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How to cope with summertime sadness

For many Americans, summer is a time for fun in the sun—backyard barbecues, rambling road trips, and seaside celebrations. But for some, the season isn’t so sunny. In fact, it can be downright depressing for those dealing with the summertime blues or summer seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that coincides with seasonal changes and affects about a half a million people in the U.S., according to the Cleveland Clinic. While it’s typically associated with winter, for some, it can manifest in the summer instead.  

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Can you have SAD in the summer?

Seasonal affective disorder can occur during any time of the year, but for a patient to receive a SAD diagnosis, it must occur during the same time of year for two years, per the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Meaning, if you have a depressive episode in the summer one year followed by a depressive episode in the winter the next year, you probably don’t have SAD but rather another mood disorder (like major depressive disorder) that you should talk to your doctor about. 

Depression, in general, is an episodic illness. You can be depressed any time of year. If you’re always depressed in the summer, that doesn’t automatically mean you have SAD—which is a rare diagnosis—whereas major depressive disorder is not. To be sure, summer SAD is much less prevalent than winter SAD—it’s believed that just 1% of the U.S. population suffers from the former. And if you do find yourself repeatedly feeling down in the dumps during the warm weather months, there could be another explanation altogether.

“You can have a seasonal pattern of depression that hits in the summer—it may or may not be a seasonal affective disorder,” says Owen Muir, MD, a psychiatrist and co-founder of Brooklyn Minds. “There are potentially a number of explanations for it. That’s the reason I take two hours to do an intake because what seems like an easy answer to something ultimately isn’t.”

A licensed mental health professional can help you understand the nuances between summer SAD and more generalized depression that happens to occur during the summer.

Causes of summer depression

Summer depression can stem from a number of different factors—environmental, genetic, social—though many boil down to the heightened expectations surrounding the season, says Thea Gallagher, Psy.D., director of Outpatient Clinic at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety (CTSA) at the University of Pennsylvania.

“For some people who have social anxiety or an eating disorder, these are definitely trigger time frames because there is more time to be social and more time to wear less clothing,” she says. “Also, if you’re not in a great place financially, there is more expectation to spend money to do things.”

Social media can also make the disparity between your friend’s high-flying summer and your low-key summer more acute. It’s easy to get caught in a sort of never-ending cycle, says Gallagher.

“Ironically, I think what people do is they beat themselves up for feeling what they’re feeling and it only makes it worse,” she says.    

In addition to social factors, there are a number of environmental factors at play that can cause seasonal depression or SAD. For instance, while SAD in the winter is thought to stem from a lack of light, the reverse is thought to be true of summer SAD. Those 6 a.m. sunrises and longer days can throw off circadian rhythms—the body’s natural wake-and-sleep cycle—leading to less restorative shut-eye and other physical and mental health side effects. Plus, schedules are often disrupted for a number of reasons (no school! vacations!) in summer.

Gallagher says that some people are also less tolerant of high temperatures. Summer heat and humidity can make the summer months incredibly uncomfortable and lead to loss of appetite, weight loss, and anxiety.

Sometimes there is an easily identifiable cause for depression. Other times, it just happens, without an obvious explanation. Unfortunately, the research into summer SAD is limited, and there is still a lot that doctors don’t understand about what causes summer-onset depression and how it affects those who have it.

8 symptoms of summer depression

Be mindful of these signs and symptoms of depression:

  1. Trouble sleeping
  2. Loss of appetite
  3. Weight loss
  4. Anxiety (including over body image and financial issues)
  5. Isolating yourself socially
  6. Feeling unmotivated to complete tasks
  7. Not finding pleasure in the things that used to bring you pleasure
  8. Feelings of guilt or thoughts of death or suicide

At what point should you see a physician? Gallagher says if you’re having trouble getting out of bed in the morning or you can’t control your thoughts or it’s hard for you to feel happy or spend time with loved ones, it’s time to seek treatment.

How to treat summertime blues

Treatment for your summertime depression will depend on its symptoms and severity. A mental health professional may recommend behavioral and/or medicinal therapies, including:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This entails working with a therapist to identify negative thought patterns and replace them with positive ones. Gallagher says that to do this, a therapist may recommend certain behavioral activations, like pushing yourself to do the things you once enjoyed doing and evaluating how you feel afterward. 
  • Medication: If you’re already on a prescription for anxiety or depression, your health care provider may alter your medication regimen slightly starting in late spring and then coming back down in the fall. If you’re not currently on medication, you may be prescribed an antidepressant to help combat your summertime depression.

Gallagher also recommends getting at least four to five days of exercise per week. “We do know that exercise has been compared to low-dose SSRI medication for mild depression—there are a lot of benefits to that chemically,” she says. 

She also stresses that maintaining a regular schedule is important (like going to bed at the same time every night to get enough sleep), as is socializing with friends and family, at least as much as local COVID-19 restrictions allow, of course.

RELATED: How to find a therapist during a pandemic

For more information on seeking help or treatment for depression, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health or call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration helpline at 1-800-662-HELP. If you or anyone you know is suffering from suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit the nearest emergency room.