Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and Addiction: How This Year Is Different

A girl seeking depression treatment programs during COVID-19.
Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a form of recurrent depression that impacts approximately 10 million Americans per year. An additional 10 to 20 percent experience mild symptoms. SAD is sometimes called the “winter blues,” as it most commonly appears in the fall or winter and subsides in the spring — and this year, things may be different, as in worse.

Utah already has high rates of SAD. Since the 2020 pandemic struck, health officials have warned that cases of COVID will likely spike during the winter months, adding fuel to the fire. This will lead to a long and dark winter, as social isolation and the cold winter months create the perfect storm, potentially driving higher rates of addiction.

As the weather gets colder and the days become shorter, it’s imperative that you care for your mental health to keep symptoms of SAD at bay.

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression related to changes in the seasons. For those affected, symptoms begin and end around the same time every year. While the majority experience symptoms during the fall and winter months, some individuals experience SAD in the spring or early spring.

The symptoms of SAD often start out fairly mild and become more severe as the season progresses. Warning signs of SAD include:

  • Feeling depressed for most of the day, nearly every day
  • A loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
  • Low energy levels
  • Sleeping difficulties
  • Changes in weight and/or appetite
  • Greater feelings of agitation
  • Poor concentration
  • Feeling worthless or hopeless
  • Frequent thoughts of suicide

Symptoms associated with winter-onset SAD include oversleeping, weight gain, fatigue, and changes in appetite (i.e. craving high-carb foods). In contrast, symptoms of summer-onset SAD include insomnia, poor appetite, anxiety, agitation, and weight loss.

The Relationship between SAD and Substance Abuse

Unfortunately, SAD and addiction are closely intertwined, often provoking one another.

Like many mental health conditions, those with SAD tend to seek substances of abuse to self-medicate. Depression and addiction exist as a common dual diagnosis. As reported in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, one in three adults who struggle with alcohol or drug abuse also live with depression.

As discussed below, COVID is throwing additional risk factors into the mix. A recent study stated that long after a vaccination for COVID is developed, the impact on mental health and addiction will linger. For example, the stress burden of COVID may be associated with addictive problems and psychological problems for years to come.

Why Are Utah Residents at a Higher Risk for SAD?

Research shows that the farther one lives from the equator, the more likely they are to develop SAD. This means that people living in latitudes most affected by seasonal changes face the greatest risk. For example, less than 2 percent of people in Florida tend to experience SAD, compared to nearly 10 percent of those living in Utah.

The underlying causes of SAD include shifts in circadian rhythm, shifts in melatonin secretion, lack of sunlight, genetics, and changes in sleep patterns. Although more research is needed, scientists believe that winter leads to an increase in depression symptoms based on various biological cues, such as an overproduction of melatonin, a decrease in vitamin D production, and issues with the regulation of serotonin. 

In Utah, the winter months are long and dark, contributing to what some call the ‘triple whammy’ state. In addition to cold, isolated winter months, there is also a lot of air pollution, which itself is an independent risk factor for depression. Utah also has a higher altitude, contributing to lower blood oxygen levels and increased rates of depression

As stated by Dr. Jason Hunziker, a psychiatrist in Salt Lake City, those most at risk are the young, women (who are almost ten times more likely to get this type of depression than men), those who live around tall buildings that block the sun, and those who work indoors with little access to light.

Why This Year Is Different

The combination of the winter season, SAD, and COVID have never happened in human history. 

Coping with the symptoms of SAD is challenging enough. Throw in a pandemic that limits social interactions, causes changes in schooling, and drives job loss — and you have yourself a scenario that will likely cause depression symptoms to worsen.

Although this is the first full COVID winter, and health experts aren’t entirely sure how the pandemic will affect those with SAD, mental health is a pressing concern. This is the first winter that we’re experiencing this kind of stress and fear across the globe. We’re also nearing numerous major holidays, which are unlikely to be the same as they were in previous years. Many people will struggle to cope with this, including those with SAD.

SAD is already believed to be underdiagnosed and undertreated, as many individuals attempt to simply “deal” with their symptoms. Stressors due to COVID may exacerbate these symptoms, or cause individuals to experience SAD symptoms for the first time. The pandemic is making things more lonely, depressing, and stressful for everyone, so new cases of SAD will likely arise.

Treating and Managing SAD This Winter

No one should ever suffer in silence. 

As the days get colder and shorter, it’s imperative that you take extra care of your mental health and take a proactive approach to substance abuse. Although COVID will make it challenging to remain social, that does not mean that you cannot keep in close contact with friends and family members. Make time to video chat and check in on one another and plan something special for those in your COVID bubble (i.e. a special holiday dinner). 

Self-care is important throughout the year, but especially during the winter months. Maximize light in your home, consume a nutrient-rich diet, exercise regularly, and seek professional help when needed. 

Corner Canyon Recovery is here for you. Whether you or your loved one are suffering from symptoms of SAD, substance abuse, or both, we can help. Please contact us today to discuss your unique needs.

 

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