Mental Challenges

Yes, Seasonal Depression Can Happen During the Summer

Erin Bunch

Photo: Stocksy/Lucas Ottone
From an early age, most of us are conditioned to anticipate summer. The sun is shining, and temperatures are warm, so more people are out and about. Plus, vacations! Beaches! Barbecues! And yet, there may be a reason Lana del Rey's song "Summertime Sadness" was a hit (other than the fact that it's a banger). For some folks, summertime is an incredibly difficult season. Even though you may be more familiar with the idea of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) occurring in the winter, some people might experience it in the summer, too. In fact, it's a legit phenomenon known as summer seasonal affective disorder. Summer SAD is less common than winter SAD, but it's no less challenging for those who experience it.

Summer SAD is different than being sad in the summer

While lots of things can cause you to be a little more melancholy than usual, "SAD is a mood disorder marked by return bouts of depression at the same time every year, dissipating during the remaining months," explains Sage Grazer, LCSW, therapist and co-founder of mental health startup Frame.

Symptoms of summer SAD are similar to those you might see in someone experiencing winter SAD, or even non-seasonal major depressive disorder. According to Dr. Manly, these include the following: feeling depressed nearly every day for the bulk of the day, loss of interest in normally enjoyable activities, difficulty concentrating, feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or hopelessness, sleep difficulties, and suicidal thoughts.

However, the two versions of SAD do differ from one another in some ways, according to clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD, author of Joy from Fear and Date Smart. While winter SAD tends to involve lethargy, excessive sleeping, increased appetite (including carb cravings), and lower energy, summer SAD tends to present with insomnia, weight loss, and decreased appetite.

If you're experiencing any of the above symptoms, you may feel a bit alienated, especially if you're regularly subjected to summertime Instagram posts wherein everyone seems to be having the best time ever.  How can I be depressed, you might wonder, when the sun is shining, the water's warm, and the drinks are cold? Whatever you're feeling is valid and should be given due attention, even if your symptoms aren't necessarily due to SAD.

To help you assess whether there is something more than a passing case of the blues going on, it's important to note the key components of a SAD diagnosis (during any time of year). For the diagnosis to be made, you must be experiencing at least a two-year period where depression is present during the triggering season but absent in other seasons, says Dr. Manly. "There must also be a historical pattern indicating that you have substantially more seasonal major depressive episodes than nonseasonal major depressive episodes," she explains. This is what differentiates SAD—which is often called major depressive disorder with seasonal pattern—from a more general major depressive disorder diagnosis.

There are a few factors that can trigger summer SAD

Most of the literature on seasonal affective disorder has focused on winter SAD, which means its causes are far from definitively settled. Still, there are a few factors experts hypothesize could attribute to the mood disorder.

Weather is, perhaps obviously, one of them. A lack of sunlight can bring on SAD in the winter, but your sunlight exposure changes in the summertime, too. Even though you're receiving more light, which seems like it would be a good thing for your mood, that change in exposure affects your circadian rhythm, which can, in turn, disrupt your sleep. And adequate sleep is mission-critical for positive moods.

Heat can also play a role, says Grazer. This year, the World Health Organization (WHO) examined existing research on how climate change impacts mental health. They found that climate change events—which include rising temperatures—were associated with the following negative mental health consequences: psychological distress; poorer mental health, especially in those with pre-existing mental health conditions; increased psychiatric hospitalizations, greater mortality rates for people with mental illness; and heightened suicide rates. While we don't know what causes summer SAD, it seems that heat can be a trigger for worsened mental health in those with and without prior mental health issues.

Schedules also tend to be disrupted in the summer, says Grazer, which can be destabilizing. And there's another super-relatable factor that can exacerbate summer SAD symptoms: "An added challenge for the people who experience summertime SAD is the social pressure to feel happier when the sun is shining," Grazer adds. "People are more accepting of the idea of feeling down or depressed during the winter. For those struggling, it can make them feel worse when they are expected to be happier."

Even if you don't have summer SAD, this time of year might be uniquely challenging

This particular summer is especially tricky since it's been repeatedly touted as *the most fun summer ever* now that vaccinated people can remove their masks and engage in all the activities they've been deprived of for the past year. "This post-vax summer comes with high expectations and often heavy doses of pressure," says Dr. Manly. "Whether feeling pushed by family, friends—or your inner wild child—to do more than you’re ready for, this summer is fraught with layers of complexity."

Those aforementioned high expectations around "hot-vax summer" can be problematic, too, says Grazer. "High expectations can be a quick recipe for disappointment, which may be even harder to tolerate after a year of already suffering loss, disappointment, and uncertainty," she says. "Some people have a fantasy that things will go back to 'normal' instantaneously and are putting an enormous amount of pressure on this summer to fulfill their unmet needs and result in happiness." Relying on external events to dictate your happiness, she says, can leave you vulnerable to depressive symptoms when expectations go unmet. 

Dr. Manly also points out that we just experienced a trauma, and some of us may be struggling to process it, while others are dealing with personal repercussions. You may have lost a loved one or a job this past year, which could make "hot-vax summer" feel out of step with your reality.

Here are a few things you can do to manage any summertime sadness you're experiencing

Regardless of the reason you're struggling to enjoy this season, Dr. Manly says you're not alone. "In truth, it’s not uncommon to feel a bit more overwhelmed or blue right now than in pre-pandemic summers," she says.

If you think you may be experiencing summertime SAD, Grazer says the first thing you might want to try is adjusting your expectations. "It’s important to note that there is a difference between being optimistic and having high expectations," Manly says. "A way to move away from banking on unrealistic expectations is to focus on having a vision of what you want as opposed to what you expect to happen, regardless of the variables."

She recommends setting attainable goals for the summer. If you went into last month pressuring yourself to make this the best summer of your life, for example, maybe edit that goal to one more attainable, such as "I plan to have some fun this summer doing things I missed doing during the pandemic." 

You can otherwise manage feelings of sadness by exercising, talking to a friend, going to therapy, exploring a new activity, venting, or utilizing any other coping strategy you may have in your toolkit, says Grazer. But she notes that such feelings occur on a spectrum, and some levels of distress are manageable on your own while others are not. "It's always okay, and sometimes necessary, to seek help from trusted friends, family, and/or a mental health professional," she says.

If you think you may be grappling with summer SAD, Dr. Manly absolutely advises seeking out a psychologist or other health care provider for a thorough check-in. You might benefit from some blinders, too, so that the focus is less on what everyone else is doing and more on taking care of you. "One of the best things you can do for yourself is slow down, tune in to your needs, and do what’s right for you," she says.

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