Seasonal Affective Disorder and Addiction

Seasonal Affective Disorder and Addiction

Seasonal Affective Disorder, also appropriately referred to as SAD, is a specific type of depression that occurs in the late fall and winter months. According to the American Psychiatric Association, nearly 5% of adults experience SAD each year.  The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5 (DSM-5), is used by mental health professionals worldwide and helps identify and diagnose what mental health condition a person has based on criteria for each condition.  The DSM-5 identifies SAD as a subtype of Major Depressive Disorder.

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

  • Loss of appetite
  • Difficulty sleeping or sleeping more than usual
  • Depressed mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Suicidal thoughts or actions
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Loss of interest in things you normally enjoy

Risk Factors for Seasonal Affective Disorder

While the primary risk factor for SAD could be living further from the equator, additional risk factors include:

  • Pre-existing mental health conditions.  For those already living with mental health conditions, the winter months may add to the heartache you’re already experiencing.
  • Family History of SAD.  Like with any other mental health condition, a family history of SAD increases your risk of experiencing it as well.
  • Women are nearly four times more likely to experience SAD than men.
  • Young adults, aged 18-30 typically experience SAD more than any other age group.

What Causes SAD?

SAD is a result of chemical changes in the brain that occur due to the decrease in sunlight during these months.  This affects what is known as our circadian rhythm, or our body’s ability to regulate our sleep/wake cycle.  In the winter months, when the sun rises later and sets earlier, it confuses our body and as a result, you may experience feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or more severe depressive symptoms.  The exact cause of SAD is unknown, however, some theories about why it develops include:

  • Insufficient levels of Vitamin D.  Vitamin D correlates with increased serotonin levels and since we are not absorbing as much from the sun during these months, depressive symptoms may occur.
  • Melatonin, a hormone responsible for sleeping and waking cycles, is increased because of the decrease in sunlight.  This causes us to feel lethargic or depleted of energy, especially during waking hours.
  • Decreases in serotonin production.  Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that naturally occurs in the brain that is responsible for making us feel happy.  Sunlight stimulates serotonin production, so the shorter days in the winter leave us with a less than ideal amount being produced.  

The SAD and Substance Abuse Connection

There is an undeniable correlation between not only SAD, but all mental health conditions, and substance abuse.  Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and despair are hard to endure, and people often turn to substances as a way to self-medicate.  Any symptoms you may be experiencing might be temporarily dulled with self-medication, however, your risk for developing an addiction is high if your mental health condition is not addressed.  If the substance used is a depressant such as alcohol, this can contribute to worsening symptoms and can decrease the effectiveness of mental health medications.  

The Importance of Treating Substance Abuse and Co-Occurring Disorders Together

Treating substance abuse and co-occurring disorders is crucial to successful and lasting recovery.  Receiving treatment for SAD will help you identify healthy ways to manage it without the need to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, and treating the addiction will teach you additional healthy ways to manage stress, cope with trauma, and work through your mental health condition.  Since the two often go hand in hand, treating both at the same time ensures you are in a good place emotionally and physically to tackle whatever life throws at you.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment at The Source

The Source Addiction Treatment Center in Fort Lauderdale is home to world-class dual diagnosis treatment.  They offer inpatient and outpatient programs to help clients at any stage of their recovery journey.  Every client is welcomed and treated like family, and their compassionate staff will work with you to develop a treatment plan that is unique to you.  Through group and individual therapies, you will identify the root causes of your addiction, address your mental health conditions, and learn healthy ways to manage both.  For more information about how The Source can help with SAD and substance use, please call (800)204-0418 or visit them online at