Coping With Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Do you experience intense sadness during the fall and winter or feel unexplainably down around the time the days get shorter? If so, you are not alone. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) affects many individuals, making it difficult to maintain recovery or mental health. Understanding SAD and how it impacts your overall mental health is the first step toward managing it long-term. Like depression, you can learn to cope with SAD and maintain your sobriety simultaneously despite related symptoms and risks of relapse.

What Is SAD?

SAD is a type of depression the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) describes as “significant changes in your mood and behavior whenever the seasons change.” For some, symptoms may be moderate. Individuals experience slight mood changes when the seasons change; we all feel the winter blues a little bit. However, symptoms can become severe for many. Especially among individuals already struggling with their mental health, the changing seasons can trigger and exacerbate symptoms of mental illness.

Individuals aware of their SAD can successfully prepare for it. Fortunately, the seasons change around the same time every year. We know when the days get shorter and when to expect the start of spring. Knowing this pattern is great because it prevents a season’s triggers from sneaking up on us.

When Does SAD Occur?

According to the NIMH, SAD typically begins in late fall or early winter and goes away during the spring or summer. This pattern is called “winter-pattern SAD,” also known as “winter depression.” However, it is possible to experience depressive symptoms during the spring or summer. When that happens, it is called “summer-pattern SAD” or “summer depression.” Though it is less common, summer-pattern SAD does happen. On average, symptoms of SAD will last for about four to five months on average.

Symptoms vary depending on a couple of factors. For example, because SAD is a type of depression, there are major related symptoms you may experience. Additionally, symptoms may vary depending on whether you experience winter-pattern or summer-pattern SAD.

Typical Symptoms

Symptoms of SAD, according to the NIMH, include:

  • Major depression symptoms
    • Feeling depressed almost all day, every day
    • Losing interest in enjoyable activities or hobbies
    • Experiencing changes in appetite or weight
    • Having problems with sleep and feeling sluggish or agitated
    • Experiencing a loss of energy
    • Feeling hopeless or worthless
    • Difficulty concentrating
    • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide
  • Winter-pattern SAD symptoms  
    • Experiencing hypersomnia (oversleeping)
    • Overeating, and especially experiencing a craving for carbohydrates
    • Weight gain
    • Social withdrawal
  • Summer-pattern SAD symptoms 
    • Experiencing insomnia
    • Weight loss as a result of poor appetite
    • Experiencing restlessness and agitation
    • Feeling anxious
    • Experiencing episodes of violent or erratic behavior

SAD and Substance Use Disorder

Managing a mood disorder and substance use disorder (SUD) can be a slippery slope. The journal Science & Practice Perspectives, published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), indicates that mood disorders, such as depression and bipolar disorders, “are the most common psychiatric comorbidities among patients with substance use disorders.” Further, treating a co-occurring mood disorder can “reduce substance craving,” but individuals in treatment will raise the question of how they can manage their mood disorder post-treatment.

Individuals who seek treatment for depression and SUD have an advantage when it comes to handling SAD symptoms. That is simply because they have already learned and practiced techniques to cope with their conditions. This is why dual diagnosis is so crucial to addiction treatment. If clinicians know you are struggling with a mood disorder alongside SUD, they can create a specific treatment plan with that in mind. Then, once in recovery, you can utilize what you learned in treatment and apply it when you experience symptoms of that mood disorder, such as SUD.


Learning to manage SAD symptoms is vital. Fortunately, treatment can help. Some of the treatment methods for SAD include:

  • Light therapy – a mainstay for the treatment of SAD since the 1980s, which includes exposure to a bright light daily day to compensate for the lack of sunshine in the winter months
  • Psychotherapies – such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). There is a type of CBT specifically adapted for treating SAD called CBT-SAD.
  • Antidepressant medication – which increases serotonin levels
  • Vitamin D – which you can obtain from a supplement or through light therapy

How to Manage SAD Symptoms

In addition to treatment, you can manage SAD symptoms on your own by doing the following:

  1. Changing your environment to let in more natural light into your home and working spaces
  2. Spending time outside as much as possible
  3. Exercising every day
  4. Improving your sleeping patterns
  5. Practicing other forms of self-care

Consider implementing these changes today to manage your SAD symptoms and enjoy a better winter season, this year and in the future.

Do you find yourself growing irritable or experiencing depressive moods when the seasons change? More specifically, do the darker days of winter and lack of sunlight impact you mentally and emotionally? If so, you may be struggling with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression linked to changes in moods and behaviors whenever the seasons change. As a type of depression, symptoms of SAD sometimes mimic the symptoms of major depression. These symptoms vary depending on whether you have winter-pattern SAD or (less common) summer-pattern SAD. Treatment methods for SAD are also similar to those for depression. You can manage your symptoms of SAD and substance use disorder (SUD) through behavioral therapies and self-care practices. For more information or to get help, call Excel Treatment Center at (833) 883-9235

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