Do you find yourself sad during the summer?
When most people are stocking up on sunscreen and booking beach vacations, others are shutting out the sunshine completely.
How could that be?
You likely know seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, as the winter blues. According to American Family Physician® (AFP), about 4% to 6% of the U.S. population suffers from SAD. Contrary to common knowledge, SAD can occur during the summer too! It’s called reverse seasonal affective disorder.
Shining a Light on Summer Depression Symptoms
Reverse SAD was identified in 1984 by Dr. Norman Rosenthal and his team, who also discovered winter depression. But as research and treatment options progressed for the winter doldrums, less and less attention was given to summertime sadness.
Still, symptoms of summer depression are well documented in research. The Journal of Affective Disorders found that “the two seasonal types of depression may have opposite types of vegetative symptoms.” That means winter depression usually leads to excessive sleep and increased appetite. This is primarily because some people feel the urge to hibernate like a bear would.
Summer SAD symptoms are a bit different. They include:
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Difficulty concentrating
What Causes Summer SAD?
The root cause of the seasonal affective disorder is largely unknown, but the most logical association is the effect light has on certain processes in your body.
“Circadian rhythms are physical, mental and behavioral changes that follow a daily cycle,” says the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. It’s the rhythm your body follows each day, and it heavily influences your:
- Sleep-wake cycle
- Eating habits
- Body temperature
- And more
Circadian rhythms can easily be swayed by environmental factors like daylight. When there’s a lot of daylight—like there is in the summertime—your circadian rhythm shifts. That’s when poor sleep habits and irregular hormones can happen, leading to symptoms of summertime seasonal depression.
Your body’s master clock is called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), and it’s located in the hypothalamus in your brain. Your SCN receives direct input from the nerves in your eyes. The moment an ounce of light hits your eyes, a message is sent to the SCN to do two things:
- Turn on cortisol, which is stimulating
- Turn off the release of sleepy melatonin
At night, the opposite occurs: When the light begins to fade, the SCN tells the pineal gland to increase melatonin production.
Since the sunny summer brings more light, melatonin is delayed, and levels go down overall. This could be the very reason you have a hard time sleeping in the summer—and staying asleep.
A research article published in Science magazine quantified the effects of warmer climates on how humans behave. The study found that as temperatures rose, the frequency of violence between people also increased—by 4%. Meanwhile, conflicts between groups increased by 14%. Simply put, warmer temperatures can lead to irritability and changes in mood, even if you don’t have a history of mental illness.
A family history of mental illness does increase your chances of developing one. If a family member has shown signs of bipolar disorder, depression, or SAD, you are inherently at risk of experiencing summertime sadness. This is especially true for young women.
Where you live can make a difference to your mental health. AFP noted an increased prevalence of SAD at extreme latitudes. For example, winter SAD is “seven times more common in Washington state than in Florida.” Meanwhile, people in the southern states are more likely to feel depressed during the summer.
How to Overcome Summer SAD in 7 Steps
Living with summertime sadness is easily manageable. Just a few lifestyle changes can turn a blistering day into complete bliss. These seven are a good starting point:
1. Prioritize Sleep
Whether you experience summertime sadness or not, going to bed and waking up at the same time is crucial to your mental health and overall wellbeing. To help maintain your normal sleep schedule year-round, avoid the sun once it gets later in the day, use blackout shades, and keep your bedroom nice and cool. These habits will signal your brain to produce more melatonin in the evening, allowing you to get a good night’s sleep.
2. Protect Your Eyes
Wearing sunglasses not only shields you from harmful UVA and UVB light, it helps combat the symptoms of summer SAD. The same way blackout shades limit light in your bedroom, sunglasses filter light from your eyes. The optic nerves send signals to your master body clock. If too much sunlight hits your eyes during the day, melatonin production won’t kick in for you to fall fast asleep at night.
3. Play Inside
The high you feel after a run is worth every ounce of sweat. But the dog days of summer usually are too hot for outdoor exercise. Take your aerobic activities indoors, even if it’s only a short stint.
During exercise, your body increases its production of serotonin and norepinephrine, which are neurotransmitters that send feel-good signals throughout your body to handle the physical stress of exercise. Unlike endorphins, these two messengers can pass the blood-brain barrier. The best part? The more you exercise, the more your body gets used to handling the stress of all kinds.
4. Prepare Nutrient-Dense Meals
Sugar is a fertilizer for depression symptoms. To maintain a healthy, happy mood, reach for the rainbow in your food. A variety of colors and flavors from real, whole foods will ensure you’re eating enough nutrients, especially omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA. A small 2017 pilot study examined participants with major depression for six weeks and supplemented their diets with omega-3-rich fish oil. The study concluded that “depression symptoms improved after supplementation” because of higher DHA blood concentration. Foods rich in omega-3s include:
- Fatty fish
- Chia seeds
5. Pour a Glass of Water
Everyone needs to keep cool in the summer to prevent heat exhaustion and electrolyte imbalance. But if you deal with summer SAD, it’s even more important. Staying hydrated will help you maintain lower body temperature and stimulate the cooler, happier months.
Not a fan of plain water? Try a bottle with a diffuser inside, so you can add fresh fruit flavor. Lemon, berries, and cucumbers are all delicious additions.
6. Partner Up
The heat of summer days makes it easy to find yourself inside and alone, which can make depression worse. Once the early-morning steam settles, head to a friend’s house or local coffee shop. Simply seeing and interacting with others can significantly improve your mood. If you’re up for it, plan a picnic in the park or by a (calm) body of water. Time in nature can help ground you, as long as you stay cool and feel relaxed.
7. Phone a Professional
As with any health concern, it’s imperative that summer SAD sufferers speak to a mental health professional regarding treatment options. Treatment is most effective if started early. At the first sign of spring, begin adjusting your daily routine to help ease the onset of depressive symptoms.
When you’re ready for a more long-term solution, consider transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS. Success TMS will answer all your questions. One round of TMS treatments is a small investment for big (mental health) rewards.