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SAD: Let’s Talk About Seasonal Affective Disorder and Relapse

As fall comes around each year, there is a noticeable shift in my mood. While my friends relish this season, my heart sinks a little because I know what fall means (to me): here comes my annual depression.

If you’re anything like me, we’re one of the many Americans who suffer with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – a form of depression. As a person in recovery, I’m very aware of the risk depression poses to my recovery; looking after my mental health is a vital aspect of staying sober. If I don’t, I risk relapse.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH), Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons. It usually starts in late fall or early winter, and ends during the spring and summer. SAD is most common in these months, but can occur in summer too.

While SAD is still a form of depression, it’s distinguishable from general depression because it has a recurring seasonal pattern. The contributing factors that may increase your risk of SAD are: being female (women are four times more likely to suffer with SAD); living far north of the equator (being more common in colder versus sunnier and warmer climates); already having depression or bipolar disorder; a family history of depression; and being a young adult.

I nearly hit the jackpot: I live in the pacific north west, which is wet and rainy in winter months; I’m female with a personal (and family) history of depression, which has plagued me since being a child.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of SAD?

The symptoms of SAD mimic that of a typical depression: low energy, sleeping more, craving carbohydrates (bread, cake, pastries, pasta), overeating, weight gain, and withdrawing socially.

It is still relatively unknown what causes SAD, but research has revealed some insight: it is thought that the decline in sunlight during winter months disrupts the bodies circadian rhythms – your body’s natural internal clock that dictates when you go to sleep and wake up. It also affects your hormones, mood and appetite. SAD can cause the body to overproduce the hormone, melatonin – which regulates sleep – making you feel sleepier and more lethargic.

What happens in the brain of people with SAD is that they have trouble regulating the neurotransmitter serotonin, which plays a vital role in mood regulation. NIH reported that people with SAD have less available serotonin in winter months. SAD also affects the levels of Vitamin D. NIH reports: “Vitamin D insufficiency may be associated with clinically significant depression symptoms.”

The suggested treatments for SAD are similar to those of depression: medication and psychotherapy. In addition, light therapy and Vitamin D supplementation are suggested.

As a person with long-standing depression – even when it is controlled in summer months – it is common for my mood to drop in the fall. This year it was noticeably worse because I moved and changed my medication. I have been exhausted, had a very low mood, caught more colds and viruses, have had insatiable cravings for starchy foods, and am finding it increasingly difficult to leave my apartment. I literally want to pull the comforter over my head and hibernate. Sadly, running a business, I don’t have that luxury! Interestingly, my doctor checked my vitamin D levels just last week, and found them to be deficient despite months of supplementation.

How Seasonal Affective Disorder Can Lead to Addiction

As with any form of depression – or any other mental illness for that matter – patients often self-medicate with drugs and alcohol to overcome the symptoms. SAD is no different. Of course, it doesn’t work and only makes the depression worse.

That was certainly the case for me. I self-medicated my depression, SAD, and anxiety for years with drugs and alcohol until my depression became so acute that I needed psychiatric care. That wasn’t the worst of it – I also developed substance use disorder due to my prolonged use of substances.

How Seasonal Affective Disorder Can Lead to Relapse

Even though I’m in long-term recovery, SAD can become a genuine cause of relapse. Coping with SAD by using drugs and alcohol is a well-established pattern of behavior for me. Despite having abstained for over five years, I still have the memory of doing this and my brain can provide that action as a solution…even though I know it would be futile to use.

SAD lowers my defenses because I am contending with all of the symptoms of depression. I feel physically, mentally, and emotionally drained.-Olivia Pennelle

SAD lowers my defenses because I am contending with all of the symptoms of depression. I feel physically, mentally, and emotionally drained. Everything feels like hard work. Even though I love going to Refuge Recovery meetings, I have struggled with the energy and motivation to go.

The temptation to stay inside, eat, and sleep is sometimes so overwhelming that it can override my rational thought process – and has on occasion.  That only makes me feel worse, much like drugs and alcohol. I’ve experienced feelings of increased loneliness, sadness, and isolation – all of which pose a risk of relapse. Compromising recovery in that way can be risky. Before I know it, I have had less connection with other people in recovery, I shared my experience less, I have less of an emotional outlet, and I feel disconnected. These are all vital tools for my program of recovery.

Feeling low in mood motivates me to seek reward, pleasure, and escapism in other ways: food, obsessively watching TV, spending hours on social media – none of which are good for my mental health. I know that my brain is seeking dopamine, the body’s feel good hormone, but it is only temporary, much like drugs and alcohol. And there are much healthier ways to boost my mood.

A Strategy for SAD and Avoiding Relapse

Fortunately, my strategy for recovery works well for depression because I have a holistic approach. That means that I look after my whole self: mental health, physical health, and spiritual health. The only difference is that where I may let one gym session, meeting, or healthy meal slip in spring and summer, I try not to afford that luxury in winter months. I have to up my game and impose a radical self-care regime.

Here’s what that looks like:

  • Getting outside in the sunlight for a brisk walk every day to increase vitamin D and create energy.
  • Working out regularly to increase endorphins and energy. (This also reduces my appetite.)
  • Eating more complex carbohydrates: sweet potatoes and whole grains, with lots of fruits and vegetables. This provides sustained energy, satisfies some carbohydrate cravings, and improves immunity.
  • Eating more omega fats: walnuts, chia seeds, oily fish. These have been shown to improve mood and brain health.
  • Opening the blinds in my apartment to let in as much sunlight as possible.
  • Investing in a SAD lamp. They have been shown to replicate the benefits of sunshine and you can time them to light up your bedroom, like sunlight, to help you wake up during dark mornings.
  • Increasing self-care activities: more yoga, meditation, journaling, relaxation activities (baths, reading a book, resting).
  • Being kind and compassionate to yourself. My suffering often comes from my resistance to SAD, because I want to be able to do more and feel better – but this only makes it worse. When I treat myself with compassion, making sure I get a good balance of rest and self-care, then it becomes much easier to cope with winter months.



Images Courtesy of iStock

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