Summer is in full swing, and everyone’s out there basking in the sun, enjoying themselves with their guns and buns out, etc, etc. Right? Well, maybe not everyone. Maybe you’re not so jazzed it’s summer, maybe you’re even feeling a little…sad, or dare we say, depressed? But why? You could actually be suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) – and before you dismiss that as something people only experience in the winter months, you need to know that this mental health issue can affect different people at different times of the year. So what causes SAD in the summer, what does it look like, and what can you do to make your summers a little brighter?
What Is SAD?
What do we mean in general when we talk about seasonal affective disorder, or SAD? While this is often called the winter blues, or something similar, and many people write it off as just being bummed that the weather isn’t so great, SAD is actually a legitimate mental health concern. It can be characterized by prolonged or recurring bouts of depression, and is closely linked to the changing of seasons (any season!) and changes in natural light.
And yes, while it is often linked to winter, with its shorter days, lack of light, weather that can affect going out, and often fewer opportunities to socialize, it is actually simply “defined by a regular, temporal relationship between a particular time of the year and a major depressive episode,” according to Rachel Landman, licensed mental health counselor and chief operating officer at Humantold, an online therapy services platform. While for some, it might have a lot to do with a lack of natural light (hence the prevalence of wintertime SAD), for many, it’s more about change.
So, the transition from winter into spring and summer can trigger mental health issues, too. In fact, while around 5% of the population seems to suffer from SAD, 10% of those experience the “blues” in the spring and summer, with symptoms subsiding when fall comes back around – the opposite of what many people think of when they think of SAD. Let’s take a closer look at why this might be happening to some people.
Why Causes SAD in the Summer?
If you don’t suffer from summer SAD, and you’re a real lover of all things hot and summery, you might be scratching your head wondering why anyone would feel depressed when the seasons once again swing back to this time of year. And even if you do suffer from it, you might also be wondering if you’re crazy, and why you can’t just enjoy the season like everyone else seems to be able to do.
If you really think about it, though, change, especially in predictable routines that give our lives their shape, can be difficult to deal with. And summer brings with it a particular set of changes, as well as certain physical and mental discomforts that can be problematic for some people. For example, summer can bring with it:
Unpredictableness, and a lack of routine
Say what you will about other seasons, but compared to summer, they tend to lend themselves more to structure, and a less chaotic routine. And changes to routine, or feeling like your days lack structure, can set off a series of feelings that can lead to SAD. According to Landman, “A contributing factor to good mental health is having a predictable routine; the summer often disrupts that, causing symptoms to flare up.” For example, if you’re a mother, you might struggle with the anxiety of having to plan long days with your children at home. In addition, changes to routine like going on vacation can have a big impact on your mental health: while some people might think relaxation when they think of heading out on a trip, others might think anxiety and stress.
Weather that’s not everyone’s cup of tea
While some people might relish a scorching hot day on the beach, not everyone is thrilled to spend their days commuting or running around after kids in what can feel like oppressive heat. It can start to feel almost like the weather is torturing you personally, and you might even feel physical symptoms, like headaches, which can trigger emotional distress.
And while lack of light affects some people in a negative way, too much daylight can be a problem for others. The long days of summer can actually affect some people’s sleep, which can negatively impact mental health.
Not only that, but while we usually think of winter weather as the culprit behind ruined plans, summer weather can also cause distressing changes in routine and socializing. It might be too hot to do certain outdoor activities, and if you generally do those activities with friends, you might find yourself more and more isolated in air-conditioned spaces. According to Sherry Benton, PhD, ABPP, psychologist and founder and chief science officer of TAO Connect, an online therapy assistance resource, “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. Anytime your usual sources of well-being and self-care are disrupted you may be at risk.”
Body image issues
Let’s face it: all the talk about getting beach-body-ready is not helping anyone’s mental health, especially after two years of unprecedented weight gain in the U.S. population. And all of the flesh on display in the summer heat can lead some people to make unhealthy comparisons, and worry about the way that their own bodies stack up, as they feel pressured to bare more of their skin.
Last but not least, we shouldn’t discount the toll that the great expectations of summer can take on someone who just isn’t feeling it. It might seem like everyone is out there, livin’ life, enjoying the outdoors – and if you’re more the, well, “indoorsy” type, that could be problematic for you. You might even end up feeling guilty, or like something is wrong with you, if you’re not “taking advantage” of every moment of summer. According to Landman, “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.”
So, yes: there are, without a doubt, things that can trigger mental health issues, ranging from the blues to serious depression, in the summer. And if you find yourself nodding along and saying, yeah, that lack of routine, or that enforced feeling of fun, really get to me, you could be facing summer SAD. Let’s take a closer look at the symptoms of summer SAD to help you further recognize it in either yourself or a loved one.
Symptoms of Summer SAD
No matter what time of year SAD comes on, it is generally considered a type of depression, so seasonal depression can look very similar to major depressive disorder – the difference, as we pointed out above, is that it is linked to a certain time of year. If you’re suffering from SAD, you might experience the following symptoms as spring and summer hit:
- Loss of motivation and interest in activities
- Anxiety or worry
- Hypersomnia (excessive sleepiness or drowsiness) or fatigue
- Insomnia, with pacing, restlessness, and racing thoughts
- Lack of appetite
- Feelings of guilt
- Having trouble making decisions or staying focused
Remember, if you’re struggling with these symptoms, consider speaking to a trusted professional, and if your depression escalates to thoughts of suice, immediately contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, or call 911 if you are in crisis.
Coping with Summer SAD
Again, summer SAD is totally a thing! And it can be really rough, especially since it has the added “bonus” of being not so common, and a little confusing to people who don’t get it. But you feel the way you feel, and if you feel the warm weather blues creeping in, there are a few strategies to try. For example:
- Identify your positive and negative triggers – It’s important to know what triggers you in a negative way during the summer, but you should also try to keep in mind the things that trigger your more positive state of mind in other seasons – the things that you feel are missing. That way you can really focus on what you can do to fill those needs in the warmer months.
- Give yourself a break from the expectations – Yes, it’s summer, but it’s also ok to say “no” to things that aren’t for you. Just remember to find a balance between doing everything and completely withdrawing.
- Make sleep a priority – Again, the long, light-filled days can actually affect your sleep, which in turn affects your mental health, so you’ll have to make more of an effort to get the solid shut-eye you need to boost your mood. Try relaxation or sleep aid apps, have a predictable bedtime and wake-up time, and try to keep your room cool and dark.
- Create a routine – Speaking of routines, if the chaos of summer has got you down, try making a routine for yourself and sticking to it. Schedule everything from bedtime, mealtimes, and wake-up times to time for socializing, exercising, meditating, and other types of self-care.
- Feel your feelings – It’s easy to shut down in both body and mind when you experience summer SAD, so try to find time to experience your emotions (even if it’s 10 minutes a day), which can help stop your body from shutting down so much.
- Avoid “depression traps” – Using unhealthy behaviors to cope with your feelings could lead you to do things that aren’t in your best interest, like spending too much money, drinking or eating much, or spending too much time isolated playing video games or scrolling on the internet.
- Stay cool – It’s ok to head indoors when the heat and humidity soar; heading somewhere cool can help to stave off the agitation, stress, and depression that excessive heat can bring. And don’t forget to stay hydrated! Having a headache will only add to your negative emotions.
- Get a little help from your friends – If parenting in the summer is triggering your SAD, try banding together with other parents to share the extra responsibilities that come when school lets out. For example, exchange childcare days, or start a carpool for summer camps and activities.
- Get a little help from a pro – Experts recommend that you seek professional help if your SAD symptoms affect your life for 2 weeks or more, but they also agree that you should get help anytime you feel like you could benefit from it.
It’s true that summer means carefree fun for a lot of people – but definitely not for everyone! If you suffer from summer SAD, you’re not alone, and you have no reason to feel guilty or like a misfit. You simply need to recognize what you’re experiencing, and find ways to bring brightness to the brightest of seasons, even if that means speaking to a mental health professional. We wish all of you out there a happy and safe summer, and would love to hear how these hot, sunny months affect you!