The American Psychiatric Association reports that nearly 5% of adults living in the US experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a major depressive disorder that manifests symptoms during some seasons, namely fall and winter, but not all. Individuals with untreated SAD are at a higher risk of substance abuse, but knowing the symptoms and treatments for SAD can reduce the risk and promote a healthy lifestyle.

What Are the Symptoms of SAD?

According to the National Institution of Mental Health, decreased levels of sunlight inhibit serotonin production and increase melatonin levels; thus, populations that live further from the equator in areas with fewer daylight hours are more likely to develop SAD.

Though the majority of cases appear during colder months, some individuals with SAD manifest symptoms in the spring and summer. Symptoms associated with SAD in the warmer months include lack of hunger, anxiety, and violent outbursts; cold-season symptoms include exhaustion, over-eating, and withdrawing socially, or “hibernating.”

How Does SAD Increase the Risk of Substance Abuse?

Individuals with SAD may turn to alcohol, opioids, or other substances to self-medicate their symptoms. The urge to subdue depression and anxiety may cause a reliance on substances during one season that may persist after that season ends. A 2004 study showed that some individuals with an alcohol addiction used the substance seasonally, suggesting that they were self-medicating SAD.

What Are the Treatment Options?

Phototherapy, or exposure to bright light for therapeutic purposes, is a popular treatment for SAD. Spending more time in a sunnier climate may have the same effect as regular exposure to a source of light. Keeping active and maintaining a balanced diet can also diminish the symptoms of SAD. T

herapy and prescribed medication are also effective treatments. A 2015 study found that therapy programs designed to treat SAD were more beneficial to patients than light therapy after their second winter with the condition. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), an antidepressant, are often prescribed to individuals with SAD.

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