Cold weather and shorter daylight hours can make winter a challenging time of year for everyone, but the season can be especially difficult for people recovering from addiction. The casual drinking that happens at holiday parties and festive gatherings can trigger drug and alcohol cravings. Complicated family relationships and estranged family members can make individuals feel isolated, neglected, and abandoned. The harsh weather can make spending time outside difficult. A lack of sunlight can trigger seasonal affective disorder, making individuals feel depressed, fatigued, irritable, moody, unmotivated, and discontent. All of these factors can make individuals more likely to relapse, but there’s hope. There are several ways individuals in recovery can effectively cope with, manage, and deal with addiction during the winter.
How Seasons Can Affect Addiction Recovery and Mental Health
When most people think about the seasons of the year, they think about the weather, certain types of food, holidays, and celebrations, but seasons can also play an important role in our mental health. Since seasons determine the amount of sunlight we receive, they also affect our:
- Biological clock or circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythms are the physical, mental, and behavioral processes that happen in a 24-hour cycle. These natural processes, which are vital to life, respond to light and dark. When the days grow shorter in the fall and winter, the amount of sunlight we receive decreases, which can disrupt the body’s internal clock. This can affect our sleep-wake cycle, metabolism, weight, blood sugar levels, immune system, cholesterol, and mental health. An irregular circadian rhythm can cause mood disorders, anxiety, and seasonal depression.
- Serotonin levels. As winter approaches and we receive less sunlight, we can also experience a decreased production of serotonin, a chemical messenger in the brain that affects our mood. Low levels of serotonin are also associated with depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive behavior, and suicidal thoughts.
- Melatonin levels. Seasonal changes can also interfere with the body’s natural melatonin production, which can affect our sleep patterns and mood. Low melatonin levels can cause daytime tiredness, chronic exhaustion, concentration problems, and brain fog.
All of these factors can affect our mental health. Whether we’re dealing with an irregular circadian rhythm or low serotonin or melatonin levels, the winter season can trigger the “winter blues,” also known as seasonal affective disorder.
Symptoms of Winter Blues and Seasonal Affective Disorder
The “winter blues” is a mild form of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that starts in the late fall or early winter and lasts until the spring or summer. Some of the most common “winter blues” symptoms include:
- Depressed mood
- Constantly feeling fatigued
- Feeling drowsy
- Withdrawing from others
Common seasonal affective disorder symptoms include:
- Insomnia or trouble sleeping
- Hypersomnia, or oversleeping
- Overeating (carbohydrates) and weight gain
- A poor appetite that leads to weight loss
- Social withdrawal or a desire to “hibernate”
- Feeling restless or agitated
The same way these symptoms can affect our mental health, they can also affect the addiction recovery process. A fluctuating mood, feelings of restlessness or agitation, and withdrawal from others can lead to an emotional, mental, and physical relapse. The good news is understanding all of this can help individuals take preventative measures to winter-proof their recovery journey.
How To Beat The ‘Winter Blues’ and Stay Sober
As challenging as the holiday season can be for people recovering from addiction, individuals can manage the winter blues and stay sober. In addition to maintaining their daily schedule, recognizing and coping with triggers in a healthy way, individuals can:
- Use light therapy to combat seasonal depression
- Avoid isolation by staying connected with others.
- Stay motivated by participating in group therapy
- Maintain a positive outlook and mood by getting outside and staying active
- Enjoy their recovery journey by planning and attending sober parties
1. Combat Seasonal Affective Disorder with Light Therapy
As daylight hours begin to diminish in the winter, so do vitamin D levels. Low levels of vitamin D can make individuals feel depressed. Light therapy can help combat depression. In fact, light therapy is one of the most effective treatments for winter blues.
Light therapy uses specialty light boxes or lamps designed to produce light that mimics the sun. This helps to restore the body’s natural circadian rhythm and melatonin production. In fact, sitting in front of a light box every day for at least 30 minutes can significantly reduce the symptoms of seasonal depression. Other benefits of light therapy include:
- Increased energy
- Better sleep
- Increased productivity
- Reduced anxiety
All of these benefits can help individuals successfully maintain their recovery throughout the winter. As an individual’s mood improves, so does their outlook on life. Instead of feeling depressed and anxious, light therapy can help individuals feel motivated, positive, and excited about their recovery.
Staying connected with others can also help prevent relapse and ward off the winter blues.
2. Stay Connected With Others
Many people grappling with addiction challenges isolate themselves from others. At the same time, addiction thrives on isolation. Often, winter can bring out the recluse in people. Not wanting to be outside in the cold and avoiding estranged family members during the holidays can make individuals feel alone and withdrawn. Feeling that way can lead to self-medication and relapse. Staying connected with a peer support group, a mentor, or supportive friends can help combat these feelings of isolation and loneliness. Remaining connected to others can also help individuals confide in and talk about their feelings and the situations they’re dealing with.
3. Stay Motivated By Participating in Group Therapy
Remaining sober is an intentional decision that individuals have to make every minute of every day. But staying motivated can be difficult. This can be especially true in the winter when many people find themselves wanting to “hibernate” the season away. Group therapy can help individuals stay motivated. In addition to providing accountability, group therapy sessions can be uplifting and inspiring. Hearing others’ stories and listening to ways that group members are maintaining their sobriety can inspire individuals to keep going and maintain their sobriety as well.
4. Maintain A Positive Outlook and Mood by Getting Outside and Staying Active
Getting outside and doing things is a great way to enjoy life and maintain a good mood. There are still plenty of activities individuals can do to boost their mood and stay active in the winter. Ice skating, having a snowball fight, going on a winter scavenger hunt, sledding, snow tubing, and enjoying a bonfire are all wonderful ways individuals can stay active during the cold months. In addition to releasing endorphins, enjoying the great outdoors and remaining physically active in the winter can help:
- Distract individuals from cravings
- Reduce stress
- Boost self-esteem
- Produce positive changes in the brain
- Develop a positive outlook on life
- Prevent relapse
5. Enjoy Sobriety by Planning and Attending Sober Parties
Sober parties can actually be more fun and more memorable than events that provide alcohol. The idea is simple: bring your friends together to have fun without alcohol. You can play board or video games, share food, watch movies, dance, do karaoke, play charades, do a scavenger hunt, gather around a bonfire, host an ice cream social, or have an indoor picnic. The options are endless. Without alcohol present, you’ll have more time to meet new people, talk and get to know each other better.
Empowering You To Stay Sober This Winter
Here at Meta Addiction Treatment, we believe in empowering you to take charge of your recovery. But we also know that winter can be a long, cold, and lonely season. By staying connected with others and taking steps to fill your days with positive activities, we know that you can beat the winter blues, stay sober, and enjoy life. Contact us today if you’d like to speak to a recovery expert about more tips and tricks to maintain recovery during the winter months.