Do you find that the dark, colder days of the winter make it harder to stay sober? If you’re a recovering addict who finds it more difficult to stay clean during the winter season, it’s possible that you may be responding to the winter blues. You may want to self-medicate yourself so that you can deal with the symptoms of sadness, depression and isolation.
What is SAD?
Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is a form of depression that occurs on a seasonal basis. It most commonly begins as the days shorten into winter and lasts until the days get longer and warm up into the spring or summer. Having SAD increases the risk of developing a substance abuse order according to researchers, most likely because people use drugs or alcohol to cope with the feelings of depression related to SAD.
It’s believed that SAD occurs because there is less natural sunlight available and the body rhythms become out-of-sync. Some people only suffer from SAD during the winter, but for others, they suffer from depression year-round, with symptoms worsening in the winter. It’s estimated that SAD affects 9 million people, and other milder forms of the winter blues occur as well.
What are the Symptoms?
Symptoms of SAD include :
- Loss of energy
- Sleeping too much
- Heaviness in the limbs and body
- Hibernating at home
- Food cravings
- Weight gain
- Difficulty concentrating
- Decreased interest in hobbies
- Increased alcohol and drug use
Who is at Risk?
The people most at risk for developing SAD are:
- People living in the Northern parts of the country where winters are harsh
- People with a family history of SAD
- People who spent most of their life in a warm-weather climate and then moved to a climate with cold winters
Since any type of depression can lead to self-medication, it’s important to take the winter blues seriously. It’s not safe to assume that you can use drugs or alcohol to get through the winter season and then stop when you’re feeling better. Continued use of drugs or alcohol can easily lead to dependence and addiction, and you’ll find it very hard to stop just because the sun is shining and the days are longer.
Treatments for SAD
If you’re a recovering addict, it’s especially important to report any winter depression to your counselor, physician or self-help group. There are ways that you can reduce the symptoms of SAD and avoid the need to feel threatened by drugs or alcohol. Some of the best therapies for treating SAD include :
Light therapy – A light therapy box is used to deliver bright light. This light mimics outdoor light and causes a change in the brain chemicals linked to mood. Light therapy boxes are effective for SAD and start working in a few days to a few weeks.
Medications – You may benefit from antidepressants if you’re suffering from SAD, providing that you aren’t already on them. If your current medication is not working, talk to your doctor who may be able to switch or increase your medications.
Talk therapy – Now is a good time to review your aftercare plan and ensure that you are meeting with your counselor and attending your 12-step groups. You can find support from these people, learn how to manage the symptoms of SAD and get tips for managing stress.
Lifestyle changes – Keep on top of your recovery goals. Make your days sunny and bright by getting outdoors when possible, or at least cracking open the windows and sitting by the sun on cold days. Also be sure to exercise, which can lift the mood. Walk around the mall, visit your local gym or sign up for a dance class with a friend.
Making Smart Choices this Holiday Season
Another important point to consider is keeping your environment supportive and sober over the holiday season. If you know that a lot of drinking will be going on at a holiday party, you should rethink attending. If you’re already struggling with SAD symptoms, the combination of partying and drinking are a bad mix. Right now you could use extra TLC, so be careful about the events you attend and the people you surround yourself with.
The winter season can feel long and isolating at times, but it’s never okay to use drugs or alcohol to compensate. Don’t let an easily treatable condition turn into a lifelong drug or alcohol addiction. If you’re struggling with winter depression and feel compelled to self-medicate, get the help you need right away by calling The River Source at 1-866-770-1236.
Photo credit: Motiejus Gaigalas