round, it’s easy to minimize the signs and symptoms to simply “feeling down” or “under the weather”. However, SAD is a real condition that often requires professional treatment. Plus, if people self-medicate to cope with their symptoms, their substance abuse can easily spiral out of control into a full-blown addiction, ultimately making their symptoms of seasonal affective disorder far, far worse. 

Signs and Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that changes depending on the seasons. Most people with this condition experience symptoms during the fall and winter, but tend to feel better during the spring and summer months. However, some people experience the opposite – where they are more depressed during the spring and summer months. Although symptoms of the disorder usually don’t occur year-round, they typically begin as mild and progress throughout the season, making for an extremely difficult couple of months.[1]

Symptoms of SAD include:

  • Feeling depressed on most days during a certain time of the year
  • Loss of interest in activities and hobbies you once enjoyed
  • Low energy levels
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Changes in appetite and weight
  • Feeling lethargic or irritable
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Suicidal thinking

Furthermore, the two specific types of SAD, winter-onset and summer-onset, have different symptoms that make the two types of SAD unique. For example, people who experience spring and summer SAD may experience insomnia, lack of appetite, weight loss, and anxiety while people with fall and winter SAD usually oversleep, crave foods, gain weight, and have low energy. 

Seasonal affective disorder is more common in women than men and is diagnosed more frequently in young adults than older adults. Although the causes and risk factors of this condition aren’t completely known, experts believe that the following factors play a role in the development of SAD.

  • Disrupted circadian rhythm
  • Serotonin or melatonin imbalances
  • Family history of depression
  • Suffering from depression or bipolar disorder
  • Living far north or far south of the equator (due to decreased sunlight in the winter/long days in the summer)

Seasonal affective disorder is associated with biochemical changes in the brain that are related to sunlight and changes to one’s biological clock. Unfortunately, many people cope by abusing drugs or alcohol.

The Connection Between Seasonal Affective Disorder and Addiction

Seasonal affective disorder and addiction are closely related. After all, like other types of depression, SAD is known to progress over time and lead to an array of difficulties, such as problems with work or school, isolating from family and friends, suicidal thoughts, and difficulty coping – all of which are common risk factors and precursors to substance abuse. As a result, it’s common for people with SAD to abuse drugs or alcohol as an attempt to self-medicate symptoms of mental illness. 

Depending on the type of SAD a person suffers from, he or she may abuse different substances. For example, people with winter-onset SAD may abuse stimulants to stay awake, while people with summer-onset SAD may abuse depressants like opioids or benzodiazepines to aid with sleep. On the other hand, alcohol is a commonly abused substance among people with depression as it may temporarily boost a person’s mood. However, abuse of any substance can easily lead to addiction.

Although research on the relationship between seasonal affective disorder and addiction is limited, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimates that 20% of people with anxiety or depression disorders suffer from an alcohol or substance use disorder.[2] 

Like other mental health conditions, substance abuse only exacerbates the symptoms of SAD. Using drugs or alcohol to self-medicate is known to increase anxiety, make depression worse, and ultimately cause worsening problems in one’s personal and social life. In order to prevent addiction from making seasonal affective disorder worse, people should seek professional help from a dual diagnosis rehabilitation center. 

Treatment Options for Substance Abuse and Mental Illness

When people suffer from both seasonal affective disorder and substance use disorder, the best course of treatment is to address both conditions simultaneously. If only mental health is addressed, substance abuse will continue and lead to the re-occurrence and worsening of symptoms. Furthermore, treating only addiction will likely produce a relapse because people aren’t equipped with the coping skills needed to treat SAD. 

Behavioral therapy and pharmacotherapy are two routes that are useful for treating seasonal affective disorder and addiction. These two core elements of dual diagnosis treatment work together to address the emotional and physiological symptoms of mental illness while providing support for lasting sobriety as well. 

When treating substance abuse and seasonal affective disorder, you can expect the following types of therapy:

  • Phototherapy
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy
  • Group and individual counseling
  • Holistic treatment
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy
  • Pharmacotherapy

Even though both seasonal affective disorder and addiction feel like hopeless conditions, both can be successfully treated. If you’re suffering from substance abuse and mental illness, don’t wait any longer. Contact us today to learn about our dual diagnosis treatment options.