How Seasonal Depression Can Lead to Substance Abuse

Woman sitting near window with grey snowy weather outside

When the winter months arrive, many people experience a consistent and significant influx of negative feelings and emotions.  This phenomenon is known as seasonal depression, also called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).  SAD is a type of depression that is related to changes in seasons, typically taking place during the months when the days are shorter with less natural sunlight.  According to a study by Boston University, the condition affects an estimated 10 million people yearly in the United States and can last up to 40% of the year.


Symptoms of Seasonal Depression

Symptoms of seasonal depression can include feelings of hopelessness and depression, loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyable, difficulty sleeping, changes in appetite and weight, and feelings of fatigue or lack of energy.  In some cases, individuals with SAD may also experience physical symptoms such as headaches or gastrointestinal problems.


What Causes Seasonal Depression?

Several main causes are suspected to contribute to the symptoms associated with SAD.  One of the main theories is that a lack of sunlight disrupts the body’s circadian rhythm, which is the “internal clock” that regulates our sleeping and waking cycles.  Sunlight helps to set our circadian rhythm and regulate the levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin and melatonin.  When there is less natural sunlight during the winter months, these neurotransmitters can become imbalanced, leading to symptoms of depression.  Another theory is that a lack of sunlight can cause a decrease in vitamin D levels, which can also contribute to symptoms of depression. There is also a possibility of genetic predisposition, where people with a family history of depression or bipolar disorder are at higher risk of developing SAD.


The Link Between Seasonal Depression and Substance Abuse

While seasonal depression is a common and treatable condition, it can also lead to other problems, such as substance abuse.  When individuals with SAD feel hopeless and unable to cope with their symptoms, they may turn to substance abuse as a way to alleviate their feelings of sadness and isolation.  However, this can make symptoms worse in the long run and can lead to addiction and other negative consequences. As stated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there was an observed increase in substance overdoses and deaths in the United States by nearly 30% from 2019 to 2020.

Furthermore, mental health and substance abuse issues often co-occur, meaning that individuals who have a mental health condition are more likely to develop a substance abuse problem, and vice-versa.  This is because victims of mental health disorders often turn to substance abuse to distract from their struggles, and many who are addicted to these substances tend to develop or exacerbate mental health disorders as a result.  According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 17 million U.S. adults experienced both mental illness and a substance use disorder in 2020.  It is important to find adequate treatment for seasonal depression before it snowballs into a larger issue and becomes unmanageable.


JADE Wellness Can Help

For many, addiction and abuse can quickly spiral out of control and result in grave consequences.  If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction to any substance, JADE Wellness is here to help you.  JADE Wellness Center is Pittsburgh’s first comprehensive medication-assisted treatment center, also offering individual and group therapy sessions.  Call us at 412-380-0100 or visit the JADE Wellness Center website to begin your path to recovery.