Substance abuse can be affected by the time of year. Certain conditions, such as the stress of the holiday season or the relative freedom of summertime, can result in increased substance use and potential for abuse.

A major contributor to this fact is a mood disorder called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. This disorder can result in increased potential for substance abuse as a form of self-medication to manage feelings of depression or anxiety during the winter months. However, there are other connections between the time of year and the prevalence of substance abuse as well.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

General Overview

Changes in seasons can have a major effect on an individual’s potential to use drugs or alcohol. A major aspect of this issue, seasonal affective disorder is a condition that usually occurs during the fall and winter – the times of year when light and warmth are less available.

These feelings can lead a person to try to manage the symptoms by using drugs or alcohol. For example, a study from Comprehensive Psychiatry indicates that alcohol abuse seems to follow seasonal patterns for some people, increasing at certain times of year that can correspond with SAD and the challenging holiday season. In addition, individuals can sometimes become addicted to the drugs used to treat SAD.

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

The National Library of Medicine states that SAD can cause a person to experience the following symptoms:

  • Anxiety
  • Pessimism, or feeling hopeless, helpless, or unworthy
  • Fatigue and decreased energy
  • Changes in sleeping or eating patterns
  • Lack of focus or concentration

While the specific causes of SAD are unknown, Mayo Clinic explains that occurrence of SAD in an individual may have to do with the season’s effect on:

  • The person’s circadian rhythm or “body clock”
  • Levels of serotonin (brain chemistry that helps regulate mood)
  • Levels of melatonin (brain chemistry that helps regulate sleep patterns)
  • Vitamin D levels
  • Exposure to natural sunlight

While SAD normally occurs during the winter, there are some people for whom other seasons can create similar symptoms. It is important to work with a treatment professional to get an accurate diagnosis of seasonal affective disorder.

How Seasons Affect Drug Abuse

According to data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, young people are more likely to start using drugs or cigarettes during the summer months. However, first-time alcohol use is prevalent during the months of December and January. Outside of this, overall drug and alcohol use can spike in the autumn and winter, particularly for those who experience SAD.

Along with the challenges of SAD itself, the winter months in the Northern Hemisphere are associated with the stressful holiday season. This can compound the challenges for individuals who struggle with SAD through the stressors of money, time spent with difficult family or friends, or loneliness that can add to the feelings of depression, increasing the chances for individuals to resort to drug or alcohol use to manage those feelings.

Avoiding SAD

While individuals may not be able to control whether or not they have SAD, it is possible to prepare for the winter months and employ tools and techniques that can help to avoid the worst symptoms, as well as avoiding the desire to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. Some of these methods, as explained by Everyday Health, include:

  • Getting more light, whether by spending as much time as possible in the sun or using light boxes, as well as alarm clocks that simulate sunrise
  • Taking vitamin D supplements, which a study in Nutrients shows can ease depression
  • Planning a vacation to a sunny area
  • Creating and sticking to a daily schedule
  • Getting exercise

All these activities can ease the symptoms of SAD, and many have been shown to help with other forms of depression. In turn, these activities can curb the desire to use drugs or alcohol to manage the distressing symptoms of SAD. Setting a personal plan and engaging these activities and tools well ahead of the winter months is a way to make sure that the symptoms don’t have a chance to take hold once the days start getting darker.

Treatments for SAD

Getting professional help for SAD is another way to manage its effects on daily life. According to Mayo Clinic, effective treatment for this disorder includes:

  • Light therapy: Lack of sunlight is thought to be a major contributor to the low levels of serotonin, melatonin, and vitamin D during the winter months. Simulated sunlight is used to help make up for this lack, and activities that help the person get more natural sunlight are encouraged.
  • Medications: Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications are often used to mitigate the feelings of depression that arise in SAD.
  • Psychotherapy: Working with a counselor can help the individual identify behaviors and thought patterns that complicate SAD, and alternative behaviors and tools that can be engaged to combat them.

SAD and Substance Abuse

SAD and Substance Abuse

Medications for depression can be addictive, and sometimes individuals who struggle with SAD can abuse these drugs if symptoms are particularly bad, leading to the potential for addiction. For these individuals, as well as for those who are already struggling with substance abuse, medication may not be the best option for treatment. However, a study from the American Journal of Psychiatry shows that treatment with light therapy can be as effective as treatment with drugs. Adding psychotherapy to light therapy can help individuals manage the symptoms of SAD without resorting to drugs.

Melatonin and vitamin D supplementation can also help decrease an individual’s risk of drug abuse due to SAD. In fact, a study from Mayo Clinic shows that people experiencing chronic pain are more likely to use narcotic pain killers if their vitamin D levels are low. Similarly, keeping vitamin D at adequate levels can decrease the desire to self-medicate to deal with symptoms of SAD.

The Importance of Treatment

Winter can be a challenge for people for many reasons, and SAD is a major contributor to this difficulty, which can lead to drug abuse. If drug abuse co-occurs with SAD, it can be important for the individual to get treatment for both conditions to be able to recover adequately from both. Working with a research-based treatment program can result in getting the most accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatments.

In addition, by planning ways to deal with the effects of SAD, individuals who struggle with this disorder can experience relief from symptoms. In turn, this can help individuals to avoid drug or alcohol abuse during the winter months and help them get through this difficult season.