Why do some people get depressed in summer?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) affects a minority of sufferers during the summer, meaning a time of year associated with health and happiness can instead by blighted by mood swings and anxiety.

"In the peak of summer I find life feels completely out of control and up in the air. There is a frenzy about summer that I find very chaotic and hard to manage, emotionally and physically. It's as if someone has turned the 'life thermostat' up to 11."

The testimony above comes from a man in London who suffers from summer seasonal depression.

For most people, the warmer months are a time of health and optimism, a chance to reconnect with the great outdoors after the dark, seemingly interminable, months of winter.

However, for a minority of those with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), it can be a miserable time. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, around 10% of people with SAD in the USA experience it in reverse, ie during the warm months of summer.

Longer days, increased heat and humidity as well as issues around body image may be contributing factors, while symptoms are thought to include loss of appetite, disrupted sleep, weight loss and anxiety.


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Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) explained

Most of us are affected by the change in seasons - it's not unusual to feel more cheerful and energetic when the sun is shining and the days are longer, or to find that you eat more or sleep longer in winter. But if you experience SAD, seasonal changes have a much bigger effect on mood and energy levels, and may lead to symptoms of depression that significantly impact day-to-day life.

"Most people experience SAD during the winter," explains Stephen Buckley, head of information at the mental health charity Mind. "Less commonly, some people find they experience SAD in reverse, with depressive symptoms occurring in summer. SAD is most common in countries like the UK where there are large changes in the weather and daylight hours during the different seasons."

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Summertime SADness

The causes of SAD, and especially summer SAD, aren't always clear, reveals Buckley.

"It is important to say that the causes of SAD are unlikely to be purely physical and that we don't fully understand them," he stresses. "It's likely that other elements such as difficult life events, trauma and physical illness can also cause depression and SAD, and the impact SAD has on you will also be affected by your overall feelings and coping skills."

Summer can bring specific challenges that might affect people’s mental health, Buckley reveals.

"Lots of people find body image worries are heightened in summer, especially for people who are unhappy with their weight, size or have scars from self-harming, for example. Also, longer daylight hours and shorter nights can cause disruption to our sleep, and it might be harder to get the amount of sleep that some people need to keep well."

Look out for possible symptoms

According to UK voluntary organisation SADA, sleep problems (disturbed nights as well as excessive tiredness during the day) are a common symptom of SAD. Others include depression, lethargy, loss of libido, anxiety and irritability, and a craving for carbohydrates and sweet foods.

"Many of us experience a dip in our mood or a touch of the 'winter blues'," says Buckley. "But if you experience SAD, you may find it difficult to stay in work and maintain relationships, and can lose all interest in the things in life you used to enjoy."

Be proactive this summer

Thankfully, with a little planning there are myriad practical ways to take the fight to SAD this summer.

Plan ahead so you feel in control, both socially and professionally, and don't worry if you feel out of step with everyone else. After all, you're not obliged to be happy just because it is summer.

Be sure to exercise during cooler times of the day, and wind down with relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, deep breathing or muscle relaxation.

Create a sleep action plan. Blackout curtains, lighter blankets, and practical gadgets such as fans and air conditioners can help you recharge your batteries during the night.

Step into the light

In addition to self-help, a salad of treatments can help alleviate the symptoms of SAD during the summer months.

"Light therapy may be helpful for some people, and can work within three to five days," confirms Buckley. "It involves daily exposure to a very bright specialist light, usually for a couple of hours a day."

Talking treatments, such as counselling, psychotherapy or cognitive behavioural therapy, can be extremely useful in helping people to cope with symptoms. Antidepressants may also be prescribed for people with severe SAD, and can be combined with light therapy for maximum effect.

"If you're worried about your mental health, it's always a good idea to seek help - even if you're not sure if you are experiencing a specific mental health problem such as SAD or depression," Buckley concludes.

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