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Stress and Self-Medicating: How to Break the Cycle

Serenity Lane Treatment Center
Home Stress and Self-Medicating: How to Break the Cycle

Fall is the favorite time of year for many, but is not always a welcome change of season. Especially me. I have always dreaded the colder weather, and not just because of the stress that comes with this time of the year.

Every year starting in the late fall, I inevitably start experiencing depression.

woman gazing out a windowMy energy is zapped, I’m constantly sad or irritable, and I lose interest in the hobbies I normally enjoy. I can no longer spend time in the garden or enjoy a walk or hike—it’s too cold. I normally always have my nose in a book, but during the cold months, I can’t even bring myself to pick one up.

I’m already depressed, and on top of it all, I have to face the stress of the season. Attending family events can feel overwhelming and impossible when I have a hard time just getting up most days during this time of the year.

Yet, the expectations and pressure usually cause me to make an effort, which always causes more stress in the end.

Stress on top of depression is a recipe for disaster. I’ll do anything to take the edge off. I’ll go straight to the liquor at family functions to loosen up and always have a joint handy to manage the depression. I light up two to three times a day just to get by.

The stress and depression sometimes feel like too much to handle. I would try anything to make this go away.

Then I read this article on Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and realized I might be self-medicating to cope with the symptoms.

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

SAD is a form of depression that is triggered by changes in the seasons. It usually starts in the late fall and goes into the winter months, ending when it gets warm again. Symptoms can worsen further into the colder months.

So how does SAD affect people? They usually experience:

  • Changes in eating habits, including craving carbohydrates
  • Feeling depressed regularly, often every day, for most of the day
  • Apathy towards activities they enjoy
  • Low levels of energy
  • Sleeping problems and/or oversleeping
  • Agitation, or feeling irritable, or moody
  • Feeling hopeless or suicidal
  • Problems concentrating

A common response to SAD and other mental illnesses (anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, personality disorders, etc.) is self-medicating. Substances are commonly used to cope with the symptoms of mental illness.

This often leads to relying on substances for relief instead of coping on our own or in healthy ways. It can lead to dependence and losing control over substance use, also known as addiction.

That’s one explanation for why mental illness and substance use disorders often go hand in hand. In fact, about half of those with a mental illness also have a substance use disorder. The reverse is also true.

So what do you do if you think you are experiencing SAD? It starts with exploring remedies for SAD and learning some healthy coping mechanisms.

One remedy is light therapy. This involves being around a light therapy box in the morning to replace sunshine.

Keeping a regular routine can also help. Although it may feel good to snuggle back under the covers on those cold and dreary days, getting out, exercising, and going about your normal routine—like getting dressed instead of staying in jams—can help.

Practice self-care. Trying to get up and do normal things when you feel exhausted and depressed can feel like a lot of work. But it makes a difference. Try to eat healthily instead of going straight to the carbs. Get to bed at a decent hour and try to get a full night’s rest. Meditation can sometimes help with this.

SAD usually happens right in the middle of holiday stress. This is because both occur during the same time of the year.

How to Handle the Stress

The holidays come with a fair share of stress. Maybe you’re hosting, and the pressure is on to make the holidays perfect for the whole family. And it all comes down to you.

Or maybe you’re dreading the inevitable Thanksgiving dinner, where politics and probing questions are sure to evoke stress. 

Then comes New Years, where the pressure of maintaining a resolution can be another source of stress. And the weight gain that can come from both SAD and the holiday season can be another source of depression.

Holidays have the potential to become a trigger if you’ve experienced the loss of a loved one. Their absence is especially noticed and felt during this time.

On top of it all, this year is even harder and more stressful than the others due to the coronavirus. 

stressed womanWe may fear being around our extended family because of the new health risk it poses. It may be stressful and lonely to have to say no to family gatherings.

On the other hand, holidays during the coronavirus could mean that we have to spend even more time around our family members that we have been stuck with at home since March.

There are plenty of things to induce stress this holiday season. And all of the stress can push us to indulge in a few too many drinks or turn to our favorite substance for comfort. We excuse it as a special occasion. After all, it is a holiday.

However, when this happens, it’s really just another form of self-medicating. It’s turning to an unhealthy coping mechanism to deal with the symptoms of our stress and anxiety.

So what can we do instead? Here are some tips to deal with stress:

  • Self-care

Start with eating well, exercising, and getting enough sleep regularly. It might sound basic, but setting healthy habits and routines is the first step to taking care of yourself and being prepared to handle stress.

And for the moments when you feel overwhelmed with stress—which will happen—take a break. Do an activity you enjoy, take a walk, practice mindfulness, do a breathing exercise, or meditate. Even if you are in the middle of a task, you can take a break for a few minutes.

  • Confide in others

This can include family, friends, counselors, doctors, or spiritual leaders.

  • Avoid substance use

Don’t turn to substances as a solution to your problems. It will only lead to more issues and actually increases stress.

  • Take a breather

Eliminate other stressors from your life, such as social media and/or the news.

  • Know when to ask for help

If you are struggling with a mental illness that impacts your daily functioning, have suicidal thoughts, or have become dependent on a substance to cope, it’s time to reach out to a professional.

When it comes to the holidays, there are several things to remember. It’s ok to say no without justification. And whether you deck the halls or have a lowkey gathering, do whatever makes you comfortable. And finally, if you’re struggling, there is help available and you aren’t alone.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is SAD?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that is triggered by changing seasons.

What are common triggers around the holidays?

Some of the common triggers around the holidays include large crowds, shopping, events or family traditions/gatherings that involve substances, difficult relatives, and feeling family obligations/pressure.

How do I tell my family we are isolating through the holidays?

It is ok to say no to family gatherings without justification and to do whatever makes you most comfortable. It’s also acceptable to explain to your family your own reasoning, which could include wanting to protect yourself and them from exposure to the coronavirus. The reasoning could also include not wanting to put older family members at risk, wanting to do your part to keep the community healthy, etc.

At Serenity Lane, we have the resources, treatment options, and individualized programming needed to address and treat both mental illness and addiction. This holiday season, get the help you need to handle whatever comes your way. Learn more about your options or get started by giving us a call at: 800-543-9905.

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