6 Tips for Dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) in Sobriety

By: Holly Whitaker

How to cope with seasonal depression when you're sober or trying to quit drinking.

The first time I experienced SAD, or realized that my mood drastically changed as the days became shorter and the weather colder, was on my way to my car leaving work in 2004. It was right after Halloween, the time had just changed, the sun set at five, and life seemed pointless, bleak, and sad (no pun intended). I remember it because I remember wondering how I was going to manage the next seventy autumns of my life. I’m pretty sure I decided to just drink through it (which I did that season, and many thereafter). 

In January 2015—a few years sober, starting Tempest—my overall “unemployed, trying to start a business and facing constant rejection” depression, post-pink cloud depression, and my “let’s try and stop drinking coffee” depression (side note: caffeine withdrawal is real) were all partying with my months-long SAD depression. I cannot recall a time in post-sobriety when I’d felt as hopeless as I did that month. But I was in recovery, and people in recovery fix things, so I did two fix-y things. 

1) I started counting the days until the sun stayed up past 7 pm (MARCH IS WHEN IT HAPPENS), and checking off each day like I was waiting for Christmas. It helped, I still do it, March 14, 2021, is going to be great. 

2) I started to research what the hell SAD is and how people actually deal with it. I tried a lot of things, found a number of them that worked and have used ever since, and what I can tell you is that while the first weeks of October absolutely still suck and I imagine they always will (for me), I have found a way of leveling out after the first shock of the seasonal change, and I offer these tips to you. 

But before I do, let’s dig a little bit into what SAD actually is. SAD, the abbreviation for Seasonal Affective Disorder, is a specific type of depression brought on by seasonal change, specifically when the days get shorter in the fall and winter seasons (hence, “Seasonal”). While it’s unknown what exactly causes SAD, there’s some speculation that it’s caused by the change in the body from decreased levels of sunlight exposure, the shift in the body’s natural rhythm, leading to either an overproduction of melatonin, or reduction in serotonin production, which both affect mood, sleep, and appetite.

Symptoms include sluggishness, feelings of depression, loss of interest in things we normally have interest in, sleeping more than usual or “oversleeping,” appetite changes, and the NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) website lists “hibernation” as a symptom. There are also more serious side affects some of us experience, such as thoughts of suicide and suicidal ideation, and if that is the case for you there are resources available that I implore you to use now. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the toll-free TTY number at 1-800-799-4TTY (4889). You also can text the Crisis Text Line (HELLO to 741741) for support.

However, if you are “just” experiencing SAD like I do, which means you’re experiencing exhaustion, depression, loss of motivation, a longing for your bed, or hibernation-like symptoms, read on for some of the ways I’ve learned to manage SAD that might be helpful for you, especially in recovery, especially in this trash fire of a year.

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1. Get a SAD Light.

I have for the past five years employed the use of a SAD light, especially during those first few weeks of the time change, but also throughout the winter. You should aim for a 10,000-lux light, and use it for 20 to 30 minutes a day, about one and a half feet away from your face. I use mine in the morning when I sit down at my computer, and use this Miroco mode. Alternatively, you can make sure that you go outside for about five to ten minutes a day so the sunlight can hit you straight on, which is good to do anyway.

2. Take cold showers.

I’ve been doing this since I went through a yoga teacher training that had me lubing up with almond oil and sitting under the cold, cold water for five minutes every day, and it’s now my go to for relieving depression and for feeling energized. It is by far one of the most effective things I do to work with my depression and it works—clinical trials show that cold showers taken for five minutes, two to three times a week, reduce depression. For a list of other benefits, check this article out.

3. Listen to your body.

We have to remember that we are, like all animals, cyclical beasts, and that our bodies react to the change of seasons. I’ve learned that the winter is not the time for me to embark on an ambitious new project, revamp my social life, or work harder: the winter is when my body wants to eat more, when my body wants to sleep more, when my body doesn’t want to work as much. I used to look at this as a complete failure of productivity and accomplishment and override what my body was asking me to do, and I’d suffer for it. The winter, for me, is a regeneration period—things go dark, things slow down, things turn in because they need to. This has meant changing out repeating thoughts to myself like “I’m so lazy” or “I’m such a piece of poop who can’t motivate” and replacing them with thoughts like “I listen to my body,” “My body is wise,” “I slow down so I can go fast,” “I respect what my body is telling me,” “There is a natural intelligence at work here.” Maybe, flip this into a time to be sweet to yourself, a reason to slow down and heal, rather than another reason to feel we aren’t measuring up to expectations of productivity and energy. I love this Rob Bell podcast on darkness.

4. Try this breath practice.

Breath is one of those things that is vital to work with in recovery. I use all sorts of breath practices to manage my energy—be it falling asleep or getting more energy or shifting my depression. This is a quick, simple practice I return to again and again to lift my depression and feel my life force. It’s an energizing breath and also a balancing and calming breath (it’s everything). You can read about it and find an old tutorial I did when I was a wee sober baby here.

5. Turn to gratitude and abundance thinking.

I don’t know how to slip this one in, but it’s COVID and I’ve run out of things to watch on Netflix, so I ended up watching the new Secret movie starring Katie Holmes, a movie about how our thoughts create our realities, and how if we tune into the abundance the Universe is constantly offering us, we will attract more of it to us. Now, I refused to read The Secret when it first came out, and until I watched this movie I never read it. But I’m desperate to not feel so crappy all the time, so I read The Secret and started applying it’s principles and it changed my life.

I’ve been tuned into the power of gratitude and abundance mindsets for awhile, but something about overcorrecting on my spiritual bypassing back in 2016, to the hopelessness that 2020 inspires, had left me not focusing on abundance thinking. My baseline was pretty low vibration back in early October when I started this practice, and the loop in my head was “I’m exhausted,” “Life is hard,” “This is endless.” Starting a daily practice of really going at it, repeating things like “I’m full of energy!” and “The Universe is conspiring to bring me all good things,” and really focusing on catching myself going down the spiral of hopelessness, has had a phenomenal and immediate impact on my life, the same it did back in early sobriety, the same way I preach about in my book and our Tempest Membership program.

Positive, abundance thinking works. I suggest you pick up Abundance Now by Lisa Nicholes, The Power of Intention by Wayne Dyer, or go all in and get yourself a copy of The Secret. You can also check out the work of Rachel Rodgers, Gabby Bernstein, or just listen to anything Oprah has ever said. Another powerful practice to lift your mood is gratitude, which means being grateful for a single little thing (even the things we’re not supposed to be grateful for, like our depression). I love Melody Beattie’s book, Make Miracles In Forty Days, which gives a great system for practicing gratitude.

6. Acceptance.

Since getting sober (which by the way, is also something that helps with depression—alcohol is a depressant), I’ve become intimately familiar with my depression because I have nowhere else to go. Without alcohol or drugs as an option, when I get into a depressive state, there’s no escape, and I’ve had to learn how to navigate it. What this forcing function of being with my depression means I have learned a deep acceptance around it, and not pouring more fuel on the fire by resisting it, making myself wrong for feeling wrong, or spinning down further into it with thoughts like “I shouldn’t be feeling this.”

I mean this to say, there’s a lot of things we can do to alleviate the low times, from medications to SAD lights to Wim Hof breathing techniques. We are swimming in a sea of “Have you tried this thing? You should try this thing.” And that’s great, we want to use whatever tools we can. At the same time, one of the more profoundly helpful practices I have found is being with it, noticing it, making a map of it. “Hello darkness, my old friend” kind of thing. An incredible resource that I am continuously reading is When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron, which dives into this practice of being with. (So does basically every school of meditation.)

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In a study done in partnership with the University of Buffalo and Syracuse University, Tempest members reported a 50% reduction in their symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder (problematic drinking) and a 25% reduction in the severity of anxiety and depression symptoms.