Summertime sadness: Seasonal Affective Disorder in the Summer
Summertime in Chicago: It is a three- to four-month break from the bitter, dark default of our city. The lakefront bustles, the parks flourish with activity and life; it is a wonderful time.
The fervor and excitement with which people talk about Chicago summers– and summer in general– is not necessarily universal. While there is no denying its beauty and uniquity, not everyone feels their best during the summer months.
If you ever find yourself feeling differently about summer than others seem to, you are not alone.
What is Summertime Seasonal Affective Disorder?
You may have heard of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) as a winter phenomenon, but winter is not the only season that might impact your mood. Seasonal changes brought on by summer can incite episodes of depression or depression-like symptoms in the similar ways that winter does. Additionally, there is often a pressure to enjoy or take advantage of the summer weather, which might compound feelings of depression.
Seasonal affective disorder often features general fatigue, lack of motivation, sadness, and sometimes even thoughts of self-harm, death, or suicide. While there is a lot of overlap in presentation, symptoms of summer SAD differ slightly from its winter counterpart. Agitation, insomnia, and loss of appetite are more characteristic of summer SAD while oversleeping and increased appetite are more common in the winter.
There are a number of reasons why summer might be a time that you experience depression-like symptoms.
Factors that may contribute to summer depression
School is out, beaches are open, and a lot of daily routine and structure goes out the door during the summer months. Structure and dependability are major aspects of managing stress and mental wellness. When summer parties and long weekends are thrown into the mix, this can easily impact our sense of direction and balance.
The pressure is on
There is a common understanding that summer in Chicago is heaven-on-earth. Why wouldn’t you take advantage of every second of every day to be outside and enjoy the sun on your skin and the lakefront breeze in your hair?
To complicate very valid feelings of disdain or fatigue in the summer, there is often an added level of guilt, shame, and “should-ing” that occurs in the summer when everyone else appears to be so happy and radiant.
You may think to yourself, “Why do I feel so down when everyone around me seems so happy?” or, “I should have more energy,” or “I should want to go to the beach with my friends.” This is an absolutely normal response. This “should-ing” invalidates your experience of very valid feelings, which is likely to leave you feeling even more sad and misunderstood by your own experience.
The heat is cranked
There is no denying that our environment affects our mental health. The changing environment in the summer is no exception to this. Increased heat and humidity and the presence of pollen are major contributors to summer depression. Studies even show that those who experience allergies with seasonal change are more likely to experience depression in general.
Some of the neurotransmitters that are important in regulating body temperature are the same ones that are also responsible for regulating our moods. Serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine are affected by heat, humidity, and light. Changes in the environment during the summer play a part in our moods that are dependent on these very neurotransmitters.
Outside the comfort zone
The usual several layers of clothing that, for many, provide a certain level of comfort are not quite compatible with the heat and humidity brought on by summer. Being out and about in less clothing can feel very vulnerable and frightening for many people. While expanding boundaries and venturing outside of our comfort zones is often encouraged, the security that clothing brings to people can be important to their mental wellbeing as well as their feelings of safety and security. If you feel less comfortable in scantier clothing, it follows that mood would be affected by the clothing standards of summer.
Do I have Summer SAD if I just feel sad in the summer?
As with any mental health diagnosis, summer SAD exists on a spectrum and is simply a way of describing a cluster of symptoms. If you get blue or down in the summer, there isn’t anything wrong with that. No matter the scale at which you experience sadness or depression in the summer, it is important to recognize if you are experiencing any of these symptoms and take steps to ensure your health and safety.
This entry is not to be used as a self-diagnostic tool or to call your existence a disorder. Its purpose is to bring awareness to the fact that some symptoms that are organized under the umbrella term of “depression” are often sparked by warmer weather, sunnier afternoons, and pressure to take advantage of the longer days.
What Can I Do to Feel Better?
Summer often comes with schedule disruptions, increased free time, and days that simply look different than they do during other months. Having a routine can be very beneficial to create a baseline for mental wellbeing. If your routine is impacted by summer, try to insert pieces of your normal routine into your days.
- Set a consistent time to wake up.
- If exercise is important to you, make time to flow with a nice yoga video or go for a walk if you have the energy.
- Set aside some time during each day to check-in with friends and family.
Whatever form it takes for you, keeping some regularity in your day-to-day life can help alleviate depressive symptoms.
Keeping a mood journal or noting your general moods throughout the seasons can help to determine if what you are experiencing is specifically tied to summer. There are, of course, other affective disorders and forms of depression that exist year-round, and symptoms may simply be exacerbated during transitory times in seasons.
As with all forms of depression, there are evidence-based psychotherapy treatments such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that are shown to reduce depressive symptoms. Consider connecting with a mental health professional if your symptoms are impacting your day-to-day life.
Some researchers find that participants in their studies on summer SAD report better moods when they take frequent cold showers or baths. Keeping a fan or a cold pack nearby can be a good way to stave off dips in mood and recenter to the present moment.
No single season is fully responsible for fluctuations in mental health status. Although summer is a common time to relax, be care-free, and spend time outdoors, it can be a very hard time of the year for some. If this experience resonates with you or a loved one, you are not alone. There are tools, professionals, and community to help with the summertime blues.
If you are experiencing extreme symptoms of depression– no matter the season– please reach out to a mental health professional. If you are feeling suicidal, mental health professionals are here to normalize these feelings and help you to unpack and replace these thoughts with proactive coping mechanisms.
If you are in imminent danger and have intent, means, and/or a plan to commit suicide, please call 988 or go to your nearest emergency room.
Further Reading and Resources
- Defeating SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder): A Guide to Health and Happiness Through All Seasons by Norman E. Rosenthal M.D.
- Stanford Health News: Her Kind of Healthy. Episode 14: Seasonal affective disorder intensifies mood.
Clemens, N. et al. (2016). Increasing ambient temperature reduces emotional well-being. Environmental Research. 151(1). Pp. 124-129.
Sima, R. (2023). Sad in the summer? You may have seasonal depression. https://www.washingtonpost.com/wellness/2023/07/03/summer-sad-depression-symptoms-causes-treatment/
Walker, C. (2021). Seasonal affective disorder isn’t just for winter. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/01/well/mind/summer-seasonal-affective-disorder.html
Wehr, T. A. (1991). Contrasts between symptoms of summer depression and winter depression. Journal of Affective Disorders. 23(1). Pp 173-183.
Wehr T. A., Sack, D.A., Rosenthal, N. E. (1987) Seasonal affective disorder with summer depression and winter hypomania. Am J Psychiatry. 144(12) Pp. 1602-1603
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