Can Seasonal Affective Disorder Lead to Relapse?

If you are in recovery, these bouts of depression may pose a serious risk for relapse.

Every year, as the long summer days start changing to shorter, cooler fall days, many people experience a drop in their happiness. They feel more gloomy, unmotivated, and tend to overeat, stay inside, and isolate themselves.

These symptoms are often a result of seasonal depression. Many Americans suffer from seasonal depression, called SAD or Seasonal Affective Disorder. However, if you’re in recovery, these bouts of depression may pose a serious risk for relapse that could ultimately jeopardize your sobriety.

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

According to the Mayo Clinic, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that is related to changes in seasons.1 Most people experience SAD during the fall and winter months. Alternatively, people who experience Seasonal Affective Disorder in the summer months have what is called Reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder. 

Since it is a type of depression, SAD shares many of the same symptoms. However, the main difference is that SAD follows a seasonal cycle. It generally starts in late fall or early winter and gradually subsides during the spring or summer. 

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder affect less than one-tenth of all SAD cases.2 So, although it is uncommon, seasonal depression can happen in the summertime too. 

What Are Common Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms?

Regardless of whether the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder appear during the winter or summer months, they usually begin mild and become more severe with time. Signs and symptoms of SAD include:3

  • Consistent and strong feelings of depression
  • Loss of energy
  • Loss of interest in normal activities and hobbies
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Appetite changes
  • Weight gain or weight loss
  • Sluggishness
  • Agitation or anxiety
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
  • Frequent thoughts of self-harm, death, or suicide

How Can Seasonal Affective Disorder Lead to Relapse?

As with many other types of mental illnesses, people with SAD often try to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol to overcome the symptoms. However, we know that this doesn’t work and it only increases the severity of SAD symptoms. This type of behavior can also increase a person’s risk of developing a substance use disorder.

If you’re in long-term recovery from addiction, Seasonal Affective Disorder makes you more susceptible to relapse. It completely zaps your energy, leaving you feeling tired and unmotivated, which may inhibit your ability to attend recovery meetings, IOP sessions, or make time to meet with your AA sponsor.

SAD is also very physically, emotionally, and mentally draining, leaving you with limited resources and energy to fight off relapse triggers and temptations. Feelings of loneliness and sadness can quickly take over, making you feel cut off and disconnected from your sober support system. 

Even after months or years of sobriety, these factors can quickly lead to relapse because they may encourage you to seek happiness and dopamine (the feel-good hormone) from unhealthy sources, like social media, junk food, or addictive substances.

What Are the Risk Factors and Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder?

The National Institute of Mental Health states that there are certain causes and risk factors that may make someone more likely than others to experience Seasonal Affective Disorder.4 Major risk factors for SAD include:

  • Being a female
  • Living very far north or south of the equator
  • Family history of depression
  • Having depression or bipolar disorder
  • Being a young adult

Researchers aren’t sure of the exact cause of SAD, but studies suggest that certain biological factors may play a role.

  • People with SAD may have trouble regulating serotonin. Serotonin is one of the key neurotransmitters that regulate mood. One study discovered people with SAD had less serotonin available in their bodies during winter months and more during summer months.
  • People with SAD may overproduce melatonin. The hormone melatonin regulates sleep and darkness increases the body’s production of it. As the fall and winter days get shorter, people with SAD feel increasingly sleepy, lethargic, and unmotivated.
  • People with SAD may produce less Vitamin D. Research suggests that clinical symptoms of depression could be associated with a lack of Vitamin D.

Co-Occurring Disorders: Addiction and SAD

It’s not uncommon for Seasonal Affective Disorder and addiction to occur together. People with seasonal depression often turn to alcohol or drugs to self-medication. Alternatively, substance abuse can worsen feelings of depression, contributing to SAD. In some instances, seasonal depression may also contribute to or trigger other mental health problems, such as anxiety, eating disorders, or self-harming behaviors.

Strategies for Dealing With SAD and Avoiding Relapse

People in recovery often have different strategies for maintaining their sobriety, but a holistic approach can help to reduce the symptoms of SAD and prevent relapse. Maintaining a strict self-care routine, increasing recovery support group meeting attendance, or enrolling in a sober living program for long-term support are all excellent ways to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder.

You can also implement the following behaviors in your life to limit SAD’s effects on your mental health and physical well-being.

  • Get outside for at least a few minutes each day to increase your Vitamin D.
  • Walk or work out regularly.
  • Try self-care activities like yoga, meditation, or journaling.
  • Open your blinds to let the natural sunlight into your home.
  • Place a SAD lamp in your bedroom, which is said to replicate the benefits of sunshine.
  • Focus on eating healthy foods, especially complex carbs, foods that are rich in omega fats, fruits, and vegetables.
  • Get extra sobriety support through recovery support groups, an intensive outpatient program, or a sober living program.

What Is the Best Seasonal Affective Disorder Treatment?

The good news is Seasonal Affective Disorder is highly treatable, especially if it is diagnosed and treated before the symptoms get worse. Since other mental health conditions can cause similar symptoms, sometimes it may be difficult for a doctor to diagnose SAD. However, doctors generally use a thorough evaluation and to provide an accurate diagnosis. 

There are no official Seasonal Affective Disorder tests you can take for self-diagnosis, but a diagnosis from a doctor typically includes the following:

  • An in-depth physical exam
  • Lab tests (blood testing, thyroid test, etc.)
  • Psychological evaluation and questionnaire
  • Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) criteria for seasonal depressive episodes

Treatment for SAD may include one or more of the following methods:

  • Medication: Some people with SAD may benefit from treatment using medications like antidepressants. However, this may not be the best option for someone with a history of substance abuse. Depending on your situation, your doctor may recommend treatment with medications or an alternative approach.
  • Light therapy: Also called phototherapy, light therapy requires that you sit near a special light box within the first hour of waking up each day. The light box mimics natural outdoor light and may affect brain certain chemicals linked to mood regulation.
  • Talk therapy: Cognitive behavioral therapy can help you identify negative thoughts and behaviors, learn healthy ways to cope with SAD, and find effective strategies for managing stress.
  • Vitamin D: Research suggests that vitamin D supplementation may be effective for some people with SAD, but it is likely to be most effective when it is paired with a healthy diet, lifestyle, and other treatment methods, such as talk therapy or light therapy.

How to Stay Sober With Seasonal Affective Disorder

Living sober with the symptoms of SAD can be difficult. However, the more support you have, the better off you’ll be. If you’re struggling with severe symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, your doctor should be able to help you establish a treatment plan that will not pose any additional risk of relapse. For example, your doctor may recommend avoiding SAD treatment that involves antidepressant medications, and instead, he or she may recommend talk therapy and vitamin D supplementation.

If you find that you also need help staying sober, enrolling in a sober living program or IOP can provide ongoing support and accountability for long-lasting sobriety, despite your SAD symptoms. Many sober living residents attend regular community support group meetings and one-on-one therapy for assistance dealing with mental health disorders and other challenging life circumstances. With these outside resources, structured group housing, and recovery programming, you’ll have all the tools and support you need to sustain your recovery.

SAD is seasonal, so it will come and go each year. However, it is possible to find relief and support as you continue living a sober life. Call (512) 363-5914 today to speak with a Eudaimonia representative about our IOP programming and sober living houses in Austin, Houston, and Colorado Springs.


  1. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20364651 
  2. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/brain-babble/201501/reverse-seasonal-affective-disorder-sad-in-the-summer 
  3. https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/depression/seasonal-affective-disorder 
  4. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/seasonal-affective-disorder/index.shtml

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