Updated on 12/12/23

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), more popularly referred to as the “winter blues,” is a serious condition that can seriously impact veterans living with PTSD. SAD is a subset of depression related to change in the seasons. Most individuals experience SAD during the winter months when days are shorter and cold weather keeps them indoors.

Veterans living with this disorder might not realize it because they dismiss it as the “winter blues.” However, when veterans feel sad or depressed, they should not brush it off; instead, they should seek relief for their symptoms. This is especially true for veterans who suffer from a substance use disorder. SAD can accelerate a pattern of use or be a cause for relapse. Staying vigilant during this time of year is more important than ever.

Let’s look at ways to help encourage a veteran to overcome their “winter blues.”

Look for Symptoms of Winter Blues

If a veteran you know struggles to manage PTSD, SAD could perpetuate their symptoms. However, the changes may seem subtle from an outside perspective and you might not pick up on them. Therefore, it is essential to look at their behavior and see if that has changed in any way.

Some common symptoms of SAD include:

  • Losing interest in activities they enjoy
  • Unexplained weight loss or gain
  • Feeling sluggish or express feeling restless
  • Having trouble concentrating and completing work and home-related tasks

SAD can also cause someone to feel tired all the time despite that they may be sleeping more than usual.

Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder

While there is no definitive answer for what causes SAD, one popular theory among professionals concerns the body’s circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is a sort-of biological clock that signals to the body when it is time to wake up, sleep and eat. The body bases these rhythms on the amount and quality of light exposure received each day. Therefore, lack of sunlight can leave many feeling sluggish in the winter months.

Professionals also theorize that individuals experience a drop in serotonin levels during the wintertime. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that affects mood and influences the amount of happiness in an individual. Exposure to sunlight can play a role in increasing serotonin levels, which might explain why these levels drop during the winter.

Symptoms of SAD and PTSD

Approximately four basic categories of symptoms define PTSD that would intensify with SAD.

They include:

  • Intrusive memories
  • Avoidance
  • Negative changes in thinking and mood
  • Changes in physical and emotional reactions

Intrusive memories could include thoughts about events, nightmares, flashbacks and severe negative responses to triggers. A veteran might begin to avoid places, things, or activities that remind them of the traumatic event.

When SAD couples with PTSD, a veteran could begin to feel hopeless or worthless and think the world is a terrible place. They might become irritable as though they are always on guard, which could lead to irrational behavior.

How to Help?

Helping veterans manage their PTSD and SAD will be challenging, especially when you have not experienced what they have. However, being optimistic and encouraging is an excellent way to help them seek treatment.

Encourage Maintaining a Routine

Maintaining a daily routine is essential when life becomes overwhelming. Keeping busy with small achievable goals to work toward each day will reduce symptoms. For example, a veteran might feel overwhelmed by all the demands; however, identifying small goals and crossing them off the list can make a big difference in their mood and behavior. Goals can be as simple as taking ten minutes to practice breathwork or stretching. The idea is to provide activities to help them start their day charged, focused and motivated.

Encourage Practicing Mindfulness

A great way to ease symptoms of depression and anxiety is mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness encourages individuals to slow down their thoughts and focus on breathing. Doing this helps shift the focus to the present. Many people, especially those who have experienced a traumatic event, tend to revert to the past and worry about how it will affect their future. Therefore, encouraging a veteran to practice thinking about the present could help them see that there are no immediate dangers or threats in their surroundings.

Mindfulness helps individuals understand that certain things and scenarios are out of their control. It also allows individuals to understand that they always have control of their thoughts, and therefore the power of choice to decide how they want to act. Such a practice can empower a veteran and provide the confidence to overcome their triggers for stress, anxiety and depression.

Help Them Find a VA Support Community

Not having anyone who understands and shares their experiences can be frustrating for a veteran. However, finding a community of their peers to share stories and feelings with can significantly reduce symptoms of both SAD and PTSD. They can attend meetings, group counseling and other VA-appropriate programs to help them express their feelings.

At New Hope Ranch, we offer veterans programs specifically designed to address the needs of servicemen and women. Our ten-acre ranch, community and services create a secure and comfortable setting. The process will not only help a veteran open up and express their emotions but provide them the tools and opportunities to establish a lasting network and community of support. Having a place to go with others that share similar experiences can benefit a veteran during the winter months. We also help loved ones of veterans struggling with PTSD or substance use. These programs help educate and find the best treatment for the whole family. Our qualified staff also helps with diagnosis, including identifying the signs of alcoholism and finding 12-step programs in Texas. Remember, mental health and substance use disorders affect the whole family, and quality treatment will, too. To find out more, reach out to us today and call (737) 600-8565