Seasonal Affective Disorder and Substance Abuse

Published On: September 27, 2023

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a form of depression that is seasonal.

To elucidate, this is a depression that occurs at a certain time of the year, such as during winter or summer.

Statistically, more people suffer from SAD during the winter. Experts suggest that this is due to the cold weather and darker days.

Studies have found a correlation between darkness and depression. Countries such as Norway have high depression rates because of their long, dark winters.

Unfortunately, for people that suffer from SAD, there are not many treatment options. In some cases, people might be provided with therapy or given antidepressants.

Some studies suggest that people that suffer from SAD are at higher risk of developing a substance disorder.

This is due to people using certain substances as a coping mechanism for SAD. The purpose of this article is to discuss SAD and how it can lead to substance abuse.

It will discuss what SAD is in more detail, what causes SAD, how it can lead to addiction, and what treatment is available. (1)

Call our addiction support line on 0800 111 4108 for more help.

Statistics on SAD and Drug Abuse

Pill mikx 3

According to the latest data, SAD affects around 5% of the population.

In the UK, it affects around 2 million people, with London having the highest rates of SAD. For those that suffer from SAD, it usually last for around 40% of the year.

In most cases, this is between January and February. However, 10% of people experience it during the summer months.

SAD is most common among adults aged between 18 and 30. Studies suggest that the average age for people developing SAD is 23.

SAD can also lead to other mental health issues, such as anxiety and bipolar. Men are more likely to be diagnosed with SAD (9%) compared with women (4.5%).

People that suffer from depression are 25% more likely to use alcohol, 69% more likely to use cocaine, and 94% more likely to smoke cigarettes.

An estimated 1 in 3 people that suffer from depression will use a substance.

The downside to this, as mentioned, is people who use substances as coping mechanisms run the risk of developing a dependency. (2)

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder and What Causes It?


As previously mentioned, and as the name suggests, Seasonal Affective Disorder is a form of depression that is seasonal.

In more detail, however, SAD is a noticeable change in a person’s mood that is seasonal.

This might include feeling sad, lethargic, or out of sorts. As a result, SAD can have a negative impact on a person’s daily life. Work, tasks, and hobbies can all be negatively affected.

As mentioned, SAD, in most cases, occurs during the winter. The reason for this is that a lack of Vitamin D can lead to depression.

The sun is a natural source of Vitamin D; therefore, shorter and darker days mean that people do not get enough sun.

Unfortunately, the specific cause of SAD is unknown. Scientists have several suggestions, but they are not conclusive.

An example of this is genetics and family history. Studies have found that 13 to 17% of people with SAD have a family history of SAD.

Another example is people already having other mental health issues. People that have bipolar disorder are more likely to be diagnosed with SAD.

SAD could correlate with the under-production of serotonin – a neurotransmitter in the brain that helps regulate mood.

Finally, changes in the season can impact melatonin. This chemical also plays a role in a person’s sleep and mood. (3)

Call our addiction support line on 0800 111 4108 for more help.

What are the Symptoms of SAD?


The symptoms of SAD can vary from person to person and can be based on age, gender, and the season that affects them.

However, some more universal symptoms include:

  • Feeling sad
  • Feeling lethargic
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Becoming socially isolated
  • Trouble sleeping and insomnia
  • Feeling more irritable
  • Behaving more irrationally
  • Trouble concentrating
  • A lack of appetite
  • Sudden changes in weight
  • Feeling suicidal
  • Increased fatigue

For those that suffer from SAD in the winter months, some common symptoms might be sleeping too much, overeating, or becoming socially withdrawn.

For those that suffer from SAD in the summer months, some more common symptoms might include trouble sleeping, agitation, anxiety, stress, and eating less. (4)

SAD and Substance Use

Two glasses of whisky being poured

Like many other disorders, SAD can lead people to use substances or can be brought on from using substances.

As mentioned, with regard to the former, some people that suffer from SAD will use substances as a coping mechanism or form of self-medication.

If the person uses the substance for a prolonged period, they might develop a substance dependency.

With regards to the latter, many substances, such as alcohol, cannabis, or cocaine, for example, can lead to depression or SAD.

The reason for this is that such substance contains chemicals that alter the brain in various negative ways. For example, cocaine can impact a person’s dopamine – the chemical responsible for pricing feelings of happiness.

If a person regularly uses cocaine, the brain will stop producing dopamine naturally.

As a result, when people are not using the substance, they will begin to feel depressed.

Statistics indicate that alcohol is the most used substance by people that suffer from SAD – this is followed by cannabis, and then cocaine.

In part, this can be explained by SAD most commonly occurring in the winter months.

The cold weather and seasonal festivities can perpetuate alcohol consumption. Cannabis and cocaine have been found to temporarily lift symptoms associated with SAD.

However, these substances can also drastically increase depression and SAD symptoms. (5)

Call our addiction support line on 0800 111 4108 for more help.

How Do I Know if I Have Developed a Substance Dependency?

Mixing Pills

Knowing if a dependency has developed can be complicated. Some symptoms can be less invasive than others.

In addition, symptoms of dependency can be connected to the substance and how long the person has been using for.

In general, however, here are some common symptoms to look out for. One of the most common signs of substance dependency is withdrawal.

This happens when the brain and body have become dependent upon the substance to function.

Without the substance, people will begin to experience cravings.

Over a period, without the substance, people will begin to detox – this is the process of the body expelling the substance. (6) This can lead to a range of detox symptoms, such as flu, nausea, vomiting, anxiety, and depression.

If someone has been using a substance and experiences either withdrawal or starts to detox, they have likely developed a dependency.

In addition, people that suffer from substance dependency are likely to experience noticeable changes in their thoughts and behaviour.

Examples of this include:

  • Becoming more irrational
  • Experiencing anxiety and/or depression
  • Becoming paranoid and easily agitated
  • Rapid and unexplainable mood changes
  • Becoming socially isolated
  • A loss of interest in hobbies or socialising, unless the substance is involved
  • Engaging in risk-taking behaviour, such as driving under the influence
  • Spending a lot of money on the substance
  • No longer taking care of work, chores, or personal hygiene

How to Cope with SAD and Substance Use

Binge drinking

For people suffering from SAD and/or substance use the first port of call should be to speak with a medical professional, such as GP.

They will be best at assessing the person’s needs and providing information on treatment options.

Alternatively, it is always good to talk to loved ones.

Reaching out and speaking with people will help alleviate some of the symptoms of both SAD and substance dependency, such as social isolation and anxiety.

Further to this, actively working to counter symptoms is a good way to deal with SAD.

For example, trying to eat when not hungry, engaging in hobbies, exercising, and trying to get as much sun as possible will all help counter SAD.

For those in the UK, many great, free organisations offer support for both mental health issues, such as SAD, and substance dependency.

Examples of this include:

Such organisations offer a wide range of free services, such as:

For more information about these services and how to access them, please see here.

Treatment Options SAD and Substance Abuse


There are several main treatment options for SAD and for people suffering from substance dependency.

People suffering from SAD might be offered certain medications, such as anti-depressants, therapy, or light therapy.

The latter is SAD-specific and involves the person using lightboxes – these are devices that produce light.

People might spend an hour each day using a lightbox. This will help increase Vitamin D levels and produce serotonin.

For those suffering from both SAD and substance dependency, in addition to the free services mentioned in the previous section, the UK is home to many rehab facilities.

Although these can be expensive (£300 to £500 per day), rehabs can offer a wide range of treatments that will help with both SAD and addiction. (7)

Commonly, rehab treatment follows a 4-stage process:

  1. Detoxpeople will remove the substance and have access to medical assistance
  2. Therapypeople will undergo a wide-range different therapy
  3. Relapse preventionpeople will learn coping mechanisms that will help prevent them from using
  4. Aftercarecontinued support after leaving treatment

Therapy can be one of the best ways to deal with both SAD and substance dependency.

There are many great types of therapy available – both for free through the NHS and privately for a cost.

Common examples of therapy for both SAD and substance dependency include:

CBT looks at the connection between thoughts and behaviours – that is, thoughts that lead to certain behaviours.

This might be depressive thoughts that lead to substance use, for example.

The goal of CBT is to help the person change negative thoughts into positive ones.

1-to-1 therapy is probably one of the most common types of therapy.

This involves a person sitting with a professional, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist, and talking about their problems.

The goal is to explore certain issues and uncover the root cause. For example, it might explore childhood issues, relationships, or past trauma.

Holistic therapy focuses more on well-being. This can be a great therapy for people that suffer from SAD, as it encourages them to engage in holistic activities.

This might include painting, gardening, or playing an instrument.

Finally, another common theory is group therapy. People meet in groups with peers and discuss issues and experiences related to SAD or substance dependency.

Call our addiction support line on 0800 111 4108 for more help.


(1) Partonen, Timo, and Jouko Lönnqvist. “Seasonal affective disorder.” The Lancet 352, no. 9137 (1998): 1369-1374.


(3) Kurlansik, Stuart L., and Annamarie D. Ibay. “Seasonal affective disorder.” American family physician 86, no. 11 (2012): 1037-1041.

(4) Magnusson, Andres, and Diane Boivin. “Seasonal affective disorder: an overview.” Chronobiology international 20, no. 2 (2003): 189-207.

(5) Sandyk, Reuven, and J. Daniel Kanofsky. “Cocaine addiction: relationship to seasonal affective disorder.” International journal of neuroscience 64, no. 1-4 (1992): 195-201.

(6) Ibid.

(7) Rohan, Kelly J., Kathryn Tierney Lindsey, Kathryn A. Roecklein, and Timothy J. Lacy. “Cognitive-behavioral therapy, light therapy, and their combination in treating seasonal affective disorder.” Journal of affective disorders 80, no. 2-3 (2004): 273-283.


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