Summer has almost always been synonymous with joy and happiness. When we were children the perks of summer were unparalleled—school is finally over, the pool is open, and the ice cream truck is basically always on the scene. Getting older, the sweaty commutes are balanced by the relief of the winter dullness finally coming to an end, right? Well, not for everyone.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons, is often associated with the long winter months. However, there are in fact two types, fall-onset and summer-onset. Summer-onset SAD affects about 10% of those who suffer from the disorder, which itself affects about 4 to 6% of the population. Sometimes called summer depression or reverse SAD, the disorder can be either genetic in nature or caused by stressors that are unique to the summertime. But in all cases, seasonal affective disorder will crop up every year at around the same time.
While SAD most often occurs as the days get shorter and colder, it is thought that reverse SAD occurs because of the longer days and increased humidity and heat. Too much sun can lead to modulations in melatonin, which is a powerful antioxidant and free radical scavenger that serves to detoxify and protect the brain. In fact, it has been found that people on the equator, in countries such as India, experience reverse SAD at a greater rate than those living in more temperate climates. People in the southern parts of the United States also experience reverse SAD at a greater rate than those in the North.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, “just as sunlight affects the seasonal activities of animals, SAD may be an effect of this seasonal light variation in humans. As seasons change, people experience a shift in the biological internal clock or circadian rhythm that can cause them to be out of step with the daily schedule.” An upset in circadian rhythm can spell trouble no matter the season, but the few more hours of sun each day in the summertime almost always means you get up earlier and go to sleep later. When you’re sleep-deprived, your body releases more of the hormone cortisol, which produces stress in the body.
Disruption of sleep cycles is probably the most prevalent cause of summertime sadness, but the other theories are both wide-ranging and never-ending. One theory is that the disruption of schedule, such as school being out or offices switching to “summer hours,” may play a role. Another is that, particularly in women, the body image issues that creep up as you shed layers of clothing worn in summer could have an effect. Yet another is the financial troubles that inevitably rear their ugly head with all of the vacations, outdoor concerts, and weddings that come along with the warmer days. And let’s not even talk about the FOMO of feeling that your vacations, outdoor concerts, and weddings aren’t as fun as your friend’s vacations, outdoor concerts, and weddings.
Interestingly, the symptoms between fall-onset and summer-onset SAD are quite different. While most people who experience fall-onset depression become depressed and sluggish, summer-onset SAD tends to elicit hyper-agitation and even aggression at times. They also often experience a decrease in appetite, weight loss, and sleep deprivation. A decrease in energy, most likely due to poor nutrition, can also occur. However, doctors recommend that, if you are feeling fall-onset symptoms during the summer, you may be experiencing a more acute form of depressions and should seek the help of a mental health professional.
It is suggested that people with summer-onset SAD try to keep their sleep schedules regular and exercise in the morning to a) avoid the heat and b) jump start their appetite. Norman Rosenthal, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical School and one of the researchers who first coined the term Seasonal Affective Disorder [SAD], also suggests keeping your living area air-conditioned and drawing the blinds whenever possible. “While many people think that light is an agent of happiness and energy, for some, light has the opposite effect. And the oppressive heat can cause people to feel agitated,” says Rosenthal.
Unfortunately, there are few studies dedicated to understanding summer-onset SAD, most likely due to the fact that it is less common than its winter counterpart. While it is becoming increasingly recognized, it is important now to be honest with yourself. Summertime is supposed to be the best time of the year, but if you are experiencing symptoms of summertime depression, know that you are not alone and take the necessary steps to get through the summer months in good health.