Summer Seasonal Depression: How the Sun and Heat Affect Mental Health

Katy Kandaris-Weiner, LPC

Most people commonly think about seasonal depression in the winter. The short and dark days, the cold weather, the gray—for many, these amount to being stuck indoors and spawning a depressive episode.

However, seasonal depression isn’t a winter disorder. It can affect people during any time of year. For those who’ve experienced the summer heat of Arizona, it might come as no surprise.

In this article, we’re going to talk about:

  • The symptoms of summer seasonal depression
  • What can cause summer seasonal depression
  • How it looks different in summer and winter
  • What to do to prevent it and cope with it

If you don’t feel excited for summer and find that it brings you down—you’re not the only one.

Seasonal Depression Overview

Seasonal depression is better known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. Many refer to it still as winter depression, but we know that’s a misnomer.

SAD is defined as a recurrent depressive episode that presents during the same four to five months out of the year. Doctors usually diagnose SAD after a client has shown symptoms for at least two years. 

Read More About Depressive Disorders and SAD.

Summer Seasonal Depression Symptoms

The reason many people don’t recognize that they may have summer-pattern SAD is that the symptoms don’t fit the melancholia that many associate with a depressive episode. 

Some depression symptoms overlap into anxiety disorders. These are the common symptoms of summer-pattern SAD.

  • Anxious feelings
  • Irritability
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss
  • Sleeping less
  • Feelings of emptiness or worthlessness

Of course, like with all depressive disorders and mental health struggles, everyone with SAD will show varying symptoms with varying intensity. 

Summer seasonal depression symptoms often look like anxiety symptoms

Why Do People Get Depressed in the Summer?

Summer has often been viewed as the happiest season for a lot of people. The weather is nice enough to get outside, kids are off of school, flowers are blooming—but summer also brings a lot of variables and disruptions:

  • Extra light disrupting sleep patterns
  • Excessive heat causing emotional dysregulation
  • Upturned schedules creating stress

Even if someone isn’t predisposed to depression, these summer attributes can sometimes turn into too much of a good thing. For those with SAD, they turn into depressive episode triggers.  

summer seasonal depression triggers include extra light, excessive heat, and disrupted schedules

Extra Light

A lot of people in the northern hemisphere love the fact that the sun doesn’t go down until well into the evening during spring and summer. However, some people are sensitive to the extra long days and end up with sleep issues.

Humans evolved our sleep-wake cycle, our circadian rhythm, to match the day-night pattern of the earth. Daylight naturally awakens us, and the dark of night naturally puts us to sleep.

Extended daylight hours mean that our natural “wake up” signals happen closer together and for longer than what one was accustomed to, leading to less sleep for many people. Less sleep makes us irritable and anxious, which perpetuates the cycle of insomnia.

Upturned Schedules

It’s not uncommon to feel pressure to squeeze in as many activities as possible during the summer months. It does seem like the perfect opportunity to do the things the weather or school prevented people from doing. 

However, cramming in activities and vacations is tiring. The fatigue can trigger a depressive episode. These activities can also trigger financial stress, or even for some, a fear that they aren’t doing “enough.”

Related Article: Stress Management

Excessive Heat

Especially in the Valley here in Arizona, heat is a problem. It makes it impossible to spend much meaningful time outside, it increases energy bills from blasting A/C, and it causes fatigue. 

The emotional dysregulation that excessive heat can cause can trigger a depressive episode. 

We understand how summer can be difficult for some. The Inner Balance Counseling office is located in Mesa, Arizona—where the summers are notoriously hot and long. Our online therapy options for SAD can help anyone needing  help coping with the season. Reach out today and start  feeling better.

Summer-Pattern vs Winter-Pattern SAD

While SAD is technically the same disorder no matter what time of year someone experiences it, it often looks quite different depending on the time of year it occurs.

The primary difference between summer-pattern SAD and winter-pattern SAD is the symptoms they show. The reason that seasonal depression looks so different depending on the season comes down to two neurotransmitters:

  • Serotonin
  • Melatonin
summer pattern vs winter pattern seasonal depression

Low Energy and Melancholy in Winter

The dark and gloomy days of winter decrease our serotonin levels. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter responsible for good moods. Sunlight causes our bodies to create vitamin D.

Vitamin D has been proven to play a role in serotonin production and dispersal. Less sun can cause the stereotypical feelings of depression such as feelings of emptiness, loneliness, and hopelessness.

Related Article: Mental Health and the Holidays

Anxiety and Irritability in Summer

It might seem like sunshine and summer are the perfect cures for winter depression. Indeed, vitamin D supplements and UV lamps are recommended treatments for winter depression.

However, it’s possible to swing too far in the other direction. Once again, the increased daylight hours upset people’s circadian rhythms. One of the main agents that make this rhythm work is melatonin—the sleep hormone. 

Our brains release melatonin when it gets dark. So when it’s lighter out for longer, our melatonin levels drop and we stay awake. This is why summer depression symptoms include irritability, irrationality, and less sleep.

Increased Risk of Suicide in the Summer

Summer depression is considered the more “energetic” version of SAD. People are likely to act on their negative emotions and cognitions. This has been linked to the increase of suicide cases in summer months.  

If you or someone you know has expressed suicidal thoughts, call 988 or 911 immediately.

Dealing with Summer-Pattern SAD

Like other forms of depression, summertime depression can be treated. Many of the same coping mechanisms that work for anxiety can be used, but it’s important to tailor them to summertime depression triggers.

Get Sleep

Getting the right amount of sleep helps with cognitive function and emotional regulation. Obviously, getting more is easier said than done, but it’s important in managing seasonal depression. 

If you recognize that you have summer-pattern SAD, there are a few things you can do to regulate your sleep.

  • Get blackout curtains
  • Talk to your doctor about melatonin supplements
  • Maintain a sleep schedule 

Your doctor may offer other ways to appropriately lower stress and energy levels to get quality sleep.

Maintain a Schedule

In addition to managing energy levels and sleep patterns, a consistent schedule can help keep depression at bay. Routine and a level of predictability is comforting for most people, more so for those with mental health struggles.

Be conscious of overbooking yourself. It’s easy to get carried away with plans now that the sun is high. However, a packed schedule can lead to fatigue, burnout, and a depressive episode. 

Go to bed and wake up at the same time as often as possible. Keep a night or two a week reserved for “me time,” a date night, or a specific low-key activity that you do year-round. Don’t dramatically alter your eating habits just for summertime. Obviously, there’s always room for something out of the ordinary, but be careful of significant disruptions to your daily routine.

how to fight summer seasonal depression

Talk to a Counselor

It’s not uncommon for those with summer-pattern SAD to feel “broken.” The winter blues are common, but the summer blues are far less so. While therapy can help those with all types of depression, especially those with summer-pattern SAD. 

Related Article: How to Email a Therapist for the First Time

Inner Balance counseling is based in Mesa, Arizona. We understand that summer depression is real, and can truly disrupt your enjoyment of life. Talk to us today, and we’ll strategize how to feel confident and grounded as the weather warms up.

You’re not alone in how you feel. Reach out today so we can help you live the life you deserve.

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Katy Kandaris-Weiner, LPC

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