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What’s Seasonal Affective Disorder and How Can We Fight It?

Learn How to Deal with the “Winter Blues”

You probably hear it a lot around this time of year: friends and family sighing about early it gets dark, saying that they just want to curl up in bed until winter is gone. Winter can seem bleak when you miss those long sunny summer days—but did you know that this season can actually cause symptoms of depression in many people? It’s a clinical diagnosis called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

Depression is an especially serious problem for people in recovery, and the holiday season is already a tough time, so we have to pay special attention to this condition. What exactly is SAD, and what drug-free methods can we use to help fight it during these winter months?

What Are the Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder isn’t considered its own disorder—it’s a type of depression that comes and goes around the same time every year. Most typically, symptoms last from fall through winter. They include:

  • Moodiness
  • Low energy
  • Problems sleeping, or frequently oversleeping
  • Feeling sluggish and agitated
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Changes in appetite and/or weight
  • Feeling depressed most of every day
  • Losing interest in activities you enjoyed
  • Suicidal thoughts

If left untreated, these symptoms can worsen and lead to problems with school or work, other mental health disorders or eating disorders, social withdrawal, substance abuse, and suicidal behavior. These issues are all an especially big deal for people in recovery. They all threaten the person’s recovery and put them at greater risk of relapse or other self-harm.

What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Researchers still aren’t sure what exactly causes SAD, but some things they think might be a factor include:

  • Circadian rhythm—Your body’s internal clock, your circadian rhythm, may be disrupted by the reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter. This might cause winter-onset SAD with feelings of depression.
  • Serotonin levels—Reduced sunlight may also trigger a drop in serotonin levels. This brain chemical affects mood and might be the cause of SAD.
  • Melatonin levels—Changing seasons can also disrupt your melatonin levels. This chemical plays a role in moods and sleep patterns.

How Can I Treat My Seasonal Affective Disorder?

So, what can we do to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder? First of all, you should see a medical professional to get diagnosed. From here, there are a handful of different approaches you can take. Let’s go over the methods that have shown promising results for treating SAD.

  • Lifestyle changes—Scientists think that SAD may be caused by reduced exposure to sunlight and increased tiredness in the fall and winter months. Try going outside for sunlight more often, getting more sleep, exercising more, and practicing some relaxation exercises.
  • Light therapy—The change in daylight hours might also mess with your biological clock. Light therapy tries to correct that by exposing you to bright light simulating daylight. There are two types:
    – Dawn simulation—This is a light that turns on and gradually gets brighter and brighter as you wake up in the morning, simulating a sunrise.
    – Bright light treatment—This is where you place a light box in front of yourself while seated for 30 minutes to 2 hours at a time. These special light boxes produce light brighter than indoor lights but less bright than sunlight, and filter out the ultraviolet rays to keep your skin safe.
  • Counseling—Forms of psychotherapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy and interpersonal therapy can help you get to know your condition and how to manage its symptoms with positive coping mechanisms and relaxation techniques.
  • MedicationPeople in recovery shouldn’t rule out antidepressants as an option when they have reason to take them. They aren’t dangerous, mood-altering, or addictive in the way that many other drugs such as painkillers are. However, because of the unique challenges that come with treating depression while also being in recovery, make sure to see a psychiatrist who also specializes in addiction.

Don’t dismiss your symptoms as just the “winter blues”. SAD isn’t a “lesser” form of depression. It’s a serious condition that demands treatment, and neglecting that can have severe consequences.

It’s a good idea to consult the recovery community and talk about your SAD with the people who support you. If you’re looking for other people in recovery who can relate to your experiences and help you find your way, come out to The Other Side, a sober bar in Crystal Lake, IL. We’re always here to help others in the community relax, take their minds off of things for a bit, and connect with people who care.

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