Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD is a mental health disorder that normally occurs during winter months. In most cases, it’s a result of reduced light, where people begin to exhibit signs of depression and general malaise as a result of reduced exposure to light. It’s also closely related to vitamin D intake – where reduced light exposure during winter months results in symptoms of depression and lethargy.
For anyone in recovery from a substance use disorder, SAD is a major obstacle. Suddenly experiencing depression and drops in mood can be detrimental to your recovery. But, if you experience or know you experience seasonal affective disorder, you can take steps to protect yourself and your sobriety.
It’s never okay to go through major psychological and emotional problems on your own. Seasonal affective disorder is a real and major mental health problem that causes people to feel depressed, lethargic, and sad. It is a significant contributor to suicide. In addition, it can exacerbate existing mental illnesses, causing depression and anxiety to spiral and get worse. You don’t have to deal with that alone. You shouldn’t have to deal with that alone.
Asking for help can be difficult, especially if you’re asking friends and family. Moving into treatment can require wait lists and patience. But it’s important that you do so.
If you’re experiencing an uptick in mental health problems with SAD, you are at a higher risk of relapse. Taking steps to move back into rehab or substance use treat. For example, you can follow up with an outpatient or intensive outpatient program, to ensure you’re getting ongoing support. For example, outpatient care allows you to attend 1-6 hours of daily therapy and care, while continuing your normal routine and life. You get follow-up treatment to stay on track without dropping everything and going back to rehab. Many programs also offer significant support for dual diagnosis, in which you receive treatment for the seasonal affective disorder and the substance use disorder (or potential of one), in one clinical setting.
Self-help groups like AA, SMART, RING, and others function as framework to provide social support and motivation alongside social accountability, emotional support, and feelings of belonging. This can be significantly impactful on your ability to stay clean and sober, even while facing severe mental health problems. For example, having someone to be accountable to, or a group, makes you much more likely to be mindful of the fact that you are staying clean and sober for a reason. For example, if you’re doing everything alone and have the opportunity to drink, you have no reason other than yourself not to drink. If you’re going to an AA meeting 2 days later, you also have to think about how you’ll feel telling your group that you slipped up, about how you’ll feel not telling them, and about what that means. Essentially, seeing a group adds an additional mental barrier to relapse, because you have more people you want to stay clean and sober for, and more people who ask about it in an environment in which you feel obligated to or want to answer truthfully. In AA, that social accountability is the most effective part of treatment, because it reduces instances of relapse – even when you feel bad.
Light treatment, such as with a day lamp, can greatly improve how you feel when suffering from SAD. For example, many doctors will prescribe a daylight spectrum lamp, which increases light exposure. You might also be asked to sit in front of it for anywhere from 1-4 hours per day. You can also swap your lighting in your house out for full spectrum lights. These are commonly sold for plants and can help reduce symptoms of SAD. If you want a medical daylight lamp, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor first and to get a prescription, because your insurance will likely cover at least part of the cost.
Eventually, seasonal affective disorder is a mental illness, and you can talk to your doctor to get treatment. Here, you might be prescribed medication such as antidepressants. SSRIs are the most commonly prescribed, however, you’re recommended to start taking them in August or early September. If you missed that, you might still get a prescription, but SSRIs take 4-10 weeks to start working. That means you might only see effects more than halfway through winter.
Your doctor might also suggest other forms of treatment. For example, you might be prescribed therapy, behavioral therapy such as CBT, a combination of antidepressants and therapy with daylight exposure, vitamin D supplements, etc. Ultimately, you won’t know until you talk to your doctor.
When you do, it’s important that you share your full medical history including your struggle with substance use, so they can make a fully informed decision regarding your mental health and what treatment might be safe for you.