Every year, despite knowing better, I’m surprised that my depression doesn’t magically disappear in the summer. In the winter, sure, of course I’m depressed! It’s cold and dark and all too easy to roll up in a blanket burrito and hibernate. But summer is supposed to be happy. Who cares if I know logically that that’s not how depression works? When the sun’s out and everyone is having fun, the heavy blanket of depression can feel like it’s downright mocking me.
Turns out it’s completely normal to experience summertime sadness that can manifest in a number of ways. A lot of it has to do with the expectation that summer will basically “fix” everything, Guy Winch, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and author of Emotional First Aid, tells SELF. “For some people, it’s very common to wait and wait and wait for summer, but when summer arrives, they realize they had this big fantasy around it. They think, ‘When summer comes, I’ll do all these things and have all these experiences!’ and when that doesn’t materialize, they feel worse.”
Also, some people just hate the summer, which is reason enough to feel awful. In some places, summer is a sweaty, stinky, humid hellscape. The days may turn sluggish, opportunities to feel insecure are around every corner, FOMO rears its ugly head, and sometimes, it seems like everyone else is having the time of their lives while you’re sitting at home in front of the fan.
But all of the above is different from actually feeling depressed—or more depressed—as the weather heats up. In my case, realizing that my depression doesn’t take a summer vacation just makes everything worse.
Some people also deal with a condition known as summer-onset seasonal affective disorder (commonly referred to as reverse SAD or summer SAD), a type of depression that follows a seasonal pattern specific to the spring and summer. Unfortunately, we don’t know exactly what’s going on when seasonal changes send our moods out of whack, Norman Rosenthal, M.D., psychiatrist and the first researcher to describe and name SAD, tells SELF, but there are theories, mostly related to a person’s tolerance for heat or ambient light (we’ll get to that later). The important difference between SAD and other types of depression is that it follows a seasonal pattern, meaning that symptoms are present in certain months (in this case, summer) but completely absent in others. If this isn’t an experience that’s unique to the summer for you, there’s also a chance that it’s a case of major depressive disorder that’s just getting worse in the summer. This is the more likely option if you’re dealing with feelings of sadness and lethargy, because the most common symptoms associated with summer SAD are irritability, poor appetite, insomnia, agitation, restlessness, and anxiety.
No matter why you’re feeling shitty in the summer—whether it’s summer SAD , good ol’ year-round clinical depression, or certain aspects of the season bringing you down—taking care of yourself isn’t exactly intuitive. In winter, there’s advice like getting a sunlamp and making sure to go outside—but what are you supposed to do in the summer when seemingly everyone else is frolicking around unburdened by this totally unseasonal gloom? Luckily, experts have some tips:
1. Acknowledge that this is a thing.
If you’ve noticed this pattern of getting depressed—or more depressed—in the summer, recognizing its seasonality can help you understand the factors that make you feel worse and how you might be able to reverse them. “Depression is depression whenever it occurs and can be treated with many of the same methods, but if it occurs in a special season, that might give you some valuable clues on how to address it,” says Dr. Rosenthal. “You want to take advantage of every piece of information you have.” For instance, maybe it would make sense to schedule extra therapy appointments during the summer if possible.
There’s also value in putting a name to your experience. So many people have positive associations with summer that it’s easy to beat yourself up for being “dramatic” or think that you’re imagining things. Reminding yourself, “OK, this is something real that happens to me,” can offer solace and validation.
2. Drop the image of what summer is “supposed” to look like.
One of the crappy things about summer is that some people have leftover associations from childhood that are so much better than the reality of summer as an adult, says Winch. Like, if your idea of summer used to mean freedom, fun, activities, and endless days, obviously spending the season doing your normal thing absolutely sucks in comparison.
Even if you don’t have all these warm fuzzy memories of summer, you might be hard-pressed to escape messaging about you what summer “should” look like: beaches, swimming, parties, BBQs, fireworks, blah, blah, blah. If you’re feeling pressure to make sure your summer lives up to all of that, first ask yourself if you even like all of that. It can be really helpful to take some time to consider what your ideal summer actually looks like and then find others who feel the same way, says Winch. If your idea of a perfect summer is avoiding the sun at all costs, blasting the A/C, and catching up on all your favorite shows, you’re not alone. (In fact, I’ll join you!)
Of course, if you’re drawn to the makings of a “typical” summer season but it’s not in the cards for you for whatever reason, the idea of lowering your expectations can feel impossible. Telling yourself that it’s OK not to have your dream summer doesn’t magically erase your desire to have that experience. But resolving to do your best not to ruminate on expectations you can’t meet can be freeing, says Winch. Something that can make a big difference here is taking social media with a big, fat grain of salt—remember that people put their best lives forward on social media, and it’s very unlikely that someone is actually having the Best Summer Ever even if it looks that way on Instagram.
3. Be proactive about meeting your own expectations.
All of that said, having expectations isn’t necessarily a bad thing, says Winch. A lot of the time, people have certain expectations for the summer—going to the beach, hanging out with friends, catching up on reading, whatever—and they totally have the ability to meet them. They just…don’t. It happens! Summer is a lethargic season and the call of staying inside in front of your A/C can be so, so seductive. Plus, life doesn’t stop for summer just because we want it to.
But if you know you’re someone who always gets let down by their own expectations, you have to be proactive. “You have to set up the kinds of circumstances that will allow you to enjoy the things you were expecting to enjoy,” says Winch. So if your idea of a great summer is the possibility of a summer fling, you might have to dust off those dating apps, or if you want to make it to the beach, you might have to be the one to rally your friends and make the plan.
If you just read this tip and found yourself thinking, “Wow, easier said than done,” because being proactive truly feels impossible, that’s a possible sign that what you’re dealing with falls outside of summer blues and into depression or summer SAD territory.
4. Stay cool.
Though there hasn’t been a ton of research on the causes of summer-onset SAD specifically, heat is an obvious suspect when considering contributing factors. Various studies have linked high temperatures with depressed and agitated moods and increased mental health emergencies. As researchers have theorized, part of this may come down to heat stress, or basically the various ways that being way too hot can tax the human body and mind. Hotter temperatures can also contribute to poor sleeping patterns, make people feel like they need to stay cooped up inside even if they’d rather be out, and create other factors that can impact mental health.
On top of that, some people might be less tolerant of heat than others. Although the reasons why aren’t clear, Dr. Rosenthal says it possibly comes from problems with the body’s ability to maintain homeostasis. In order to sustain homeostasis, there are multiple systems and mechanisms for stabilizing our internal environments against changing variables—like shivering when it’s cold in order to warm up, or sweating when it’s hot.
“It’s very likely that for some people dealing with summer depression, one or more of these systems isn’t working the way that it should,” says Dr. Rosenthal.
It’s hard to draw the connection definitively since summer SAD is still seriously unresearched compared to its more common winter counterpart, but it’s worth testing whether keeping cool eases any of your depressive symptoms. Many of Dr. Rosenthal’s summer SAD patients find relief spending time somewhere with an A/C, swimming in pools or natural bodies of water, or even taking occasional cold showers, he says.
5. Consider reducing your exposure to light.
This might be surprising, considering that sunlight and light therapy are so commonly suggested to ease depression symptoms, but for some people, light has the opposite effect, says Dr. Rosenthal. There are many reasons why someone might have an adverse reaction to increased light—underlying health issues that cause light sensitivity, for example—but your reaction to light could be another culprit behind your summer sadness. Without a wealth of research, it’s kind of a “the chicken or the egg” type of dilemma—you might feel depressed because of your light sensitivity, or you might be sensitive to light because of your depression. But either way, it’s worth seeing if addressing the issue will help your symptoms.
“These people [might] benefit from dark glasses, blackout shades in their bedroom, and other measures that reduce the amount of ambient light,” says Dr. Rosenthal. Of course, it’s worth noting that this will require some experimentation—there’s no guaranteeing that light sensitivity is what’s causing you trouble. Give blackout shades a try, but ditch them if you find your symptoms getting worse.
6. Try not to isolate yourself.
Social contact is important for your mental health year-round, and summer can be a particularly grueling time to deal with loneliness or isolation. Remember those annoyingly common summer expectations? So many of them place an emphasis on social connectedness: flings, BBQs, parties, the 4th of July, Labor Day weekend.
According to Winch, loneliness can feed on itself, and it’s easy to get stuck in a hard cycle. Even if putting yourself out there is easier said than done, pushing yourself a little might really help you feel better. This could mean being the one to reach out to friends, especially for events when you might feel left out and crappy if you wind up missing out, like the 4th of July. If that sounds like a total nightmare, I get it, but consider this: So often, we’re quick to assume that other people will initiate plans and that if they wanted to see us, they would hit us up. But guess what? A lot of people really suck at making plans. And there’s a good chance they’re following your line of thinking and waiting for you to reach out to them for the same reason. Get how it can be a vicious cycle?
Of course, there will also be times our social life isn’t exactly thriving and we’re left wondering who the heck we should even reach out to in the first place. We’ve all been there—psychologists are calling loneliness an epidemic for a reason. Even if that’s the case, it might still really help to try to be around people, says Winch—go to an event, walk around, volunteer, hang out in public spaces. Doing these things alone might feel weird at first, but for a lot of people, it gets easier, even enjoyable. Just don’t be afraid to start small. Like, there’s no need to jump straight to solo dining, which is definitely at least a level three experience. On the other hand, reading a book in the park is pretty emotionally low-risk.
If just being around people doesn’t scratch the lonely itch, there are also options for actually meeting and hanging out with new people during the summer. Think: sports leagues, summer classes, local Meetups, etc.
7. Know when to seek help.
Tips like these are meant to help you, but it’s always, always important to recognize that they might not be enough. Like Dr. Rosenthal said, depression is depression no matter when you’re dealing with it, and a lot of the time, you can benefit tremendously by treating depression with the help of a professional, whether that’s seeing a therapist, talking to a doctor about medication, or both.
It can be difficult to know when it’s time to seek out help, but Winch has a good rule of thumb. “If you have an idea of what might make you feel better, like seeing friends or going outside, but you’re just not able to motivate yourself, it’s probably a good idea to speak to someone,” he says. These things are important to pay attention to, because you want to know when this feeling is having an impact on your life—like getting in the way of things you used to enjoy and holding you back from your usual routine. “It’s about when you feel stuck and defeated,” says Winch.
All that said, you definitely don’t need to reach a certain low before you look into therapy or medication—if it’s a problem you want help with, you can benefit no matter where on the spectrum of depression or general sadness you happen to be.
By Anna Borges