This article is not meant to diagnose or provide medical advice—that responsibility lies with physicians. The author is not a licensed medical professional.
If you’ve heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder—appropriately known as SAD—you probably associate it with winter and colder weather. For many of us, gray skies, biting cold air and being kept inside might sound like a recipe for depression.
For others, the opposite is true: summer, with its longer days and higher temperatures, is what brings about seasonal depression. Although summer-onset SAD is fairly uncommon, it’s a real disorder that affects many people around the world.
SAD is a form of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) that a person experiences during a particular season. The prevalence of winter SAD is said to be between one percent in warmer areas and 10 percent in colder, darker areas, but there aren’t sufficient statistics on the less-understood summer SAD.
David Ezell, clinical director at Darien Wellness, says that summer SAD is a controversial syndrome that is misunderstood by many. “The reason it is controversial is that its cause is not theoretically consistent in the way the winter-onset version is,” he explains. “In the winter version, people suffer because of less light and colder temperatures. Since both are absent in the summer type, there is not a mainstream understanding of what causes people to suffer from SAD in the summer.”
While winter SAD is usually associated with lethargy and a lack of motivation, the symptoms for summer SAD can be quite different. Ezell says there is often a tendency toward agitation, irritability and insomnia in those with summer SAD. He’s noted that clients with summer SAD seem to struggle with outbursts of anger and irritability during the warmer months.
While there isn’t a consensus on what causes summer-onset SAD, there are a few hypotheses that are still being explored. While winter SAD is caused by a lack of sunlight, summer SAD is thought to be caused by an excess of sunlight. A change in sunlight can affect the amount of melatonin our body produces. This affects the amount of energy we have. It also affects the amount of serotonin we produce—a hormone that is crucial in mood control.
But the explanation for summer SAD might be more complicated than that. A 2007 study suggests that high pollen counts and allergies might be responsible for a poorer mood during warmer months, based on the observation that subjects reported having poorer moods on days where they were exposed to higher pollen counts. Another study suggests that one’s birth season can affect whether, and when, they experience SAD.
Summers are often associated with vacations, outdoor activity and splashing around in pools. When you’re in this sort of environment, it’s easy to feel like you should be having fun. Feeling down during the warmer months seems somewhat counterintuitive, and that pressure can worsen your mood. “People have a lot of ‘should’ thoughts in their head. As they are challenged by a culture that tells them their condition is not ‘real,’ that exacerbates the problem,” Ezell says. “The cognitive dissonance of those who suffer from SAD—the fact they do have it but are told they should not—adds an additional layer of duress.”
A lack of awareness about summer SAD deters people from finding treatment. Many people don’t think it’s a real disorder, partially because of stereotypes about depression and seasonal depression. As Ezell says, “people don’t believe it’s real because there are distinct preconceptions about what depression is and when it should occur. Encountering a person who is depressed in the warm months challenges that cliché. So laypersons dismiss it and tell those who suffer from it to get some sun and be happy.”
These myths are dangerous because, as with all mental conditions, it’s important to seek help before your symptoms progress. If you notice that you have these symptoms during summer, don’t simply wait out the warmer months until you feel better. Judi Cineas, Ph.D., psychotherapist and author, says that it’s important to address seasonal depression before it gets too intense. “People experiencing major depression endure severe symptoms that get in the way of their daily functioning and as is common with depression, suicidal thoughts, ideation and even behaviors are possible,” she says. “The symptoms can progress to an ongoing depression or other mood disorders.”
Dr. Cineas says that cognitive behavioral therapy and light therapy is often used to treat winter SAD—but since we’re not yet sure what causes summer SAD, finding effective treatment can be difficult. As with all forms of depression, therapy and medication can be useful for those with summer SAD.
The existence of summer SAD challenges our ideas about what depression is and how it shows up. Unfortunately, this is exactly what makes it dangerous. A growing awareness of seasonal affective disorder will hopefully lead to better research around the cause and treatment of summer-onset SAD—but in the interim, we can all work toward broadening our views of depression and encouraging those who need help to seek it out.
Sian Ferguson is a freelance writer based in South Africa.