Summertime is supposed to be filled with carefree fun in the sun. But if you feel sad or depressed during this time, you may be wondering what's up.
You may be familiar with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) — a form of depression related to a change in seasons. Most of us associate this condition with the cold, dark of winter. But for some people, warmer weather triggers depression, a condition known as summer SAD or reverse SAD.
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Here, Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, a NYC-based neuropsychologist and professor at Columbia University, explains why you might feel more depressed in summer, and what you can do to manage your mental health during this time.
What Is Summer SAD?
Though depressive feelings can arise at any time in a person's life, "reverse seasonal affective disorder, also known as summer depression, happens when an individual experiences recurring episodes of depression during the warmer seasons, such as spring and summer," Hafeez says.
"While the most common form of SAD occurs in the winter, many people experience the same feelings in the warmer months as well, causing them to feel less motivated and uninterested in their normal activities," she adds.
Symptoms of Summer SAD
Though symptoms of summer SAD may vary from person to person, the most common typically include the following, Hafeez says:
- Daytime fatigue
- Lack of interest in normal activities
- Lack of social interaction
- Trouble falling and staying asleep
- Overall depressed mood
- Increased anxiety
Someone struggling with summer SAD may also experience agitated feelings, reduced appetite and weight loss, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).
You'll often experience these symptoms for four to five months out of the year, with symptoms relieving once the seasons change. For it to officially be summer SAD, your depressive episodes have to occur around the same time for two consecutive years, per the National Institute of Mental Health.
While everyone has bouts of blues now and again, summer depression is a more serious issue that can affect daily functioning and, "in severe cases, lead to thoughts of suicide if not treated properly," Hafeez says.
If you’re thinking about harming yourself, speak to a trusted friend, family member or health care provider immediately or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
What Causes Summer SAD
Certain stressors — which are specific to summer — seem to contribute to the onset of reverse SAD.
For one, days are longer, and the temperatures are much higher in the summer months. "Taking in too much [heat, humidity and] sunlight can drain one's energy and cause fatigue and lack of motivation," Hafeez says. "This often leads to feeling unproductive, unmotivated and uninterested in leaving the house or spending any time outside."
Plus, increased exposure to longer (and more intense) daylight "can throw off a person's mood, as their circadian rhythms are disrupted," Hafeez says.
Another factor to take into consideration is body image concerns. "Many people are doing outdoor activities like going to the beach or lying by the pool in the summer, so naturally, you're thinking more about the way you look and feel in a bathing suit," Hafeez says.
"This could make a lot of people increasingly self-conscious about their appearance in ways they may not have been throughout the rest of the year," she adds.
Sometimes, the anxiety about body image even deters people from participating in summer activities altogether, according to the CAMH. But this avoidance just makes matters worse, as isolation can exasperate feelings of loneliness, sadness and depression.
Additional summertime stressors that can contribute to depressed feelings include the following, per CAMH:
- Disruption in routine/schedule/habits due to vacation or children being out of school
- Change in sleep and eating habits due to disruption in routine
- Not being able to participate in summer vacation or outdoor activities due to limited finances
- Health reasons preventing participation in summer activities, which could lead to isolation, sadness and feeling of loneliness
How to Manage Summer SAD
If you notice a pattern of depression that always develops during the warmer weather, be prepared with the following coping strategies to support your mental health.
1. Prioritize Your Sleep Schedule
"Not getting enough sleep can contribute to feelings of depression," Hafeez says.
When you don't get enough sleep, you may find it more difficult to regulate your emotions, which can make you susceptible to a depressed mood, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
No matter the time of year, catching quality zzzs is always important for mental health (and health in general). But it may be especially important in the summer because of the long days.
"The days are longer in the warmer months, so it's easy to fall behind on sleep," Hafeez says.
As the warmer months carry on, make it a priority to practice proper sleep hygiene and stick to a consistent sleep schedule. You'll want to aim for seven to nine hours of sleep each night, per the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
2. Maintain an Exercise Routine
"Exercising regularly will help improve your mental wellbeing," Hafeez says. It's true: A little movement can significantly improve your mood.
When you're physically active, your body produces feel-good hormones called endorphins, while simultaneously reducing stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Plus, working out can do wonders for your body image, as it builds confidence and self-esteem, per Harvard Health Publishing.
3. Plan Activities Ahead
"Make plans throughout the summer that you can look forward to," Hafeez says.
Scheduling something stress-free and fun to do each month can help make the season more enjoyable. It's a bonus if these plans include quality time with friends and family.
Indeed, keeping a calendar of regular activities will help you avoid the trap of social withdrawal and social isolation, which can worsen depression, according to the National Institute on Aging.
4. Eat Nutritious Foods
What you put on your plate also plays a role in your mental health.
Following a balanced diet (think: nutrient-dense foods like fruits, veggies, whole grains and lean proteins) can promote better energy levels, mood and sleep, per the CAMH.
Try to also include foods rich in healthy fats — like olive oil, avocado, salmon and eggs — as they're known to help improve your brain health, like cognition, focus and mood, per Michigan State University.
If you're having trouble deciding what type of balanced diet is right for you, or what macronutrients, vitamins or minerals you need more of, consult a registered dietitian or your doctor for some guidance.
5. Speak With a Mental Health Professional
Summer SAD is a serious issue that can develop into long-term depression if left untreated. Ultimately, you shouldn't have to go it alone.
If you're feeling depressed, overwhelmed or sad in the summer, reach out to a qualified therapist who can help support you while navigating these feelings.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) — a type of therapy that focuses on changing unhelpful or distorted thinking patterns in favor of more positive, realistic thoughts — has proven effective in the treatment of summer depression, per the American Psychological Association.
When to Seek Help
It's not uncommon for people to experience low mood when the seasons change.
While summer SAD is often temporary, it's important to take your mental health seriously either way. Plus, it can be challenging to navigate unwanted feelings on your own.
Reach out to a mental health professional if you experience any of the following, per the CAMH:
- You feel hopeless or have thoughts of harming yourself
- Your symptoms cause significant distress and/or interfere with your daily life
- You're using more alcohol, nicotine, caffeine or other substances to cope
- Centre for Addiction and Mental Health: “You’ve heard of the winter blues but what about summer depression?”
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: " Depression and Sleep: Understanding the Connection”
- National Institutes of Mental Health: "Seasonal Affective Disorder"
- National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: "How Much Sleep Is Enough?"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Exercise today, look better tomorrow (really)"
- National Institute on Aging: "Loneliness and Social Isolation — Tips for Staying Connected"
- Michigan State University: "Eating Well for Mental Health"
- American Psychological Association: "Seasonal Affective Disorder Sufferers Have More Than Just Winter Blues"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.