When springtime comes, especially in locations with a long, cold winter, most people consider it cause for celebration. Visions of barbecues and beach days dance through their heads and they look forward to bidding goodbye to the winter blues.
But what about the summertime blues?
For some people, summer is nothing to look forward to, especially those with summer SAD (seasonal affective disorder), also known as summer-pattern seasonal affective disorder or summer-onset major depressive disorder with seasonal pattern (MDD-SP).
While plenty of people go through periods of time where they feel sad or low, serious mood changes that affect the way we think, feel, and act during our daily activities can be a sign of something more severe, like depression. And if these changes have a seasonal pattern, you could be experiencing seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression that often occurs in winter, but for some, occurs in the summer months.
"Summer SAD is real and, like winter SAD, it is caused by the change in seasons,” said Melissa Klass, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “Depression is usually episodic, so if you are feeling blue around this time, it doesn’t necessarily warrant a SAD diagnosis. However, the increase in depression symptoms that you experience (diagnosis or not) could be due to a variety of environmental factors.”
The causes of SAD are not fully understood, but some evidence suggests it has to do with chemicals in our brains, chiefly serotonin and melatonin. If levels are off, people might be unable to adjust to the days getting longer or shorter (or more or less sunny) and find that it disrupts their sleep and mood.
For people with winter SAD, too little serotonin in the winter might cause depression or too much melatonin might cause sleepiness. For people with summer SAD, too much sunlight might reduce melatonin production and cause insomnia. Summer heat or changes in lifestyle can also play a role.
“Summer often means a change in routine (think vacations, kids home from school, etc.),” said Melissa. “All of these changes can be disruptive to work, eating habits and sleep routines. The vacations and summer camps aren’t free either, and additional financial burdens are famous for increasing stress. Lastly, I notice that clients who struggle with body image can really be affected at this time of year. Summer heat means fewer layers, bathing suits, and in 2021, potential COVID-19 weight. Any or all of these factors can have an impact on your summer mood."
In general, women are more likely than men to experience SAD, and younger people can be more at risk. SAD is also more common in people with major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder or with a family history of SAD or major depression. People with SAD also tend to have other mental health struggles, such as:
But there are many factors that can contribute to experiencing summer-onset SAD, and if you suspect you might be affected by seasonal affective disorder, it’s best to talk to a mental health care provider.
“People who are prone to depression and have a history can be more likely to experience episodes of summer SAD,” Feruze Zeko, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “Some of the things that contribute to this are the change in routines and schedules, the struggle to fill up the longer days, and the feeling of FOMO when the sun is shining and one believes everyone else is doing something.”
It’s important to remember that SAD is a type of depression, and therefore, many of the signs and symptoms overlap with symptoms of depression, which may include:
While winter-pattern SAD may cause specific symptoms like oversleeping, overeating, weight gain, and social withdrawal, symptoms for summer-pattern SAD may include trouble sleeping, poor appetite leading to weight loss, restlessness and agitation, anxiety, or episodes of violent behavior.
Again, not all people will experience all symptoms, so if you think you may be suffering from SAD, it’s important to talk to your doctor, therapist, or mental health provider and they would be able to assess your situation and additionally determine whether you meet the following criteria for SAD:
While light therapy can be used to treat winter SAD along with therapy and/or medication, cognitive behavioral therapy can be effective in treating summer SAD and, because summer SAD is a type of depression, antidepressants (SSRIs) can be used as well.
Because there is a seasonal pattern for SAD, tracking your symptoms and getting ahead of them can also help you cope.
“Maintaining a routine, making sure you continue to sleep well, limiting alcohol intake, staying comfortable during hot, humid days, and taking the pressure of yourself to always be busy can help you regulate these feelings,” said Feruze.
If you are struggling to cope with your SAD symptoms or are wondering if what you’re feeling is seasonal affective disorder at all, talking to a therapist can help. If you haven’t found your perfect match or you’re not sure how to get started, check out our ultimate guide to starting therapy and get the support you need.
Caitlin is an organizational change strategist, advisor, writer, and the founder of Commcoterie, a change management communication consultancy. She helps leaders and the consultants who work with them communicate change for long-lasting impact. Caitlin is a frequent speaker, workshop facilitator, panelist, and podcast guest on topics such as organizational change, internal communication strategy, DEIBA, leadership and learning, management and coaching, women in the workplace, mental health and wellness at work, and company culture. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.