Navigating the Darkness: Seasonal Affective Disorder During Recovery

Do you lose energy as darkness shortens the daylight hours? Are you feeling sad and bluesy for no apparent reason? How does the lack of sunlight affect your mental well-being?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is associated with a chemical imbalance in the brain, triggered by reduced daylight hours and diminished sunlight exposure during winter.

This condition introduces unique challenges, especially for those navigating recovery from mental health issues and substance abuse. Understanding and recognizing the signs of SAD while integrating effective treatment strategies are essential for maintaining and advancing recovery progress.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also known as “winter blues,” is a form of depression predominantly affecting people during the fall and winter months.

The changing seasons can lead to an alteration in the circadian rhythm, potentially disrupting a regular daily routine and causing a negative impact on the quality of life. The variations of natural sunlight and fluctuating temperatures influence psychological and emotional states and can interfere with social engagements and overall daily functioning.

This condition is notably more prevalent among individuals residing far from the equator, where winter days are significantly shorter and daylight is scarce. More than 12 million people across northern Europe are affected, with more than 2 million people in the UK alone.

Symptoms and risk factors of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Mental health challenges

For those in recovery, co-occurring mental health conditions increase their vulnerability to SAD. They may find the process even more daunting as the issues amplify their susceptibility to SAD.

Increased isolation

The colder months often encourage more time spent indoors, away from social interactions and activities. This isolation intensifies the feelings of loneliness and detachment that are symptomatic of SAD, creating a cycle that hinders the recovery process and deepens the impact of SAD itself.

Disruption in daily routines

Those triggered by SAD can face significant barriers to maintaining structured routines—vital components of a successful recovery. For many, the motivational declines and disruption can lead to a deterioration in personal and professional responsibilities, further sending an individual into a downward spiral.

Profound sadness

One of the classic symptoms of SAD, the feeling of deep sadness is far different than typical “winter blues”. This overwhelming despair affects every aspect of life, making even the simplest everyday tasks seem staggeringly impossible.

Diminished interest in previously enjoyed activities

Those in recovery suffering from SAD often find long-held hobbies and activities that once brought joy and excitement now hold little to no appeal. This can lead to a withdrawal from social interactions and a sense of detachment.

Energy loss, sluggishness

Portrait of asian woman in trendy clothes at rural road among winter forest covered with white snow

A common characteristic facing those suffering from SAD is a significant reduction in energy levels and an overall feeling of lethargy. This makes it difficult to muster the motivation for daily activities, further impacting the quality of life.

Sleep disturbances, sleeping too much

Alterations in sleep patterns, particularly oversleeping, indicate SAD. This symptom not only affects physical health but also contributes to feelings of depression and fatigue during waking hours.

Difficulty in concentration

SAD can impair cognitive functions, challenging concentration and decision-making. The inability to focus affects work and school performance, further complicating daily responsibilities and tasks.

Appetite changes often leading to weight gain

SAD can spike changes in appetite, especially cravings for carbohydrates and sugary foods, leading to significant weight gain. This physical change can also worsen feelings of low self-esteem and depression.

Feeling hopeless

The ever-present sense of hopelessness that usually accompanies SAD goes beyond temporary sadness and can lead to a bleak outlook on life, the future, and personal circumstances. For those on the journey to recovery, it can make it hard to see a way out.

Suicidal ideation

​In the most severe of cases, SAD can lead to thoughts of suicide or self-harm. This is the most critical symptom, and seeking professional help and support is imperative to help you navigate through these dark periods safely.

Not everyone who experiences SAD will suffer from all of these symptoms. If you have five or more symptoms that are present for two weeks—with one of them being a hopeless mood or a disinterest in everyday activities—this meets the criteria for SAD.

The relationship between Seasonal Affective Disorder and recovery

The characteristics of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) significantly complicate the path to recovery as the depressive symptoms often intensify cravings for substances. This makes the recovery process from substance abuse, mental health disorders, or other conditions even more challenging and can be significantly impacted in several ways.

Compounding mental health challenges make the path to recovery more complex as treatment plans need to be tailored to address both SAD and the co-occurring mental health issues. Additionally, the symptoms of SAD interfere with recovery efforts, making it harder to stick to healthy, consistent plans.

Depressed alcohol addict sitting near window

These depressive symptoms of SAD can disrupt the recovery process and increase the risk of relapse, as those suffering from SAD might turn to drugs or alcohol to alleviate the distressing symptoms. It’s crucial for recovery plans to include strategies for managing the challenges of SAD without relying on substance use.

For those struggling with recovery and SAD, the lack of energy, motivation, and tendency for increased social isolation during colder, darker months can compound feelings of loneliness and detachment precisely when social support is most needed.

Treatment options and vital supportive networks, both critical for effective recovery, are challenged by SAD, often leading to missed therapy sessions or a lack of participation in support groups.

Recovery treatment options for Seasonal Affective Disorder

Sue Pavlovich of the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association (SADA), offers some tips to help those affected by SAD. “Everyone’s affected differently by SAD, so what works for one person won’t for another,” she says. “But there’s usually something that will help, so don’t give up if the first remedy you try doesn’t work. Just keep trying.”

Light therapy

Light therapy (SAD Lamps), also known as phototherapy, is a treatment specifically designed to mitigate the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) by mimicking natural sunlight. By sitting in front of the lamp for at least 30 minutes in the morning, the bright light triggers serotonin, the “feel good” hormone, alleviating symptoms of depression. 

Vitamin D

Vitamin D, essential in the production of serotonin, is often found to be lower in those suffering from SAD. It’s a good idea to have your blood levels checked to see if Vitamin D supplements could help alleviate the symptoms of SAD. 


SSRI’s and other antidepressants, frequently prescribed for SAD, need to be carefully managed for those with a history of substance abuse to mitigate the risk of misuse.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which focuses on changing your negative thought patterns, can also be used with SSRI’s and light therapy. CBT has also been proven beneficial to those unable to tolerate SSRI’s or light therapy isn’t working. 

Healthy lifestyle

Couple practising yoga and meditating at home

Embracing and incorporating healthy lifestyle changes such as a nutritious diet, regular exercise, yoga, meditation, breathwork, spending time in nature, and getting good sleep can significantly help manage SAD symptoms 

Strong support network

By cultivating a strong support network and participating in community activities, you can mitigate isolation and get the vital emotional support that is crucial for managing SAD and sustaining your recovery efforts.

There is help for Seasonal Affective Disorder

Recognizing SAD symptoms and seeking appropriate treatment are key steps in managing your recovery—reaching out for help can make a significant difference.

If you or someone you know is facing the challenges of SAD and recovery, Camino Recovery is here to offer compassionate support tailored to your individual needs.

Contact us today for guidance and support on this journey toward a healthier, happier life.

Additional resources:

  1. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) American Psychiatric Association, October 2020
  2. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) Mayo Clinic, December 2021
  3. Beating the Winter Blues NHS, January 2023
  4. The latest news and advice for Seasonal Affective Disorder SADA.UK, June 2023
Ameet Braich - Camino Recovery Spain

Ameet Singh Braich, a distinguished Clinical Director at Camino Recovery, is renowned for expertise in addiction and trauma resolution. With 15+ years of experience, he transforms lives through a holistic therapeutic approach. His research focuses on childhood maltreatment's impact on cognitive, emotional, and social functioning.

A dynamic speaker and trainer, Ameet empowers clients to achieve lasting recovery, prioritizing trauma resolution and relapse prevention. His diverse training includes EAP, crisis intervention, and EMDR. Committed to positive transformation, Ameet equips individuals across fields to address challenges of addiction.

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