It’s easy to understand why some people feel down during winter: the days are short, the weather is cold, it’s difficult to spend time outside, and you might not be getting enough vitamin D. You may have heard of seasonal affective disorder or SAD, a form of depression that crops up based on the time of year. For some, the onset of cold and shorter, dark days triggers SAD. But there are others who, instead of experiencing the onset of SAD in winter, are susceptible to SAD during the warm and sunny months.
Just about everyone has dealt with, to varying degrees of severity, mental health struggles at some point in their life. Life events, relationship changes, professional issues and other stressors can cause upheaval and provoke sadness in us for some time - and sometimes we can go through emotionally low periods for reasons we don’t fully understand! However, as we navigate these ups and downs, it’s important to understand the differences between sadness and depression, which is a mental health disorder and may not always have an easily identifiable cause or external trigger.
Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression which affects about 5% of the population - and women are far more likely to experience SAD, also known as major depressive disorder (MDD) with seasonal pattern. The most common form of SAD usually has its onset in the colder months; while SAD is not fully understood and can’t be narrowed down to a single factor, it’s thought that in these cases, short days with little chances for sunlight and comfortable outside time are the culprit. These winter days can mess with our circadian rhythm, causing disruptions in our mood and sleep patterns. Some people address winter-induced SAD through light therapy, taking extra vitamin D supplements, and implementing a more intensive exercise routine.
For people who experience summer SAD, it can be frustrating and alienating that it’s not as well known or understood as winter-induced SAD. The logical conclusion of lack of sunlight isn’t likely to be the issue in summer! In fact, it’s theorized that summer SAD is brought on due to too much sunlight. Just like getting too little sun, increased sunlight can throw off our sleep schedules and circadian rhythm, potentially interrupting the production of “the darkness hormone” melatonin which helps in regulating our sleep cycles and inducing slumber when we go to bed.
It can be extra draining to feel depressed at a time of the year that most other people idealize: they're excited about the weather, experiencing an increase in energy and spending as much time outside as possible, while summer SAD sufferers feel exiled from summer fun. The self-isolation to escape summer’s heat and brightness can exacerbate the depressive effects of SAD.
Symptoms of summer Seasonal Affective Disorder can include:
- Feelings of depression such as sadness, anxiousness, and frustration
- Feeling “numb,” an absence of emotion
- Lack of physical and emotional energy
- Losing interest in previously-enthused hobbies or projects
- Changes in sleep cycle
- Changes in appetite or weight, especially lower appetite and lost weight
- Increased irritability approaching the summer months
- Thoughts of self-harm or suicide
If you suspect you might be experiencing summer SAD, it’s important to touch base with a trusted physician or mental health specialist in order to diagnose and help develop a plan to manage your symptoms. Because there are many aspects of SAD overall, and summer SAD in particular, which are not well-understood, it’s very important to discuss your concerns with your healthcare provider. However, there are some steps you can take at home to help protect your mental and emotional wellbeing as well.
Ways to self-support the management of summer SAD symptoms:
- Reducing sun contact - as longer days, warmth and sunshine are thought to be connected to the onset of summer SAD, you may wish to avoid soaking up too many rays! This can be especially helpful if you are experiencing insomnia or other sleep cycle disruptions; try blackout curtains or wearing an eye mask, turning down the lights about an hour before bedtime, and implementing a regular sleep ritual to help your body prepare for slumber.
- Stay cool - A/C, baby! Do your best to stay away from summer scenarios that have you sweltering and instead stay in more neutral temperature zones.
- Supplementing - while it’s advisable to work out treatment options with your care provider, a couple of supplement considerations include adaptogens and melatonin. Adaptogens have layered benefits that help your body better manage and adapt to stress, so they are able to support our overall resilience during a difficult and stressful time. Because it’s believed that SAD may originate with melatonin disruption, taking melatonin supplements may bolster your impaired sleep cycle and help ease summer SAD symptoms.
- Let go of the summer ideal - it’s a tough pill to swallow, but it’s important to accept that if you experience summer SAD, summer may not look or feel the same to you as it does to your social circle, in popular media, or even to other members of your family. Keep in mind that comparison is the thief of joy and work to find your own enjoyment in your chosen summer activities like reading or crafting inside, and look forward to the onset of the cooler months with autumn’s riotous colors and delicious hot beverages.
- Stay open and accountable - acknowledge what you’re feeling to yourself, work proactively to manage your feelings, and be honest with those around you about what you’re going through. Talk to a counselor, partner, family, or friends: letting others in on your experiences can empower your support system to be more effective and proactive with how they hold space for you.
To reiterate, if you feel that you are susceptible to summer SAD, check in with your doctor to ensure you receive appropriate care and guidance and, if needed, to discuss treatment options.