Summer is typically a time when we finally get to enjoy the activities we look forward to all year. To some people, long, warm evenings, outdoor barbecues, holidays, vacations, and so much more make this season a memorable time. However, for some people, the opposite happens in the summer. They experience a unique form of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) often called summer depression. This condition can cause some unique challenges during the late spring and summer months, but there are evidence-based strategies for managing it.
Below, we’ll discuss how to recognize summer depression, strategies for improving your symptoms, and treatments available for this condition.
What Is Summer Depression?
According to the Cleveland Clinic, in the United States, it's estimated that approximately 5% of Americans experience SAD. The majority of American adults with SAD experience symptoms in the winter, with only a small percentage of those affected experiencing summertime SAD.
It's believed that it returns at the same time each year, creating an observable pattern.
What Causes Summer Depression?
Research suggests there may be a genetic component to summer depression. Two out of three individuals who experience SAD may be related to someone with a major mood disorder, and a family history of depression can make it more likely that someone will develop SAD. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), SAD often begins in young adulthood.
During the winter months in the Northern Hemisphere, individuals can experience the "winter blues," which has been often attributed to the significant reduction of sunlight in these areas. The body's production of a key hormone, melatonin, is affected by our exposure to sunlight. Also, too much sunlight can negatively influence melatonin production, which in turn disrupts an individual's circadian rhythm (sleep cycle), resulting in trouble sleeping and irregular sleep patterns.
Aside from altered melatonin levels, a person with summer depression may also have serotonin levels that are out of balance, which can lead to a disruption in mood control. This can increase the risk for depression, mood disorders, or other mental health disorders.
Summer Situational Factors
People with summer depression may be reacting not only to warmer temperatures and disrupted sleep patterns, but also to situational factors associated with the summertime. The following are just a few:
With all the activities of summer comes added financial stress for many. Whether you're paying for vacations, weekend getaways, air-conditioning bills, or childcare, summer can be an expensive season. This increase in spending may contribute to a decrease in happiness by adding stress you wouldn't otherwise have.
Having a committed routine may help to reduce a person's experience of depression. However, during the summer, our schedules tend to get crazy. If you're a parent, your children are probably out of school and may be at home for most of the day, which can create a huge lifestyle shift.
Sleep is not the only important routine for people that can be disrupted by changes in activities and obligations. Similarly, if you have a job that allows you more free time in the summer, it may be difficult to know how to manage a more relaxed schedule. When you add to these factors things like summer parties, holidays, vacations, and late nights out, your sleep schedule may be much less stable than in other times of the year.
When summer finally arrives, sometimes it isn't everything we'd hoped for. We can dream big, but sometimes these dreams and musings create a summer that doesn't meet our expectations. When it does arrive, we can experience a letdown and a feeling of disappointment that leaves us wondering, "Is this it?"
Body Image Concerns
Summer clothes are generally much more revealing. In wintertime, we may be less active, which can contribute to weight gain, and sometimes summer clothes from last season might not fit. This can lead to body image concerns, which can contribute to summer depression.
While some people like the warm weather, the heat of summer days can be too much for others. When people experience oppressive heat, it can feel exhausting rather than energizing, and it can negatively affect their quality of life. Extreme temperatures can prevent them from spending time outdoors and exercising as they used to. Also, cooking tends to make the kitchen feel like an oven, which can change a person’s eating habits and even disrupt sleep.
Comparison With Others
Some people feel a social expectation to enjoy summer, and when they don't, they may feel inadequate. Also, if you see your friends and family enjoy fun summer getaways while you're forced to stay home, it may make you feel depressed about your current social status.
Comparison can rob us all of joy. It can be difficult not to compare other people's picture-perfect images on social media to our own reality. However, research shows that such images don’t present a realistic representation of most people’s life.
How To Recognize Summer Depression
Summer depression, though it only affects a small percentage of the U.S. population, is still a mental illness that can make the warm season unhappy.
Summer Depression Symptoms
Some of the signs of summer depression are specific to this type of seasonal affective disorder, and others are also common symptoms of depressive episodes. Below is a list of possible summer depression symptoms:
A feeling that the sunlight is too bright
Feelings of hopelessness
Sudden mood changes
Loss of appetite
Violent behavior (slamming doors, etc.)
Consistent feelings of sadness
Lack of interest in activities you usually enjoy, like sports, social events, etc.
Thoughts of suicide*
*If you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for help immediately. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline can be reached at 988 and is available 24/7.
How To Manage Summer Depression
Summer depression tends to be a temporary condition, but that doesn't mean it's any less difficult for those who experience it. Below are some possible ways to cope with summer depression:
Improve your sleep hygiene. To help prevent depression-induced insomnia, it may help to prioritize your sleep schedule. You might aim to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Also, keeping your room cool and dark may help you rest better.
Respect your schedule. Even though we might associate a strict schedule with a lack of freedom, the opposite may be true for some individuals with summer depression. Instead of being oppressive, a schedule may help you feel in control and reduce your feelings of anxiety and agitation.
Plan a fun activity. Having something to look forward to may help move you through your summer depression rather than keep you feeling trapped. Perhaps there’s a park you want to visit or an upcoming concert you want to attend. Whatever it is, it may help to plan ahead, schedule it in, and stick to it.
If the above strategies don’t seem to work for you, consider trying out some of the following alternative solutions:
Getting your heart rate up and breaking a sweat can lift your mood by making your body release endorphins and dopamine, in addition to increasing serotonin function.
Socialization might mean different things to different people, but connecting with another person may be helpful when you’re experiencing summer depression. Whatever activity you enjoy, you might add "spending time with people" to your self-care list to help you cope with seasonal affective disorder in the summer.
By lowering your stress levels, you might experience relief from your symptoms of depression. To do this, you might set up a cooling fan, get comfortable, and allow yourself to relax. You can also meditate, listen to calming music, or even take a cool bath.
Getting Help With Summer Depression
If you’re experiencing symptoms of summer depression, it may help to speak with a licensed therapist about your symptoms. One form of therapy for treating depression is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). A specialized form of CBT, called CBT-SAD, has been proven to help patients with seasonal affective disorder, in part by identifying negative thoughts and replacing them with more helpful positive thoughts. The process also tends to use behavioral activation, which may help patients identify things they find enjoyable to help them cope with the season (in this case, summer). More research has been done on winter SAD, for which light therapy is also often used to help individuals get more UV rays. However, research has found that CBT-SAD was more effective than light therapy and lasted longer.
If your symptoms of summer depression make it difficult to leave home for therapy, you might benefit from online therapy. Research has demonstrated online therapy to be effective for a number of conditions, including depression and anxiety.
With online therapy, you can obtain personalized, professional help without having to go to a therapist’s office. In fact, sessions can be held from the comfort of your own home or wherever you have an internet connection, which can be especially helpful if getting out in the heat makes your symptoms worse. Online therapy also tends to be more affordable than in-office therapy, and it often allows for more flexible hours as your schedule changes during the summer months.
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