There’s something about the cold, gray days of winter that can bring out the blues in nearly anyone. If you’re in recovery, you might find this time of year even tougher than the average person.

The urge to self-medicate to get through the isolation and boredom of winter can be strong, but understanding what you’re up against and learning a few simple wintertime strategies can help you cope. In this article, we’ll discuss some ways to keep the winter blues from threatening your sobriety.

Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder

The feelings of depression that most of us know as the “winter blues” have a clinical name: seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. For most people, symptoms start showing up in the late fall when the weather turns colder and the days get shorter.

These symptoms include:1

  • Feelings of depression that linger all day
  • Lack of energy
  • Lack of interest in your usual activities
  • Weight gain
  • Difficulty concentrating

The symptoms of seasonal affective disorder usually start at a fairly mild level and intensify as winter progresses. In more severe cases of SAD, sufferers may experience feelings of hopelessness and even have suicidal thoughts.

Who Is at Risk?

Anyone can experience a case of the winter blues, but certain factors increase your risk for SAD.

These risk factors include:

  • Living in a northern climate where winters are long and sunlight is scarce
  • A family history of seasonal affective disorder
  • Having recently moved to a climate with harsh winters after spending a long time in a warmer and brighter climate
  • Being female

Research indicates that reduced sunlight in the winter can disrupt our body’s internal clock and lead to symptoms of SAD. This lack of sunlight can also cause a drop in levels of serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter that affects mood.

Beating the Winter Blues

Awareness that seasonal affective disorder is a real—but temporary—phenomenon is an important first step toward managing the winter blues. However, it’s important to have an arsenal of coping strategies to help you combat feelings of depression and prevent a relapse:

  • Make a schedule: When you don’t have a plan in place, it’s easy to give in to sluggishness and spend your day on the couch. Account for as many hours as you can with appointments, 12-step meetings, workouts and social obligations.
  • Get outdoors: Yes, it’s cold. However, bundling up and getting out there is worth the effort. Spending time outside exposes you to more direct sunlight, which can increase levels of vitamin D and boost your mood.
  • Meditate: If the weather is harsh enough that going out isn’t an option, meditation is a great way to lift your spirits from the comfort of your home.
  • Light therapy: Many SAD sufferers use a light box as a form of therapy. The box emits a bright, intense light that simulates sunshine, boosting the feel-good chemicals in the brain that can affect mood and energy.2
  • Medication: If other methods of coping with SAD aren’t working, you may want to speak to your doctor about antidepressant medications.

There’s no doubt that the winter months can seem bleak and isolating, but turning to alcohol or drugs is never the answer. Understanding seasonal affective disorder and planning ahead can help you get through winter without derailing your recovery.

If you find yourself struggling, it’s important to reach out and get the help you need. You managed to beat addiction, and you can also beat the winter blues.