What are the effects of drinking (or not drinking) on my emotions and seasonal affective disorder?
September 24, 2011 6:13 PM   Subscribe

I'd like your advice about drinking alcohol - or abstaining from drinking - and dealing with my emotions and seasonal affective disorder.

I've recently stopped drinking alcohol, at least for the time being. I'd like your opinion on two issues related to abstention: the swirl of emotions I'm experiencing, and how/whether abstention or moderate drinking affects someone with seasonal affective disorder.

My drinking pattern in the last 18-24 months has been somewhat like the poster of this prior question. I never have been a binge drinker, but I didn't like the fact that I was consistently drinking 2-3 servings per night, 5-7 nights per week, whereas I'd previously been a 2-3 nights/week drinker, at most. I attribute the increase to stressful events in my life (illnesses, job changes), and the increase happened fairly incrementally until I recently took stock of just how much alcohol I was consuming. I didn't have that poster's feelings of shame following nights of drinking, but I noticed that my physical health was starting to suffer. I decided to stop drinking altogether in late August, at least for the time being, with a possible resumption date in mid-October after I complete a half-marathon for which I'm training. I believe this to be the longest period of time I haven't been drinking in at least 10-12 years. (I'm 37.)

It's generally been a positive experience, nearly one month in. Better sleep, easier training for the race, a little weight loss. For the most part, I feel better - not by an order of magnitude, but in small yet meaningful ways. This question has been helpful in giving me a sense of what to expect. It's also been very helpful to recognize the importance of several non-drinkers in my life, and to acknowledge that I admire them and the interesting lives they lead without alcohol.

I like alcoholic drinks and may resume drinking at some point, but I'm contemplating remaining teetotal for some time beyond my self-appointed mid-October possible resumption date, as I like the effects of not drinking. I have two questions that may affect my decision to resume or continue to abstain:

1. The one possible negative effect I've noticed is that my emotions seem like they're much more volatile, and closer to the surface, than they were before. This makes sense, on the theory that alcohol consumption was suppressing my emotions when I was drinking. And it isn't clearly a bad thing - getting more sleep, being more alert, and exercising regularly are helping me deal constructively with the things that anger, frighten or sadden me. That said, for someone who has considered himself fairly mellow, I'm a little unnerved by the experience. Examples: sudden bursts of rage at other drivers' minor infractions; renewed concern about personal finances (a long-time issue for me that was much more muted when I was drinking). For those who've noticed this aftereffect of stopping drinking, can you tell me if, in your experience, this effect moderates over time? If so, do you think it's just getting used to really feeling things more clearly again, better management techniques for emotional peaks and jags, or some mix of the two?

2. I also suffer from SAD during wintertime. I'd be interested to hear how abstention or limited drinking has affected anyone who also suffers from SAD. It seems pretty obvious that ingesting a depressant would worsen seasonal depression, but I'd love to hear about any first-hand experiences. (I didn't see anything pertinent in the prior SAD AskMe questions.) Perhaps there are some who stop or moderate their drinking in winter, and resume or pick up the frequency in the warmer months? I do up the Vitamin D and sun exposure in winter already, and am contemplating light box therapy.

In all candor, a nice whiskey, beer or glass of wine in winter can be very comforting. If you've seen improvement in your SAD by abstaining or drinking only in limited amounts, though, I'm willing to try it myself.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
posted by cheapskatebay to Health & Fitness (7 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Aside from abstaining from alcohol, have any events happened in your life that may make you more edgy? Stress at work, stress in any of your relationships? Loss of financial stability? I know that I'm more edgy during certain times of the year. I also have SAD and notice that my mood changes with the seasons. It seems to me three things are possible... that you do have other issues happening in your life right now, that your body is reacting to the lack of alcohol in your system, or you're also affected by the crazy weather patterns going on right now.
posted by camylanded at 6:48 PM on September 24, 2011

For your second question, I don't get SAD, but I do have some... "Odd"... Health effects in the winter.

I've found taking vitamin D (not megadoses, just a regular 800mg/day) helps as lot; And for the sleep/alertness cycle (and as a life-long insomniac), a "dawn simulator" alarm clock helps immensely - Seriously, I can't overstate the benefits of getting one of them. It sounds stupid, but they make a huge difference in getting up when you should and not sleep-walking through your day, when the days don't have enough light to do the job naturally. And get the brightest one you can, not one of the crappy LED night-light style things - I have a 150W floor lamp connected to mine, and damn if it doesn't actually get me up, relatively "naturally" (by which I mean a half hour after it starts ramping up, I just don't feel like staying in bed anymore).
posted by pla at 7:38 PM on September 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

The anger will go away, but revel in it while you have it!

I stopped drinking because I was pregnant. Yes, feeling feelings is weird! I was pretty mean sometimes in the beginning. Try to see it as good fun. I mean that.

At some strange point... you'll just stop getting mad. In fact, you'll be more in control than most. Except with selfish drivers in LA - these folks will still cause you to curse a blue streak. But they deserve it!


I first went sober for 18 months a few years before I got pregnant and didn't have much weirdness, emotionally speaking. But I was also meditating regularly, which was amazing and I don't do it lately. Like you, I also increased exercise during that time, but I think the meditating was super helpful. I'd do it now, but it is hard to fit in with a newborn.

Anecdata, YMMV.
posted by jbenben at 8:00 PM on September 24, 2011

You have described very succinctly what people who have used alcohol, although mostly more of it and for longer, to cope with life have never developed: critical thinking skills for dealing with their own emotional or physical upheaval or simply with the vicissitudes of life. This is why they keep going to meetings and "working the steps" long after they have stopped drinking--to learn how to think and cope with feelings and problems in the absence of alcohol. I'd like to thank you for noticing and describing your awareness of this masking function of alcohol from the point of view of someone who has a choice and can engage in critical thinking about what is best for him.

To the extent that you can, I believe it is good to fully experience the emotions that you might have masked and to continue improving your skills for coping with them. Likewise, techniques that alleviate the discomfort of SAD might also be good to fully explore. (My doctor recently prescribed Vitamin D for me as I have been housebound for a couple of years now and the results have been quite wonderful, so far. I live in a very sunny place and that was a choice, also, long after I stopped drinking, partly because I wanted more sunny days in the winter.)

I do not think drinking is a bad thing, except for those of us who have such unhappy brains for it. I do think, however, that it cannot be used to self-medicate without exacting a price and that sometimes the price is too high.

I wish you well with the race and with the coming winter and, again, thank you sincerely for this great example of the way 'normal' people think about alcohol.
posted by Anitanola at 8:57 PM on September 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

I don't have SAD, but I've struggled with depression all my life. It seems like you were drinking your feelings before and now you are actually *feeling* them. It sucks and it's scary and new. When I quit drinking, I just felt really raw- the smallest thing would set off my anger/anxiety/shame. It gets better! For me, therapy was the answer. For others, it might be AA or Rational Recovery or rehab. Abstaining from drinking has helped my depression enormously. I have more hope, goals and activities that make me happy, and have rediscovered how awesome my partner and my friends are! Good for you for taking care of yourself this way. Feel free to mail me if you have questions or if you just need someone in your corner.
posted by kamikazegopher at 10:43 PM on September 24, 2011

I have moderate SAD. Frequent drinking definitely makes it worse - frequency seems to be a lot more important than total amount. This is largely because for me, dealing successfully with SAD means maintaining a very regular sleep schedule synced up as much as possible with natural light. My first symptom in autumn is always messed up sleep (accidentally staying up all night, waking up at 3 with insomnia, sleeping until noon), way before I notice any mood changes.

Drinking more than a glass of wine at dinner disrupts my sleep, and usually if I'm drinking more than that, I'm at a party or out at a bar...and probably not in bed when I should be and/or getting up with the sun.

Limiting alcohol has helped a lot, although it's challenging because regular socializing helps my SAD as well, and socializing often involves alcohol. And yeah, winter drinks are my favorite! But abstaining most of the time helps me 1) get to bed at my routine time (tends to be an earlier bedtime than I need in summer) 2) get up early and exercise (crucial to mental health, and the early morning timing seems to be crucial as well) 3) get high quality sleep over all.

A non-alcohol thing that has also helped the sleep issue: along with getting a lot of sun/bright light exposure during the day, I've made a point of really limiting light exposure at least 2 hours before bedtime. Not just turning down lamps and such, but installing f.lux on my computer and turning off the TV, etc. It has made a huge difference.
posted by Knicke at 6:12 AM on September 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

One thing I've noticed about people who (seem to) use alcohol to excess is that the hangover gives them something to fight against throughout the day. Or to blame the bad feelings on. Removing that opens some wounds.

On the other hand, there is the idea that occasional, moderate alcohol use "takes the edge off" so that one's stress doesn't spill over into other areas of their lives. For some, this might work. But for others, it becomes a crutch to obscure the stress instead of coming up with ways to reduce the stress.
posted by gjc at 10:16 AM on September 25, 2011

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