Frigid weather, short days and lots of time spent cooped up indoors can lead people to feel down in the dumps during the winter. Lots of people experience the winter blues, but some may feel the drop in mood more intensely.
Depression that sets in during the fall and winter can be a sign of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is a form of depression in response to a change in the season.
Seasonal affective disorder is hard for anyone to deal with, but it poses added risks for those in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction. Symptoms of SAD mirror many of the symptoms of depression, including:
- Feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness
- Loss of interest in activities, lack of energy
- Withdrawal from social interaction
- Sleeping too much
- Increased appetite and weight gain
- Difficulty with concentrating and making decisions
- Irritability or anxiety
- Suicidal thoughts
A low mood, changes in routine and withdrawing from social activities are all risk factors for relapse, so it’s very important for anyone in recovery to take steps to manage these symptoms. Here are tips for dealing with the winter blues and staying sober.
Catch some morning rays.
Although the exact cause of SAD is not known, research suggests a link between exposure to natural light – which is in shorter supply during winter months – and the activity of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. Serotonin can impact mood.
People vulnerable to SAD may also produce an excess of melatonin, which causes sleepiness. Less serotonin and too much melatonin may impact circadian rhythms.
To combat the low serotonin activity and high melatonin, open the blinds or curtains, and get outside in the mornings to soak up as much sun as you can when the rays are the strongest.
Boost your vitamin D intake.
Less sun exposure on the skin means the body produces less vitamin D in the winter months. Vitamin D is believed to play a role in serotonin activity, along with a host of other important functions, including building strong bonds and protection from diabetes and high blood pressure. Vitamin D deficiency, which is relatively common in the U.S, has also been associated with depression. Risk factors for vitamin D deficiency include a poor diet, lack of sunlight, darker skin, obesity and kidney or digestive tract dysfunction.
Diet is one way to boost vitamin D, which is naturally present in some foods, including salmon and egg yolks, while milk, yogurt, soy milk, orange juice and breakfast cereals are often fortified with vitamin D. You may also want to take a supplement.
The recommended dietary allowance of vitamin D is 600 international units (IU) is 600 IU for ages 1 to 70. Doctors may prescribe higher doses to correct a vitamin D deficiency.
Keep in touch with your therapeutic team.
Some people with SAD may be helped by Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI) antidepressants, such as Prozac. Also, while a down mood due to SAD will likely lift in the springtime, people with bipolar may be susceptible to entering a manic phase, in which people feel and act abnormally energized, physically and mentally. If you think you’re experiencing SAD, make sure you have mental health professionals to turn to for help and support.
Research also indicates that counseling, including cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) can help people with SAD.
Consider light therapy.
Light therapy, also called phototherapy, involves sitting in front of a light box first thing in the morning, from the early fall to the spring, for 20 to 60 minutes daily. Light boxes filter out ultraviolet rays while exposing individuals to 10,000 lux of fluorescent light, about 20 times brighter than regular indoor lighting. Though you can buy a lightbox without a prescription, light therapy has the potential to induce a manic episode in those at risk of bipolar disorder, so it’s important to discuss with a physician before trying it.
Fight the urge to isolate.
Attend meetings, spend time with family and friends, stay engaged with the people and activities that are important to you. Feeling lonely or isolated makes it harder to resist cravings and raises the risk of relapse. If you’re feeling blue, keep up your social connections with people whose company you enjoy. Friends, family or your 12-step group will lift your spirits, which can help give you the motivation to resist cravings and stick with your recovery.
Exercise, outdoors if possible.
Exercise improves the mood, alleviates stress, promotes relaxation, and provides a sense of accomplishment. Physical activity has well known benefits to people in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.
Exercise can also alleviate depression due to SAD. Bundle up, put on some sturdy shoes or boots, and get outside. Exercising, especially combined with fresh air and sun exposure, leaves people feeling energized the rest of the day. A brisk walk, shoveling snow, throwing a football with your children, building a snowman, having a snowball fight, ice skating, skiing or any outdoor activity are all great options.