Summertime Depression: Unique Presentations Of Seasonal Affective Disorder
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 simply defined as a type of major depression with a seasonal pattern. That means it can manifest exclusively during the spring and summer months for some people instead, though this presentation is thought to be more rare. If you notice patterns of depressive symptoms in yourself during the summer time, it may be helpful to investigate potential causes and methods for seeking support.
Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms And Diagnostic Criteria
Seasonal affective disorder 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 overall can include:
- A lack of enjoyment or interest in previously enjoyed activities
- Significant changes in sleep patterns
- Significant changes in appetite
- Difficulty concentrating
- Prolonged low mood
- Thoughts of hopelessness or worthlessness
- Thoughts of suicide
To be diagnosed with SAD, an individual must exhibit key symptoms of MDD during a particular season for at least two years. 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, call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or text 988 to talk to a crisis provider over SMS. They are available 24/7 to offer support. 988 also offers an online chat for those with an internet connection.
Note that symptoms of seasonal affective disorder 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:
- Weight changes
- Social withdrawal
- Vitamin D deficiency from a lack of sun, potentially worsening symptoms
In the spring and summer, seasonal affective disorder can also be associated with certain distinct symptoms, including but not limited to the following:
- Insomnia (trouble sleeping)
- Loss of appetite
Who Can Be Affected By Summer-Pattern SAD?
As mentioned above, there are considered to be two types of seasonal affective disorder: 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.
Any person can be diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder. 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 variety 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.
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."
What Causes Summer 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 regulation in the brain. Even less is currently understood about the precise reasons why some people only experience symptoms at certain times of year. However, a few theories on what may cause summer SAD in particular are outlined below.
Circadian Rhythm Disruptions
It’s thought that exposure to too much sunlight may play a role in the development of SAD in the spring and summer months because individuals with this condition seem to have disrupted circadian rhythms. Specifically, those who experience spring-onset SAD may experience difficulty adjusting their sleep-wake cycle to the increased hours of daylight.
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 seasonal affective disorder 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 regulation.
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 children 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. Another example is people who work seasonal jobs, as they could have time without work that potentially results in a period of financial insecurity or a loss of responsibility—both of which could contribute to depression.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, extreme heat has been associated with mental health effects such as increased depressive symptoms, increased irritability, and an increase in suicide rates. For this reason, it may be more common for individuals in especially hot areas 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 share 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.
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 feelings. As a result, their risk of 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. Plus, 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 SAD or another mental illness, it’s typically recommended that you seek the support of a mental health professional. In addition, there are a few strategies you can try 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 feel comfortable with. These don’t have to be “typical” summer activities, though they can be. Below are a few ideas to consider:
- 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 under a tree in the park
If you suspect that extreme heat may be contributing to your depression or is simply making it difficult to spend time outside, you might consider focusing on social activities you can do at home or indoors—such as planning a movie night with friends at your place.
Create A Routine
If you feel your summer depression may be partly due to a significant change in your schedule, you might consider 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. You might also focus on creating a set sleep schedule and practicing good sleep hygiene to create some built-in consistency to your overall routine and help stave off depression symptoms as well.
Try To Let Go Of Expectations
There are a lot of expectations around summertime in western cultures in particular. 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. Taking a break from social media could also help if you find yourself comparing your summer to everyone else’s. 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.
Speak With A Therapist
As seasonal affective disorder is a diagnosable mental illness, 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 therapy modalities—such as cognitive behavioral therapy—are often the first-line treatment for depression of various types anyway.
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 accessible for those experiencing symptoms of depression, such as difficulty getting out of bed or sticking to a routine, since sessions can be easily accessed without having to commute to an office. Research suggests that online therapy can help reduce depression symptoms—such as a 2020 study indicating that it can be at least as effective for depression as in-person care—so you can feel confident in whichever format you may choose.
Frequently Asked Questions
For examples of questions that might be beneficial to explore in therapy, please see below.
What does it mean when you are SAD in the summer?
Why does my mental health decline in summer?
Why do I feel worse in summer?
Is summertime sadness a real thing?
Why does summer feel so lonely?
Is it normal to feel lonely during summer?
Why can't I tolerate summer?
Why can't I cope with hot weather?
What are the symptoms of summer anxiety?
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