Most of us are familiar with seasonal affective disorder (SAD). During the short, cold, dark days of winter, 4 to 6 percent of people feel depressed, lethargic, pessimistic, and even hopeless. They may eat more and sleep too much.
But you might be less familiar with another type of seasonal affective disorder: depression that sparks in the summer, which about 10 percent of people with SAD experience.
Summertime depression is essentially the opposite of wintertime depression. “People tend to lose weight and feel more agitated and irritable, more likely to be suffering from a ‘smiling depression,’” said Dean Parker, Ph.D, a psychologist who specializes in depression, anxiety, stress, addiction, and relationships. He noted that in June his phone was ringing off the hook with people needing help for depression and anxiety.
Deborah Serani, Psy.D, a psychologist who specializes in treating mood disorders, has seen similar symptoms at her practice. Her patients also report trouble sleeping, a diminished appetite and an inability to concentrate at work.
Summertime depression can be especially difficult because many people with the condition feel misunderstood. Summer is seen as a carefree, calm, and fun time of the year. When people don’t experience this, they feel even more alone. As Serani said, many people make observations such as: “It’s so beautiful out, how you can feel down?” or “You must be kidding that you’re depressed this time of year.”
People with summertime depression “see friends and family enjoying summer activities, but feel down and isolated in contrast,” Parker said. They then hide their depression, “as they find it inappropriate to be unhappy during the warm weather.” And they don’t seek help.
Possible Causes of Summertime Depression
Summertime depression, unfortunately, hasn’t been studied much. One theory is that the seasonal changes of summer may “disrupt circadian rhythm and the production of melatonin, a hormone responsible for keeping our body clock in alignment,” said Serani, also author of three books on depression, including Depression in Later Life: An Essential Guide.
Serani worked with a woman who especially struggled on bright, sunny days. She recommended an MRI to assess the functioning of her pineal gland. (The pineal gland secretes melatonin.) Results revealed that she had a benign cyst on her pineal gland, which might’ve been over-reactive to sunlight.
The unbearable heat and humidity of summer also may play a role. Both may trigger changes in mood and behavior; along with feelings of helplessness and irritability, Serani said.
Parker mentioned a range of possible contributing factors, including: poor body image; financial problems – such as not being able to afford a vacation or other summertime activities; preference for cool weather; breaks in routines; and lack of exercise.
Managing Summertime Depression
Serani and Parker shared these suggestions:
- “If you believe that your circadian rhythm is being affected by too much sunshine, consider using a day/sleep light to help schedule your body,” Serani said.
- Try to avoid exposure to sunlight in the afternoons and evenings, because it can keep you up at night, she said.
- Keep a consistent schedule by going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, Serani said.
- Prioritize and support your sleep. Use darkening shades, and avoid night lights, Serani said. “Create a comfortable temperature environment for resting, working and sleeping with air conditioning or fans.” Turn off electronic devices at least an hour before bed, because they emit blue wave light. This activates the brain, “instead of lulling it to sleep.”
- Wear sunglasses. This, along with room darkening shades, helped to reduce SAD symptoms for Serani’s client (from above).
- Exercise indoors. “It’s a great buffer against depression,” Parker said.
- Eat foods high in nutrients. For instance, because of their caffeine content, soda, iced tea and iced coffee can negatively affect your mood, Parker said. So can eating lots of carbohydrates and prepared meats, such as hot dogs, he said.
- Seek professional help. If you’re still struggling after trying the above techniques, Parker suggested seeking psychotherapy. You also might benefit from taking an antidepressant, he said.
Tracking Your Symptoms
As the weather shifts and the sun’s glow shortens, summertime SAD symptoms tend to dissipate, Serani said. However, if your symptoms continue, you might have a different kind of depression, such as dysthymia.
“This is why it’s vital to keep track of how you feel, watch the weather patterns, and keep in touch with your healthcare provider should things continue.” Plus, every person’s course and experience of depression may be different.
If you prefer paper and pen, she suggested using a four-scale model with plus and minus signs. According to Serani, who has chronic depression, “four plus signs means ‘I’m feeling really good.’ If I notice a subtle change, I may make it +++. I begin to really take notice if my feelings of contentedness go down to ++ or +. Then I begin using – for a bad day; two -‘s for a very bad day. Generally – – – means I’m heading for a depressive episode, so I hope I don’t get to – – – -.”
Summertime depression can be especially frustrating and painful because you’re expected to feel happy, energized, and relaxed. But remember that like you, many people also struggle. Thankfully, there are tools and techniques you can try. Please don’t hesitate to seek help.