Can Seasonal Affective Disorder Happen in the Summer?

Image via Tamara Bellis/Unsplash

Because most of the world embraces warm and bright summer days with joy and celebration, those living with summer onset seasonal affective disorder can feel pretty alone, triggering stress and anxiety. 

Lisa Jury, a UK-based BWRT psychotherapist tells Tempest, “Symptoms of summer depression typically occur between June and September and can include anxiety, insomnia, loss of appetite, and weight loss.”  

She explains that if symptoms have a significant impact on one’s ability to function normally, it may be time to seek help from a healthcare professional.

When a seasonal pattern of depression occurs for more than two years, the condition might be recognized as summer onset seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Because seasonal depression more commonly occurs in winter, summer onset seasonal affective disorder is also known as reverse SAD

In recent years, however, SAD is no longer recognized as a stand-alone condition. Instead, the disorder is now categorized under major depressive disorder and medically known as major depressive disorder with seasonal pattern, or MDD-SP.

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How common is summer-onset Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Though winter-based SAD is more common than summer, both impact many lives.

“MDD-SP affects 5% of adults in the US and around 1 in 15 people in the UK,” says Jury. “The vast majority experience symptoms and mood changes during the winter months but around 1% are affected during the summer.”

What are the causes?

People’s moods are affected by the changing seasons because changes in the amount of daylight can affect the circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythm is the 24-hour cycle that drives the sleep-wake pattern and when this rhythm is disrupted, serotonin levels can drop. When serotonin drops, mood is affected, but MDD-SP is more than feeling a bit down. 

“Those affected experience symptoms that can be severe enough to disrupt their lives,” explains Jury.

While winter MDD-SP is linked to a lack of sunlight, it is believed that summer MDD-SP is due to too much sunlight. An increase in sunlight can turn off the body’s natural production of melatonin, the hormone that drives the sleep-wake cycle. The longer days can mean less hours of melatonin production.

Jeanie Y. Chang, a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) and certified clinical trauma professional (CCTP), offers an alternative explanation. 

“MDD-SP tends to happen in those areas or countries that are warm all year around and get hotter in the summer so folks aren’t as active as they should be because of the excessive heat,” says Chang. “This can bring on summer depression [because] it’s their version of winter in a polar opposite way.” 

In other words, when the weather affects our ability to stay active, it can aggravate depression. 

Is there a difference between summer-onset seasonal affective disorder and general summer depression?

Summer onset MDD-SP is a mental health disorder that begins and ends around the same time every year, while acute summer depression can have different causes and can change year by year. Jury offers summer disruption in routine, childcare struggles, seasonal financial strain, and changes in wardrobe instigating body image worries as examples of triggers for summer depression. 

Psychosocial issues, such as a divorce in the family that necessitates shuffling children and parents from one place to another during summers can also cause added stress that may be separate from MDD-SP.

How is summer onset seasonal depression relevant in recovery?

No matter the cause, summer onset depression may affect those living in recovery and be especially challenging for those earlier in their recovery. 

“As the weather warms, more folks spend time socializing outdoors—BBQs, picnics, outdoor concerts, and drinking or other substances are more commonplace to be enjoyed,” says Chang. “Those in recovery may feel more depressed and anxious during the warmer months because they may have to refrain from attending those social events or limit fun outdoor activities with friends to ensure they are able to maintain sobriety.”

While keeping these boundaries in place is very important for successful recovery, it can be quite a challenge to sacrifice social connectivity to prioritize one’s wellness. 

Jury also notes that for people suffering from summer depression, the constant expectation to have fun at social events can be exhausting. If one does not have the energy or the financial flexibility, the constant stream of invites and the temptation to drink can be a major cause of anxiety. 

For those considering sobriety, it is important to remember that drinking alcoholic beverages can contribute to depression. Summer beach/lake culture, vacations, and festivals can trigger unhealthy patterns.

How can we fight summer onset SAD, MDD-SP, and summer depression?

  • Seek help: Make an appointment with a mental health professional if you experience depression symptoms or a change in mood for two weeks or longer.
  • Get ample sleep: “The less sleep you get, the more it affects your mood so it’s important to stick to a good sleep regimen,” stresses Chang, “I highly recommend you do everything you can to make the bedroom a safe haven for sleep, where it’s dark at night even though it still may be bright where you are.” She emphasizes the need for adults to get 7-9 hours of sleep every night to fight depression.
  • Get ahead of it: “If you are prone to seasonal depression and anxiety, you can be proactive and take steps to prepare,” advises Jury. “For example, if you are aware that the financial pressures of summer can lead to negative mood changes, you can plan for it accordingly.”
  • Consider ‘darkness’ therapy: “Instead of light therapy, people who have summer-onset MDD with seasonal pattern may be advised to spend more time in darkened rooms,” says Jury.
  • Stay connected: Staying connected to your support system is a critical way to manage depression. Chang recommends connecting during the day on weekdays when drinking or substance use is less a part of the activity. “I recommend folks schedule ‘play dates’ with their friends and family during the day, like lunch or virtual coffee breaks, so they stay connected but also don’t have to fight any temptations with drinking, substance use, etcetera.” 

* * * 

Though living with a chronic mental health condition like MDD-SP is challenging, it is treatable. One benefit born of this pandemic is a heightened awareness of the importance of protecting mental health. Help and support is available. Seasons change and this too shall pass, so please don’t lose hope. 

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.

About the Author

Michelle Yang

Michelle Yang, MBA, realized she can’t advocate for herself, or anyone, if she doesn’t first admit her own struggles. As an Asian American immigrant navigating life with bipolar disorder, her determination to fight stigma inspired her to leave a successful career in corporate America to write and fight for the intersection of identity, feminism, and mental health. Michelle's mission is to humanize and normalize the way we talk about mental health and demonstrate that thriving while living with a mental health condition is more than possible. Born ethnic Chinese in South Korea, Michelle is a proud immigrant "takeout kid" who grew up working in her family's Chinese restaurant. Her writing has been featured in NBC News, CNN, InStyle, Reader's Digest, HuffPost, Shondaland, and more. Michelle is also busy at work on her memoir, Phoenix Girl: How a Fat Asian with Bipolar Found Love.

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