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Co-Occurring Substance Use and Seasonal Affective Disorder

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For anyone struggling with substance use disorder, the stress of the holidays can be overwhelming, but those diagnosed with co-occurring Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) can find it especially challenging.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of seasonal depression that is fairly common during the long winter months. It has close ties to other co-occurring conditions such as substance use disorder.

Some of the signs and symptoms of SAD include:

  • Having low energy
  • Hypersomnia
  • Overeating
  • Weight gain
  • Craving for carbohydrates
  • Social withdrawal (feel like “hibernating”)



According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 20 percent of people diagnosed with a mood disorder such as seasonal affective disorder also have a substance use disorder.

Seasonal Affective Disorder can be especially challenging for those in recovery as it increases stress levels, intensifies depression and can draw people to relapse by self-medicating with drugs or alcohol.

In these cases, effective integrated treatment should be used to treat both the addiction itself and any mental health conditions. We use an integrated treatment approach at Aquila to treat both addiction and the co-occurring disorder. Each illness needs its own treatment plan and our one-on-one support and small groups help identify and treat patients in a holistic way. When both illnesses are treated, the chances for a full and lasting recovery are greatly improved.

Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder

  • Individual counselling. Allowing patients to discuss and address issues with SAD that they have experienced in the past, as well as issues that arise during treatment.

  • Group therapy. Treatment for co-occurring disorders such as SAD and substance abuse benefit from the support of others facing similar challenges that can be shared in group therapy sessions.

  • Partial Hospitalization. Our Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP) provides balance between direct medical supervision and individual accountability, allowing clients to tackle their substance abuse while receiving treatment for the co-occurring disorder.

  • Ongoing support. Patients need continued support after they leave treatment, and a professional integrated care program can provide continuing care for patients, offering them the accountability and support they need to continue along their recovery journey.

  • Light therapy. The idea of light therapy is to give daily exposure to light during the fall and winters months when there are less hours of natural sunlight. Symptoms of SAD may be relieved by sitting in front of a light box first thing each morning, from fall until spring.

  • Psychotherapy. An adapted form of Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), known as CBT-SAD, has been shown to be effective for SAD. This treatment involves techniques such as identifying negative thoughts and replacing them with more positive thoughts along with behavioral activation, helping the person to identify activities that are engaging and pleasurable, to improve coping with winter.


At Home Treatment

  • eating a healthy diet
  • getting enough sleep
  • taking medications provided by a physician
  • exercising regularly
  • engaging in activities that make you happy

Many people in recovery with co-occurring SAD may isolate themselves during this time of year. Contrary to the intent, isolation often results in increased feelings of sadness and loneliness, can lead to depression and increase substance use risk. Don’t give in to the temptation to hide away from the rest of the world. Seek help from a professional, reach out to your sponsor, lean on your support network, or contact us.