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Seasonal Affective Disorder and Substance Abuse

There is a lot of data on how seasons affect different behaviors. For example, many addicted individuals associate certain seasons and events with higher levels of substance use than others. One instance of this phenomenon is the increase in substance use during the holiday season. Around the so-called “jolly season,” some addicted individuals may abuse drugs in larger amounts, casual drinkers may consume more alcohol, and many alcoholics’ benders may last longer than usual. While it is easy to argue that any addicted individual or alcoholic will increase their use as the disease escalates, casual drug users and occasional drinkers also change their habits depending on the season. This raises the question: why do seasonal changes affect substance use?

Everyone’s tendencies, habits, and moods change throughout the seasons, regardless of whether or not they use drugs and alcohol. For most people, these highs and lows are not that extreme. When the highs and lows are very extreme, however, individuals may experience distress and changes in their habits and lifestyle.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

For some individuals, this requires a clinical diagnosis known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). People with SAD experience changes in mood and feelings of depression that tend to occur at the same time every year. More often than not, this disorder causes individuals to become more emotional and depressed in the fall and winter months, while their mood is significantly lighter in the spring and early summer. Every individual experiences the disorder differently and some individuals experience the opposite timeline. In these cases, depression surfaces in the spring through the summer months and de-escalates in the fall and winter months. Depression and anxiety can be triggered or worsened by the use of drugs and alcohol. Similarly, SAD can be worsened when individuals add alcohol and other substances into the mix.

Symptoms of SAD

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5), SAD is not a separate disorder but rather a type of major depressive disorder called major depressive disorder with seasonal pattern. To be diagnosed, the individual must meet the normal criteria for major depressive disorder, the episodes must correlate with certain seasons, and the symptoms must fully remit during the rest of the year. This pattern needs to have occurred twice in the last 2 years and there cannot be any other depressive episodes during that period for the individual to qualify. Symptoms of major depression may include:

  • Depressed mood
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Feeling worthless
  • Lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Lethargy and increased fatigue
  • Agitation or sluggishness
  • Problems concentrating
  • Sleep problems
  • Changes in appetite or significant, unintentional changes in weight
  • Suicidal thoughts or attempt(s)

Those who suffer from SAD episodes in the colder seasons may be more prone to:

  • Sleeping too much
  • Having a lack of energy
  • Overeating and gaining weight
  • Craving carbs
  • Withdrawing socially or “hibernate”

Individuals impacted by SAD episodes in the warmer months may be more prone to:

  • Eating less than normal and losing weight
  • Having problems sleeping
  • Experiencing agitation
  • Feeling anxiety
  • Having violent outbursts

According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 5% of adults in the U.S. suffer from SAD, and they usually experience symptoms roughly 40% of the year. However, SAD occurs less often in people who live in places with more hours of sunlight in the winter. Generally, the further one lives from the equator, the more likely they are to develop SAD. According to one study, less than 2% of people surveyed in Florida experienced SAD, as opposed to almost 10% among those surveyed who lived in New Hampshire.

Seasonal Affective Disorder and Alcohol Abuse

SAD can occur simultaneously with increased alcohol use during the holiday season. Even though alcohol is a drug and is just as addictive and harmful as or more dangerous than many illicit drugs, it is widely considered socially acceptable. In fact, it is seemingly inevitable in some cultures and locations, whether a gathering of family or friends, that alcohol will be present. At family holidays, work get-togethers, sports events, dinner parties, and restaurants, drinks are usually present. Around the holidays, there is also an increase in the frequency of social functions. With the current connection between such events and alcohol, it is sensible to assume that there will be an increase in the availability of alcohol and its consumption. Just as many people use alcohol to celebrate, take the edge off, or loosen up, many people use drugs for the same reasons during the holiday season.

SAD is associated with biochemical brain changes that occur with decreased sunlight and changes to a person’s internal clock, or their circadian rhythm. Unfortunately, some people do not realize they are experiencing SAD, and think it is just the normal feeling of being a little down in the winter when it is cold and difficult to spend a lot of time outside. However, if their SAD is severe, an individual may find it very challenging to function day to day.

What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder

Although the precise cause of SAD is unknown, there are three main factors that seem to be involved, all of which may be related to the changing nature of the environment due to seasonal cycles.

  • Serotonin is one of the brain’s happy neurotransmitters, and it is thought to be responsible in part for feelings of wellbeing and happiness. An article in Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience concludes that human skin might have the ability to generate serotonin, which may be stimulated by exposure to sunlight. With shorter days in winter, less exposure to sunlight could mean less serotonin, leading to symptoms of depression. Another study found that people who suffer from SAD have slightly more serotonin transporters in the winter months than in the summer, leaving less of the neurotransmitter available at the synapse.
  • Vitamin D is also linked to serotonin activity. With an inadequate amount of the vitamin, an individual may experience depressive symptoms. Vitamin D is produced when sunlight transforms a chemical in a person’s skin, so production can decrease in the dark winter months. Neurotransmitters play a key role in the pleasurable feelings experienced by an addicted individual or alcoholic. Without their happy neurotransmitters, individuals may be more prone to seek their drug of choice even more.
  • Melatonin is a hormone that helps to regulate sleep and wake cycles. It is produced in higher levels in darkness, so an individual’s level of melatonin will rise during the winter months. This can lead to oversleeping or a lack of energy. People with SAD may overproduce this hormone, and addicted individuals may use their drug of choice to give them a jolt and reason to get out of bed, which can easily spiral into a dangerous addiction.

At Boardwalk Recovery Center, our health professionals and staff consider all of our clients’ circumstances and how their environment has affected their substance abuse. Our staff recognizes patterns of behavior and the tendencies that clients fall back on during uncertain times. With that awareness, our team creates a personalized care plan for each addicted individual or alcoholic.

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