Seasonal Affective Disorder Doesn't Just Happen in the Winter—Here's How to Cope When Summer Sadness Hits
Your mood might not be as sunny as the forecast, and here's why that's OK.
Summer is beautiful: warm, sunny, vibrant, teeming with happy people who want to socialize, relax, and travel. You may have time off from work or school, shorter hours, and fun plans in the books. You can eat outside, leave the house without a giant coat, and languish by the water.
So why do you feel so….sad?
Seasonal depression, or seasonal affective disorder (SAD), is a legitimate mental health phenomenon characterized by prolonged or recurring feelings of depression and has been closely linked to the changing of seasons, particularly to changes in natural light occurrence.
"SAD is defined by a regular, temporal relationship between a particular time of the year and a major depressive episode," says Rachel Landman, licensed mental health counselor and chief operating officer at Humantold, an online therapy services platform.
This seasonal dip in mood is extremely common in the fall and winter months when the days become shorter, there are fewer hours of natural light, our circadian rhythms become altered, the weather is often crummy, the temperature drops, and opportunities for social interactions may dry up. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 5 percent of American adults experience it (it's more common in women than men), and it typically lasts about 40 percent of the year. In fact, SAD is often referred to as the winter blues due to its cold-month prevalence, and its subsiding once spring arrives.
But here's the thing: Seasonal depression can hit in the spring and summer, too—so you're not going nuts if you feel sad even when it's bright, hot, and sunny outside. "While the more common episodes tend to start in the fall or winter, there are also some people that experience this in the summer," says Landman. Summer onset SAD, or summer depression, is its own separate, though related, beast. A small number of people affected by SAD, around 10 percent, experience the spring and summer blues with symptoms subsiding around the return of autumn—the opposite to the more familiar pattern mentioned above.
What can cause seasonal depression in the summertime?
Quite simply, the general changes any new season can bring.
"Here's a good way to think about SAD, in summer or winter: In optimal times we have a balance of activities that maintain our well-being. This includes exercise, social activities, activities that provide purpose and meaning, spiritual activities, and so forth. When large shifts in weather or environmental factors interfere with these activities we're at risk for seasonal depression," explains Sherry Benton, PhD, ABPP, psychologist and founder and chief science officer of TAO Connect, an online therapy assistance resource. "Anytime your usual sources of well-being and self-care are disrupted you may be at risk." The specific causes can be different in the summer, she notes, but it's still the general occurrence of larger (though often hard-to-notice) changes that can trigger depressive symptoms in certain individuals.
Summer-specific shifts in routine.
The particular changes that the summer months can bring can sometimes lead to seasonal depression. "A contributing factor to good mental health is having a predictable routine; the summer often disrupts that, causing symptoms to flare up," Landman says. "Think of the mother who needs to produce a diverse set of schedules each day of summer vacation, or the teen whose summer presents no structure." This unpredictability or lack of routine can be hard on mental health, namely sparking depression and anxiety.
Benton mentions another scenario: "[Let's say] you diligently run or cycle for miles in spring and fall with a whole group of friends. Now it is 100 degrees for weeks, the fires out West compound this with dangerously bad air quality. You can't ride or run and you've stopped spending time with your friends as a result. This disruption to activities that help maintain your sense of well-being can trigger summer SAD."
Body image concerns.
Counterintuitively, some people experience darker, sadder feelings during the summer because it's warm and sunny. "Further adding to the mix, summers are all about showing skin and seeing other people's bodies, which can lead to body image issues and concerns," says Landman. Someone who struggles with body acceptance and confidence may hate the arrival of beach and pool season, where there's pressure to show skin in a bathing suit, don short shorts, or fit into summer dresses. Landman also notes that "due to COVID-19 and having been sedentary for months, many people are dealing with an altered physical appearance that can be another contributing factor to increasing seasonal summer depression."
The unbearable heat.
Landman also points to the potential unpleasantness of the hot weather. "Then there's the heat, which for beachgoers is great, but for people stuck in the office and having to commute, it can be oppressive ," she explains, adding that this almost-crippling physical discomfort from the temperature can start to feel personal—like you're being persecuted by the weather itself.
High expectations to have fun, go outside, exercise, and be social.
Summer can also bring with it lofty expectations of happiness, spontaneity, activity, and taking pleasure in time spent outdoors. But these expectations may grate against your natural inclination to remain inside or in solitude at home. If you tend to be more of an "indoorsy" type, you could end up feeling different from everyone (what's wrong with me that I don't enjoy summertime?) guilty (I really should go outside and see friends) and annoyed (why is everyone so obsessed with summer?!) at the pressure to be someone you're not. These feelings, in turn, can spark or worsen an existing depressive tendency.
"When you already experience depressive seasonal symptoms that make it hard for you to leave, the addition of re-entry anxiety can exacerbate those symptoms," Landman says. "People experiencing SAD struggle to find motivation to leave the house and engage in social interaction, which in return leads to further depressed mood—a never-ending, vicious, self-sustaining cycle.
What are some symptoms of summer seasonal depression?
Since summertime SAD is really a subset of major depressive disorder, the symptoms of seasonal depression are very similar to depression symptoms. "Look for feelings of sadness, apathy, lethargy, loss of motivation and interest in activities, anxiety, and worry," Benton says. Landman adds, "hypersomnia (excessive sleepiness or drowsiness), overeating, especially cravings for carbohydrates." The American Psychiatric Association also lists loss of energy, feelings of fatigue (despite sleeping a lot), or conversely, insomnia; restlessness, pacing, and racing thoughts; feelings of worthlessness or guilt; and having trouble making decisions or staying focused. And the most severe symptom of all is suicidal thoughts or actions. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 800-273-8255, as soon as possible if these thoughts ever occur to you—you are not alone and it is there to help.
How to Cope With Seasonal Depression in Summer
It is normal to feel down every once in a while, and there are many complementary coping strategies you can try on your own for these less severe mood dips. Regular exercise—even just going for a 30-minute walk—is an incredible way to boost mood naturally and decrease feelings of depression. Limiting social media use and screen time is key to maintaining a balanced mood. Try waking up a little earlier, just an hour or so, in order to reset your circadian rhythm. Practice mindfulness to help bring your head back into the present instead of letting darker thoughts spiral out of control. Find moments to laugh throughout the day to release feel-good endorphins. Talk to your friends and family—even just one loved one at a time—to boost mood, get sad feelings off your chest, and initiate feel-good social interaction. And the most important thing? Give yourself a break. Ease up on the expectations; remember, it's OK to say "no" to an invitation, skip the beach party, or leave a gathering early if that will take the pressure off. Find a good balance for you somewhere on the spectrum between doing it all and retreating completely.
"Spend a little time identifying how the change in environmental factors has affected your well-being," Benton recommends. "What were you doing when you felt better than you're not doing now? What needs were those activities meeting: social, emotional, physical, spiritual?" Once you've pinpointed those negative triggers (or lack of positive triggers), ask yourself what you can do to fill those needs during the hot summer months?
However, if it gets to the point where you're no longer able to function at a normal capacity due to depression symptoms, it's wise to seek help from a mental health professional. "In general, I suggest that if your sleep, weight (up or down), mood, interest in activities, energy levels, and ability to concentrate have significantly been impacted for more than two weeks, you should seek professional help," Land says. "There are many different ways to address SAD, and the most important is finding a therapist that you feel comfortable with and who has experience with mood disorders such as SAD." Landman herself focuses on Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) to address mood disorders in her practice.
Benton, too, is adamant about talking to a therapist ASAP; there's no need to wait until it gets so bad that you can't stand getting out of bed. "I'm an advocate for seeking help sooner rather than later—if you find yourself in a funk and struggling to pull yourself out of it, then seek help," she says. "Counselors, coaches, psychologists, and physicians can help you make changes to feel better and function better. Remember, there is absolutely no weakness in going to therapy—in fact, it's a sign of strength to ask for a hand with your mental health."