Many people in recovery struggle with co-occurring mental health disorders. This includes seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression related to the changes in the seasons. Typically, people with SAD start to notice changes in their mood and behavior in the fall as the days become shorter.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
As with addiction, no two people with SAD are exactly alike. However, some common symptoms that people with SAD may experience include:
- Weight gain
- Feeling tired or having low energy
- Increased appetite
- Cravings for foods high in carbohydrates
- Trouble concentrating
- Feeling hopeless, worthless, or guilty
- Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
- Withdrawing from friends and family to spend more time alone
Having some “bad” days is completely normal, but people with SAD have symptoms that occur on most days during the fall and winter and are severe enough to interfere with their day-to-day functioning.
Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder
The causes of SAD are unknown. However, experts believe the condition can be attributed to three primary factors.
- Changes in serotonin levels. Reduced sunlight exposure can cause a drop in serotonin that can trigger depression. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that affects mood.
- Changes in melatonin levels. Melatonin plays a role in sleep patterns and mood. Production of melatonin can increase with the change in seasons because of the shorter days. In people who naturally produce higher than normal levels of melatonin, this can trigger chronic fatigue and low energy.
- Changes in your biological clock (circadian rhythm). Reduced levels of sunlight in fall and winter can disrupt your body’s internal clock and lead to mood changes.
People who have previously been diagnosed with major depression or bipolar disorder are most at risk of developing seasonal affective disorder. Having one or more blood relatives with the condition also increases your risk.
Children, teens, and young adults are most likely to be diagnosed with SAD, but the condition can affect people of all ages. It is more commonly diagnosed in women, but this may be because women are more likely than men to seek treatment when they notice symptoms that are interfering with their daily functioning.
Diagnosis and Treatment of SAD
Your doctor will diagnose SAD by asking about your symptoms, how often they occur, whether they improve in the spring or summer, and how your routine is affected by your condition. Tests may also be conducted to rule out medical conditions that can cause similar symptoms, such as an underactive thyroid or low blood sugar.
Like other forms of depression, seasonal affective disorder can be treated with medication and psychotherapy. However, people with SAD may also benefit from phototherapy—also known as light therapy. This is a treatment that involves a special lamp or lightbox that mimics the effects of outdoor natural light. You sit in front of the light for 20 to 60 minutes when you first wake up each day. Over time, the light causes a change in brain chemicals linked to mood.
Lifestyle changes can also help keep symptoms of SAD under control. Exercising regularly and planning as many outdoor activities as possible can boost your mood. When you are inside, try to increase your exposure to natural light by opening your blinds or curtains during the day and sitting near the windows while you read, watch TV, or work on your computer.
Vitamin D supplements are sometimes recommended as a treatment for SAD. However, you should discuss the use of supplements with your physician. Vitamin D can be toxic in high doses and may cause interactions with some types of prescription medication. Generally, it is better to increase your intake of Vitamin D through dietary changes.
How SAD Can Affect Your Recovery
Although symptoms of SAD tend to disappear when spring arrives, it’s important to be proactive about managing your mental health. Depression of any type can make it harder to stick to the wellness-focused lifestyle habits that are crucial in building the foundation for a lasting recovery. This can lead to increased cravings or even a relapse. Discussing your symptoms with your treatment team can help you come up with a plan to continue to progress in your recovery journey.
At Waypoint Recovery Center, we encourage our clients to view recovery as a time to heal the mind, body, and spirit. Our South Carolina residential treatment center offers care plans personalized to fit individual needs, which includes treatment for co-occurring mental health disorders such as seasonal affective disorder. If you’re ready to build a life free from the burden of addiction, we can help.