Summer Depression & Seasonal Affective Disorder

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated April 18, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is having suicidal thoughts, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988. Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression many people associate with the darker, colder months of winter and fall. However, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), SAD is defined as a type of major depression with a seasonal pattern. That means it can occur during the spring and summer months instead of the winter for some people, though summertime SAD is thought to be rarer. If you notice patterns of depressive symptoms in yourself during the summertime, it may be helpful to investigate potential causes and methods for seeking support.

Experiencing summer depression can feel lonely

Seasonal affective disorder symptoms and diagnostic criteria 

SAD is considered to be a type of major depressive disorder (MDD) that is characterized by depressive symptoms only during specific times of the year. The symptoms of SAD are similar to those of MDD, with some potential for variation depending on what time of year they’re experienced. Common symptoms can include:

  • A lack of enjoyment or interest in previously enjoyed activities

  • Significant changes in sleep patterns

  • Significant changes in appetite

  • Difficulty concentrating 

  • Feeling anxious or restless

  • Prolonged low mood

  • Thoughts of hopelessness or worthlessness 

  • Thoughts of suicide 

According to clinical practice guidelines, an individual must have key symptoms of MDD during a particular season for at least two years to be diagnosed with SAD. These episodes must also be more common or frequent than other depressive episodes in the individual’s life. 

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or urges, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. Support is available 24/7.

Note that symptoms of SAD may look different for those who experience them in the fall and winter than for those who do in the summer and spring. Those living with this condition during the colder, darker months may experience the following in particular: 

  • Oversleeping 

  • Weight changes

  • Social withdrawal 

  • Vitamin D deficiency from a lack of sun, potentially worsening symptoms 

In the spring and summer, SAD can also be associated with certain symptoms, including but not limited to the following: 

  • Insomnia (trouble sleeping) 

  • Restlessness 

  • Irritability 

  • Changes in appetite 

In some cases, changes in appetite due to SAD may be linked to eating disorders like binge eating disorder or bulimia. In one study, around 9% of people with SAD were also found to have binge eating disorder, showing that changes in hunger could also point to serious problems surrounding food.

Who can be affected by summer-pattern seasonal affective disorder? 

As mentioned above, there are considered to be two types of SAD: fall-onset, which begins in the fall and ends during the spring, and spring-onset, which begins in late spring and ends in early fall. Rates of fall-onset SAD are thought to be higher than those of spring-onset SAD.

It’s estimated that SAD affects about 0.5% to 3% of individuals in the general population, with approximately 10% experiencing symptoms during the spring or early summer, a form known as summer seasonal depression. This contrasts with the more common fall or winter onset of SAD.

Any person can be diagnosed with SAD. However, the condition is diagnosed four times as often in women than in men, according to the Office on Women’s Health. In addition, the fall-onset type, in particular, may be more common in areas with shorter daylight hours during winter, such as northern parts of the US and Canada. Summer SAD may be more common in those who live in particularly hot climates, such as the southernmost parts of the US. 

Who else does summer SAD affect?

It’s also worth noting that, in some cases, seasonal depression can affect those with bipolar disorder. Studies suggest that although the reverse is more common, some people with this disorder experience patterns of depressive episodes during the spring and summer and hypomania or mania during the fall and winter. Many researchers have come to believe that there’s enough evidence to suggest that climate can be an inciting factor for bipolar disorder episodes or symptoms.

"Since the symptoms that present in summer SAD may look different from winter SAD, you may not understand why you are feeling down and that it might be influenced by the summer season.

It’s important to consider all the various factors that might be impacting your symptoms. Staying curious and investigative about your symptoms allows your brain the chance to learn more about what might be influencing your experience of SAD."

Kassandra Kite, LMFT, BetterHelp therapist

What causes summer seasonal depression? 

No single cause of depression in general has been isolated, as it’s thought to be some combination of genetic factors, environment, stressful events, and/or issues with mood control in the brain. Even less is currently understood about the precise reasons why some people only experience specific symptoms at certain times of the year. However, a few theories on what causes may be linked to SAD are outlined below.

Circadian rhythm disruptions

It’s thought that exposure to too much sunlight may play a role in the development of summer depression because individuals with this condition seem to have disrupted circadian rhythms. Specifically, those who experience spring-onset SAD may experience difficulty adjusting their usual sleep-wake cycle to the increased hours of daylight. 

Chemical imbalances causing depression

Serotonin and melatonin levels may also play a role in this disorder, though there’s currently more research on how they may contribute to winter SAD than to summer SAD. For instance, some researchers believe that SAD during the winter is primarily caused by a lack of sunlight exposure, which may impact levels of serotonin—a brain chemical that plays a role in mood control.

A similar theory is that those with SAD have high melatonin levels and experience depression as a result of hypersomnia (sleeping too much). Either way, a disruption like this in one’s biological system may cause mood changes, which could be a factor in the development of SAD. 

Changes in routine 

Some people experience a significant change in routine at the beginning of summer. For example, families with kids often shift to a different schedule once school is out, leaving the parents to organize childcare and activities in addition to making time for work, household duties, self-care, and other responsibilities, while often trying to squeeze in a family vacation. Another example is people who work seasonal jobs, as they could have time without work, which potentially results in a period of financial insecurity or a loss of responsibility—both of which could contribute to depression.

Extreme heat

According to the American Psychiatric Association, extreme heat and humidity have been associated with increased risk of mental health effects such as depressive symptoms, increased irritability, and an increase in suicide rates. For this reason, it may be more common for individuals in areas with especially high heat and humidity to experience summer depression than those in other parts of the world. 

Social pressures and challenges

Many people find themselves with increasingly busy social schedules during the summer months, from family get-togethers and neighborhood barbecues to vacations with loved ones. Especially since many people discuss the highlights of their best summer outings on social media, this time can lead to comparing yourself to the situations of others or worrying that your summer isn’t living up to the cultural hype. This may contribute to depressive symptoms. 

Those who don’t have a social network or support system may also experience symptoms of depression due to a lack of social connection, which is essential for mental health and well-being. For university students, going home for summer vacation may lead to them feeling isolated from the friends and support they found at college. 

Body image challenges

During the hottest parts of the year, it can be more comfortable and even safer in terms of avoiding heat-related health issues to wear clothing that reveals more of one’s body—such as shorts or swimwear. However, those who experience challenges with body image may be tempted to stay home and isolate themselves rather than wear clothing that triggers negative thoughts and feelings. They may experience pressure to engage in weight loss tactics or unhealthy eating habits in order to feel comfortable dressing for the summer heat. 

In addition, as with winter depression, the risk of summer depression could be increased due to a lack of sunlight and a lack of social connection. Vitamin D is generally considered an essential vitamin for mood, and it is possible to develop a deficiency even in the warmer months by largely staying indoors. Light therapy can help with this issue, but talk to your doctor or a mental healthcare professional about treatments. As mentioned above, social connection can play a vital role in mental well-being, so a lack of it due to a fear of leaving the house in summer clothing could contribute to the development of summer SAD.

How to cope with summer seasonal affective disorder 

If you believe you may be living with summer depression or another mental illness, it’s typically recommended that you seek the support of a mental health professional. In addition, there are a few tips you can implement to help you improve your mental health and well-being during this time, including the following. 

Connect with people in ways you enjoy

If you tend to isolate yourself during the summer due to social comparisons, body image challenges, or a limited social network, you may find it helpful to try to meet and connect with others in new ways that you enjoy and about which you feel comfortable. It doesn’t matter if these are the “typical” summer activities, though they can be. Below are a few fun ideas to consider for a great time:

  • Join a book club—in person or virtual

  • Schedule regular calls with friends who may live far away

  • Attend events at local, air-conditioned venues, like libraries or community centers

  • Go for a hike with a friend in a shaded forest 

  • Have a picnic date under a tree in the park

If you suspect that extreme heat may be contributing to your summer depression or is simply making it difficult to spend time outside, you might consider focusing on other ways you can socialize at home or indoors—such as planning a movie night with friends at your place.

Create a routine that benefits your mental health

If you believe that your summer depression may be partly due to seasonal changes in your schedule, you might begin creating a set routine for yourself that’s similar to what you have outside of the summer months. For example, you could sign up for classes or events that take place regularly at specific times to give your days some structure. 

Lower your body temperature on days with higher temperatures by planning indoor activities for you or your children (if applicable). Or plan fun activities around water. Keeping cool on extremely hot days can lead to more energy and less anxiety. 

You might also focus on creating a set sleep schedule and practicing good sleep hygiene to create some built-in consistency in your overall routine and help stave off depression symptoms as well. You may also consider implementing other daily routines that help you feel your best, like meal planning to avoid eating unhealthy takeout every night.

Try to let go of expectations

There are a lot of expectations around summertime, particularly in Western cultures. Movies and TV shows often glamorize the longer days of summer and depict them as two months of swimming, summer camp fun, and unlimited energy and time for friends. 

If stress about measuring up to these is part of what’s making you feel depressed in the summer, simply recognizing these expectations and releasing yourself from their pressure as best you can might be useful in combating sadness. Taking a break from social media could also help if you find yourself comparing your summer to everyone else’s in your head. Focusing on what you want to do to enjoy and care for yourself during this season—independent of what others are doing—might be a valuable strategy as well.

Seek professional treatment

Professional help is available if you experience symptoms that are affecting your ability to carry out daily activities. Treatment for SAD generally includes medication and talk therapy. While clinical trials have shown bright light therapy as a potentially effective option for SAD during the winter season, bright light may contribute to or worsen SAD during the spring or summer. Getting the appropriate treatment is especially important if you’re experiencing other mental health problems alongside SAD, such as an eating disorder or substance use disorder.

Experiencing summer depression can feel lonely

Speak with a therapist about depression

As SAD is a diagnosable mental illness, your summer depression symptoms may not improve with lifestyle changes and coping strategies alone. That’s when it may be worth considering seeking the support of a licensed therapist. Therapists can offer guidance in many areas, including routine, relationships, stress, life changes, and mood, and certain therapeutic methods—such as cognitive behavioral therapy—are often one of the first-line treatments for depression alongside medication.

If you face barriers to traditional in-person counseling, you might try an online therapy platform like BetterHelp instead, where you can meet with a licensed therapist via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging. Online counseling can be done from the comfort of home or anywhere you have an internet connection. That means this format may be more available for those experiencing symptoms of depression, such as difficulty getting out of bed or sticking to a routine, since sessions can be easily reached without having to commute to an office. 

Research suggests that online therapy treatment can help reduce depression symptoms—with studies indicating that it can be at least as effective for depression as in-person care—so you can feel confident in whichever course of treatment you may choose.

Takeaway

Seasonal affective disorder is a type of mood disorder that can arise when the seasons change. While it commonly begins in late fall, some people experience spring or summer depression instead. Assessing which of the potential causes may be contributing to your symptoms may help you know what action to take to cope with them. If you suddenly find you’re experiencing symptoms of this or another mental health condition, it’s typically recommended that you meet with a therapist or other mental health care provider for professional support and treatment advice.

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