man with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) feeling triggered

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as the “winter blues” or seasonal depression, can cause feelings of sadness, loneliness, irritability, and social withdrawal. These undesirable symptoms can trigger individuals with seasonal depression to engage in risky or unusual activities that can be especially harmful to individuals in addiction recovery.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that fluctuates during certain seasons, specifically the fall and winter months. Individuals with SAD start losing interest in daily activities and experiencing low energy levels and mood swings. The most common symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) include depressed mood, sleep issues, changes in appetite, loss of interest, irritability, and trouble concentrating. While SAD typically occurs in the winter months, it can also cause clinical depression in the spring or early summer.

The cause of SAD is typically related to the reduction in sunlight in fall and winter. This decrease in daylight might disrupt your body’s internal clock, leading to low mood and decreased energy levels. Reduced sun exposure can cause a drop in serotonin levels, a brain chemical that affects mood. Low serotonin levels are commonly associated with low energy and mood, causing clinical depression or major depressive disorder (MDD).

The Link Between Depression and Substance Abuse

Alcohol and drug addiction often correlates with mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders. The effects of substances can evoke feelings of sadness and loneliness, just as SAD can cause individuals to drink alcohol or do drugs. This link between depression and substance abuse is multifaceted, as various psychological, neurobiological, and social factors influence it. Alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant, so consuming it can contribute to or naturally exacerbate symptoms of depression.

Self-medicating with Alcohol or Drugs

One of the most common explanations for the link between substance abuse and depression is the aspect of self-medicating. Many individuals who struggle with depression may use alcohol or drugs to alleviate their symptoms. Whether it’s sadness, hopelessness, or insomnia, some may find temporary relief from these feelings when using substances. Although substance use might provide some relief, it usually worsens depression symptoms over time. For individuals in recovery from addiction, experiencing SAD can be triggering as they might feel tempted to drink or use substances for solace.

Brain Neurotransmitters and Reward Systems

Both depression and substance abuse can affect similar areas of the brain and neurotransmitters. Substances like alcohol and opioids activate the dopamine and opioid neurotransmitters, which signal the release of endorphins and serotonin in the brain. This can improve mood and relieve depression symptoms, hence why many individuals with mental health disorders indulge in substance use. However, chronic use of alcohol and drugs can disrupt the natural balance of these neurotransmitters, leading to or exacerbating depression.

Substance abuse and addiction can affect the brain’s reward system. Over time, the use of drugs and alcohol can become a primary source of happiness and pleasure, which can diminish the ability to experience joy in other activities. This dependency can contribute to or deepen depression.

Social and Environmental Factors

Experiencing stressful life events or trauma can trigger both depression and substance abuse. People might turn to alcohol or drugs to cope with the emotional pain of such experiences, which can develop into a dependency or even addiction. Individuals in recovery struggling with SAD might feel triggered during difficult times to use or drink to relieve these emotions, potentially leading them to relapse.

Environmental factors, such as social isolation, lack of support, or exposure to drugs and alcohol, can contribute to both substance use and seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This can create a toxic cycle where depression leads to substance use, which in turn leads to more isolation and more profound depression.

How Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) Triggers Relapse

Drug and alcohol addiction is often accompanied by mental health conditions like depression or SAD, also known as a co-occurring disorder. Individuals in recovery from a substance use disorder are often increasingly vulnerable when struggling with mental health issues. The depression, lethargy, and mood swings associated with SAD can increase stress and negative emotions, which might lead someone to seek out substances to self-medicate or to cope. This can be particularly triggering for individuals in recovery who have not adopted healthy coping strategies or are in the early stages of recovery.

Strategies for Managing SAD in Addiction Recovery

Managing seasonal affective disorder (SAD) while in addiction recovery requires coping solid strategies that address both the emotional challenges of SAD and the complexities of addiction recovery.

  • Light Therapy: SAD is often treated with light therapy, where patients receive artificial light exposure that mimics natural outdoor light. This can help regulate mood and improve SAD symptoms.
  • Counseling and Therapy: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a type of therapy employed in drug rehab that is particularly effective for managing depression. Therapy helps address negative thought patterns associated with SAD and provides coping techniques for managing addiction triggers.
  • Medication: In some cases, if prescribed and monitored by a healthcare professional, antidepressant medication may help manage symptoms of SAD.
  • Support Groups: Attending support groups and meetings in addiction recovery can provide a sense of community and understanding, which can be especially important during the winter months for those with SAD or depression.
  • Physical Activity: Regular exercise releases dopamine and serotonin, which naturally improves mood and reduces symptoms of both SAD and drug and alcohol withdrawal. Going for a walk or spending time in the sunlight is most beneficial.
  • Nutrition: A balanced, nutritional diet can help manage symptoms of SAD. Foods rich in vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids are particularly beneficial.
  • Mindfulness Techniques: Meditation, yoga, and deep breathing can reduce stress and improve mental well-being.
  • Maintaining a Routine: Maintaining a regular and consistent routine can help manage symptoms of SAD and provide structure in addiction recovery.
  • Social Interaction: Staying connected and surrounding yourself with supportive friends and family can provide emotional support in recovery and reduce feelings of isolation.

Treatment and Support for SAD and Addiction

While every individual’s experience with SAD and addiction recovery is unique, what works for one individual may not work for another. You must speak with a healthcare professional or addiction specialist to determine your best treatment plan.

Seeking help and support for seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is just as important as clinical depression or a substance use disorder. Here at Rock Recovery Center, we are here to help and guide you. Reach out to us today to get the treatment you deserve!





  • Healthline, 2019. What Are the Benefits of Sunlight?
  • National Library of Medicine, 2005. Mood Disorders and Substance Use Disorder: A Complex Comorbidity.
  • National Library of Medicine, 2016. Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health: CHAPTER 2 THE NEUROBIOLOGY OF SUBSTANCE USE, MISUSE, AND ADDICTION.
  • National Insitute of Mental Health, 2023. Substance Use and Co-Occurring Mental Disorders.