Seasonal Affective Disorder Can Happen in Summer, Too—Here Are Some Helpful Ways to Cope, According to Therapists
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?
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."