When Summer Becomes a Bummer

Reverse seasonal affective disorder can cause depression and irritability.

Monday, June 20, marks the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the official debut of summer. Sun-catchers will rejoice in the longer daylight hours and warmer temperatures.

For a small group of people, though, the sun-drenched days of summer do not elicit joy but depression and irritability.

Reverse seasonal affective disorder—or summer SAD—affects less than 10 percent of all SAD cases, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. But just as with winter SAD, the summer version returns every year at about the same time.

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“I begin to see people around Labor Day who come in and tell me they’re already beginning to feel down,” says Alan L. Schwartz, Psy.D., director of behavioral health integration at Christiana Care Health System. “With the people who have summer SAD, Ground Hog Day is their signal that they have to start planning.”

Both summer SAD and winter SAD sufferers can experience the full range of symptoms of a major depressive disorder, but other symptoms—like the seasons themselves—are opposites. Winter SAD sufferers often feel sluggish, sleep more than usual and tend to overeat and gain weight. By contrast, summer SAD symptoms tend toward insomnia, loss of appetite, weight loss and feelings of anxiety and agitation. Increased libido can also be a symptom of summertime depression.

No one knows exactly why some people experience SAD during this time of year. But there’s no dearth of theories. Some researchers believe that while winter SAD is due to a lack of sunlight, summer SAD might be linked to too much sunlight, which also leads to fluctuations in melatonin production. Others say allergies or the heat play a role. Another possibility: shifts in sleeping patterns during summer’s lighter nights and bright dawns that throw sensitive circadian rhythms for a loop.  

“I don’t think anything is really definitive,” says Schwartz. “I think the best people can say is that there is something that seems to go awry with the melatonin and serotonin, but I don’t think anyone is 100 percent sure at this point.”

Unfortunately, there are few studies devoted to unraveling the mysteries of summer SAD, probably because it is far less common than the winter variety. Consequently, scientists haven’t come up with a treatment plan for summer depression. Staying indoors with the curtains drawn and the air conditioning running at full blast isn’t a realistic option, says Schwartz. We all need some sunlight and fresh air.

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Moreover, because it is so uncommon, many people who feel down in the dumps in the summer may not realize they have SAD. They may attribute it to any number of reasons—Facebook envy, body-image blues, burnout from amped-up summer schedules—and not see it as part of a pattern. Schwartz advises sufferers to think back on summers past, as well as look into their family history to see if a relative may have experienced a major mood disorder at this time of year. Psychotherapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy can also be effective, he says.

And don’t ignore the value of self-care. Sticking to a regular sleep schedule, exercising often, eating well and socializing benefits everyone, no matter what the season.

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