Researchers say it’s less common than winter sadness, but this summer ailment should not be taken lightly.
Do you dread summer? Can’t stand the heat? Does the bright sunshine drag you down?
If so, you could be experiencing a type of summer depression that can actually be quite serious.
There’s a name for it. And more importantly, there’s a way to treat it.
It’s called summer seasonal affective disorder, or summer SAD.
If that term sounds a bit familiar, you’ve probably already heard of its slightly older relative, commonly known as the winter blues.
Dr. Norman E. Rosenthal, a researcher, author, and a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C., was the first to identify that disorder 35 years ago.
“After we recognized the winter form of seasonal affective disorder, it soon became apparent that there was a significant minority of people who suffered in the summer in an analogous way,” Rosenthal told Healthline.
“These folks identify the summer as a time of particular difficulty for them,” he added. “They are dysfunctional, can’t get their work done. They struggle, don’t enjoy things. They have the classic symptoms of depression.”
Rosenthal warns that summer SAD shouldn’t be taken lightly.
“It’s a serious condition. When we compared summer and winter, we found that the summer folks were sleeping less, eating less, and they were more likely to be suicidal,” he said.
“In the clinical experience, often suicidal risk happens when people who are also suicidal are activated. Certainly, that describes the summer form,” he added. “People are depressed, but they are also energized and not in a pleasant way.”
So, how do you know if you have this summer disorder?
We put that question to Scott Bea, an assistant professor of medicine at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine and a psychotherapist who specializes in treating anxiety and mood disorders.
“The summer version of seasonal depression is rather rare, about 10 percent of all cases of seasonal depression,” Bea told Healthline. “That means it would be experienced by less than 1 percent of the population.”
“There seems to be an increased prevalence in areas closer to the equator,” he added.
Bea says your history is important in making a diagnosis.
Doctors would look for a set of psychological symptoms that follow a summer pattern for at least two consecutive years.
“Symptoms such as irritability, difficulty sleeping, restlessness, or agitation may characterize the disturbance in mood in the summer version of seasonal depression,” he said.
Patients with winter SAD are sometimes treated with a light box.
Rosenthal says, unfortunately, there’s no equivalent therapy for those experiencing summer SAD.
He says his patients first try things they can do on their own.
Cold baths and showers, cranking up the air conditioner, staying indoors, wearing dark glasses, using blackout shades in their homes, just to name a few.
“But most people with this problem rely on medicine,” Rosenthal said. “Some of my people, I start their antidepressants as early as March, when the first signs of symptoms are there. I try to catch them early to keep ahead of the summer depression.”
“I encourage them to do the medication along with the other non-pharmacological things that have fewer side effects,” he added.
There are multiple theories, but so far, researchers have no firm answers.
“There are theories about the role that a reduced level of the sleep-regulating hormone melatonin might play in summer seasonal depression,” Bea said.
“Another is that a disruption in circadian rhythms with more daylight hours might be a factor, according to some who have studied this condition,” he added. “But, unfortunately, because of its low prevalence, it doesn’t get as much research.”
“Even in the better-described winter depression, we still don’t know what are the exact pathways that make some people need more light than others,” Rosenthal said.
“Hippocrates said some people are well-attuned to summer and others are well-attuned to winter. It was recognized even in ancient Greece,” he added. “They didn’t know why then, and I would venture to say we still don’t know.”
If you suspect you might have summer SAD, don’t just ignore it.
“The seriousness of depression should never be underestimated,” Rosenthal said.
“People lose jobs, relationships, self-esteem, money, and time,” he added. “Depression is a thief. It steals your joy.”