Summer is in full swing. People are enjoying relaxing vacations, trips to the beach, and just being outside in the sunshine and warmth. All good, right?
Not for everyone.
A small percentage of the population – approximately one percent of Americans – suffers from summer seasonal affective disorder, also called reverse SAD. Though it’s related to the better known SAD that occurs in winter, the symptoms of the two seasonal disorders land firmly on opposite ends of the spectrum. Those with winter SAD tend to feel more tired and may put on weight, while their summer counterparts often lose their appetites and feel more agitated. And, while winter SAD patients can’t wait to “spring ahead,” those suffering from the summertime version cringe when the hot-weather months arrive.
As one might imagine, light plays a role in both seasonal conditions. A lack of sunlight in the fall and winter can impact the body’s internal clock and leads to depression. But, according to Amita Sehgal, PhD, director of Chronobiology at Penn, “there’s increasing awareness of the downsides of too much light. We in the circadian field have long known that too much light disrupts our internal circadian clock.”
An excess of bright light can slow melatonin production which our body needs to get ready to sleep, and can result in insomnia. A decreased level of melatonin – and the “feel-good” hormone serotonin, a precursor of melatonin – also impacts our mood. “Less sleep contributes to depression or depressive symptoms,” said Thea Gallagher, PsyD, clinic director of the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety.
To some people, the high temperatures of summer “can feel oppressive and uncomfortable,” Gallagher said, adding that these uncomfortable feelings can reduce the appetite, which contributes to agitation. “Regular eating can help with regulating our moods.”
While the higher temps of summer might make being outside more appealing, it can negatively impact exercise routines. Few want to venture out on hot, humid days – and evenings – to run or even walk, and that can also lead to a change in mood. According to an article from the American Psychology Association, "There's good epidemiological data to suggest that active people are less depressed than inactive people. And people who were active and stopped tend to be more depressed than those who maintain or initiate an exercise program.”
In addition, hotter days can result in wearing fewer layers of clothing, which may be linked to potential body image concerns. “You might be invited to the beach one weekend, which one would assume would make you happy, but it could also trigger negative thoughts and make you feel even more depressed or down,” Gallagher said.
Social media can also add to the stress, bringing on the FOMO effect – fear of missing out. Our smartphones fill with photos, texts, and tweets from people having a great time. For some, it might start to seem like everyone is at the beach, having a great time, leaving those stuck at home feeling isolated and depressed. Research published in the journal Motivation and Emotion examining the social psychological basis of FOMO found that those left behind because of work or studying “were more likely to report greater FOMO. It was also associated with the predicted negative outcomes, such as fatigue, stress, sleep problems, and psychosomatic symptoms.”
While the negative impacts of summer can seem unavoidable, there are ways to beat the summer blues. For example, since either “seasonal” disorder will only occur at a certain time of the year, those who may be affected can plan ahead. “Look back to what you did last summer that made you feel good. Or what makes you feel good in general,” Gallagher said. “Similarly, assess what makes you feel bad and why, and then try to change those activities.”
If summer vacations and other activities increases financial stress, Gallagher suggests trying a “staycation” at home and researching local activities that are fun but don’t cost a lot – like canoeing or kayaking, hiking or doing a picnic lunch. Shifting an outside workout to early morning or later in the evening when it’s not so hot will also help keep up a regular exercise routine. And, “if seeing everyone else’s vacations on Facebook or Instagram is upsetting, stop or at least cut back on checking these sites,” Gallagher said.
Gallagher said those still having trouble rising above the depression of summer should seek professional help. For example, “cognitive behavioral therapy will help identify negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones,” Gallagher said. “An online support group can also be helpful. Seeking any type of help is a good step in the right direction.”
Lastly – and most importantly – allow yourself your emotions. “There are guilt-inducing ‘shoulds’ of summer,” Gallagher said. “People may feel shame in saying ‘I’m having a rough day’ in the summer because we associate it with fun and happy times.
“Try to accept and honor the emotion, nonjudgmentally observing what you’re feeling,” Gallagher said. It’s ok to be sad in the summer but “it’s important to focus on trying to do what you can to feel better.”