For many of us, the winter months are the toughest. But for those in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction, the winter months can be especially tricky season to navigate.

Distraught woman in snowThe term ‘winter blues’ is used to describe a mild form of seasonal affective disorder that occurs during the winter months. Some of the most common symptoms of the winter blues include the following:

  • General downturn in mood
  • Persistent feelings of fatigue
  • Pronounced drowsiness
  • Withdrawing from others
  • Irritability

Many people experience the winter blues when cold weather makes them feel trapped inside. The winter blues are also caused by a lack of sunlight and the stress of the holiday season.

It’s estimated that between 10 and 20 percent of Americans experience the winter blues. This form of depression begins as the weather gets colder and fades away as spring arrives. In most circumstances, the winter blues aren’t cause for major concern. However, individuals in recovery should take special care when it comes to the winter blues. Feelings of sadness, stress and anger are known substance abuse triggers, so the winter blues could potentially lead to relapse. If you are in recovery and trying to stay sober, there are several ways to beat those blues and safeguard your sobriety.

Raise Your Spirits With Sunlight

During the warmer months the sun is visible until late in the evening. In the winter months it gets dark much earlier. Due to careers, school and other daytime obligations, most people get few chances to take in the wintertime sun. On days when enjoying some sunlight is possible, cold temperatures make it difficult to say outside for any length of time.

One of the biggest triggers of the winter blues is the limited amount of sunlight available during the day. Being in the sunlight is known to have a number of health benefits, particularly when it comes to mood and mental health. Phototherapy — the therapeutic use of light — has been used to treat many types of depression as well as other emotional disorders. Sunlight is known to trigger the release of serotonin and a number of hormones in the brain that elevate a person’s mood. By comparison, darkness causes the brain to produce melatonin, which is contributes to increased drowsiness. Making time to take in some sunlight a few times each week can lead to an improved mood. If it’s too cold to spend extended periods outdoors during the winter, an alternative could be sitting near an a “light box,” which a Harvard study found to be at least as effective as antidepressants.

Be Strategic With Your Diet

Most people associate diet with weight. Eating unhealthy foods leads to weight gain while eating healthy foods leads to weight loss. In addition to physical health, the things we eat can have a significant effect on mental health. The most often-cited example of this is dark chocolate, which, due to the antioxidants it contains, can reduce hormones in the brain related to stress and anxiety. Foods that are high in carbohydrates are beneficial to one’s mood, causing an increase in serotonin levels. Eating fatty fish like salmon, tuna and trout is another great way to fight off the winter blues since the omega-3s in fish are known to be beneficial to mood. There are many other foods that can improve a person’s mood, making this one of the easiest ways to alleviate seasonal depression.

Exercise and Physical Activity

Couple walking in winterWhen a case of the winter blues hits, exercise may be the last thing you want to do. Due to the increase in melatonin levels, individuals tend to feel drowsy and have trouble finding the motivation to exercise. While aerobic exercise would certainly yield the most benefit, any physical activity has major benefits.

Researchers at the Harvard Medical School determined that five brisk, fast-paced walks for 35 minutes each week, or three 60-minute walks per week, led to major improvements in symptoms of depression. Another study found that exercising in sunlight or under bright light was particularly effective in alleviating symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. There are other benefits beyond improvements in mood, including boosts in social and cognitive functioning. Incorporating physical activity into one’s wintertime routine can also improve overall health.

The most difficult part of overcoming the winter blues may be finding the motivation to put any of these strategies into practice. However, with some sunlight, a strategic diet, and some physical activity, you can improve your mood and hold onto your sobriety by keeping those winter blues at bay.

Finding Help for Addiction

If you or your loved one struggle with drug or alcohol abuse, we are here for you. Call our toll-free helpline 24 hours a day to speak to an admissions coordinator about available treatment options.

Written by Dane O’Leary