Mental health Netdoctor & Patient Info

When summer makes you sad

For many people, the arrival of summer is cause for celebration – a time for barbecues, beaches and the occasional brief interval without rain. Unfortunately, for others the reality isn’t quite so idyllic. For a small but significant proportion of the population, long days and sunny skies actually trigger a form of seasonal depression, which is all the more frustrating for being so poorly understood.

While most people have heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), they will most likely associate the condition with the winter months. However, for as many as 10% of sufferers, the associated fatigue, sadness and irritability present themselves in summer.

Greg Flick, a teacher from New York, spoke to us about some of the realities of living with the condition:

It’s not widely known

“I had always had an affinity to winter and a dislike of summer, but as I entered adulthood my difficulties with summer became more prominent. I’d become aware of winter SAD, but never read about what I experienced – similar symptoms but occurring during the summer.”

The symptoms are physical as well as mental

“The typical symptoms I experience are fatigue, loss of appetite, and increased irritability. I also suffer from atrial fibrillation and I’ve found higher heat and humidity serve as a trigger for me to slip into an irregular heartbeat. Emotionally it feels like my senses are being abraded constantly. It takes much more work to interact with others and not reveal how I’m feeling.”

You constantly face misconceptions

“The general public seems to easily accept winter depression, but not summer depression – I’ve been called crazy more than once. The exhilaration we feel as the winter winds blow and the days shorten is also seemingly incomprehensible to them. People just don’t understand, nor apparently want to.”

It can be isolating

“My key message to someone who thinks they suffer is to research the condition online. That will show them they suffer from a real malady that is shared by a good many people. Summer SAD is an isolating issue, and learning that you’re not alone can help mitigate, in a small way, the frustration we feel about the summer weather.”

Although the condition is still poorly understood, there can be no doubt that summer SAD can be debilitating. Dr Norman Rosenthal, who first described SAD in the 1980s, points out:

“People with summer SAD, as opposed to the winter version, more often experience insomnia, agitation and loss of appetite, in addition to feelings of depression. More seriously, they are at greater risk for suicide than those with winter SAD.

He adds: “Nobody knows for sure what causes summer SAD, but high on the list of suspects is increased heat and increased light. Many patients have found relief from symptoms by keeping cool and avoiding intense sunlight.”

This is borne out by the fact that summer SAD is more common in very warm, humid parts of the world, where extreme temperatures are more likely to give rise to disrupted sleep.

Dr Ian Cook, director of the depression research programme at UCLA, adds that summer SAD often looks much like any other form of depression, albeit with a seasonal pattern. He says that, on top of the potential physiological causes, there may be social factors at stake.

“Summer often means going on holiday and getting out of the usual routines. It can be hard to stay on a regular schedule if, for example, children are on summer holidays. Then there’s the expectation of being outdoors and exposing your body, which may be relevant depending on the individual.”

Not everybody is convinced that summer SAD can be classed as a distinct condition, though. Dr Steven LoBello, a professor of psychology at Auburn University at Montgomery, published research last year suggesting that levels of depressive symptoms don’t change across populations from season to season. As he explains:

“In our data we found no difference whatsoever in the frequency of these problems going  from one season to the next. I think people get depressed at all times of year, but the fact that it’s summer or winter might appeal as an explanation.”

However, all experts in the field concur that if you’re feeling depressed, it’s important to seek help. As Dr Cook puts it:

“Whether it’s seasonal or not, if depression is impairing a person’s function in life, then getting professional help is an important step. This can help prevent it blossoming into anything beyond seasonal depression.”

This article appears on Netdoctor

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