The signs and symptoms of seasonal affective disorder in summer

We often associate the summer with sunshine and feeling happier, however around 10% of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) cases occur during the warmer months. SAD is characterised by a sudden onset of depression or low mood and can be confusing to deal with, especially when everyone else looks like they’re having a great time in the sun.

If you notice your mood fluctuating with seasonal change, you’re not alone. In this article, Mental Health Prevention Lead Lisa Gunn explores the signs, symptoms, and treatments for summertime seasonal affective disorder.

Key takeaways

  • Seasonal affective disorder affects an estimated 5% of the UK population
  • Around 10% of these cases occur during the summer
  • SAD typically means depression or a low mood that comes and goes as seasons change
  • Experts believe causes can be both environmental and psychological
  • Societal expectations around enjoying the summer can make it especially hard to manage

What is seasonal affective disorder?

The NHS definition of seasonal affective disorder is “a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern”. The condition is characterised by changes in mood, energy levels, sleep patterns, and other symptoms that coincide with seasonal variations in light and temperature.

It’s common for people with depression to experience these symptoms throughout the year. SAD is unique in that there is usually a noticeable increase in severity and intensity during certain seasons.

Other names you might see used

You might see summer SAD called several different things. All the descriptions and terms below refer to the same condition, where depressive symptoms get worse during the summer.

These include:

  • Summer SAD
  • Summer-onset SAD
  • Reverse SAD
  • Summer depression
  • Summer-related seasonal depression

What is summertime seasonal affective disorder?

Typically, SAD is associated with the cold and dark winter months. Most people with SAD see their symptoms come on during the autumn and begin to fade during the spring when things start to brighten up.

This is not the case for people with summer seasonal depression. This type of SAD is rarer and sees a complete reversal of the symptom cycle. People with summertime SAD typically see signs of symptoms in the spring that eventually start to fade during the autumn.

How common is it?

Research indicates that around 5% of people in the UK will experience some form of SAD during the year. When it comes to SAD in the summer, it’s estimated that around 10% of all SAD cases occur during the warmer months.

What causes summertime SAD?

Experts and clinicians are not sure what causes seasonal depression in the summer months.

It’s thought that a range of physical, environmental, and psychological factors can contribute to feelings of depression and low mood that come and go as the seasons change.

Potential causes include:

  • Expectations about enjoyment during the summer
  • Self-consciousness and body image issues
  • Having to change and adapt your mental health management techniques
  • Changes to humidity and temperature
  • A lack of adaptation to longer days
  • Disrupted sleep
  • Changes to your routine
  • Physical and mental discomfort when temperatures rise

Signs and symptoms

Seasonal affective disorder presents identical symptoms to depression.

These can range in intensity and severity and affect different individuals in different ways. It’s important to highlight that:

  • Depression
  • Low mood
  • Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Increased levels of aggression
  • Insomnia and difficulty staying asleep
  • Reduced appetite
  • Restlessness
  • Increased levels of fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Lack of interest in socialising
  • Reduced interest in pleasurable activities
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Brain fog

Do geography and location play a part?

Yes, geography and location can play a significant role in the development and experience of SAD. This is especially true for winter-onset SAD, but it also applies to summer-onset SAD too.

When it comes to typical winter SAD, people living in higher latitudes (further from the equator) are at greater risk of developing this form of seasonal depression.

This is because these regions experience more pronounced variations in daylight (longer nights and shorter days in winter). These areas are also more prone to overcast or cloudy weather during the winter, which can exacerbate the lack of sunlight and contribute to the onset of SAD.

Geography and location also influence the onset of summer SAD. Locations with very hot summers can lead to discomfort, dehydration, and disrupted sleep, all of which can amplify depressive symptoms. In regions with long summer days, the extended daylight can also disrupt our body’s natural circadian rhythm, causing sleep disturbance, irritability, and other depressive symptoms.

It's also thought that changes in humidity could be linked to both winter and summer SAD, although research in the area is currently limited.

Treating summertime SAD

If you recognise your mood changing during spring or summer, here are some coping strategies you can use to help manage your mental health:

Speak to a professional

Talk-based therapy is one of many proven methods for tackling depression and SAD. During a session, you’ll be given time to talk about how you’re feeling and discuss the best way to move forward with a professional who understands your problem.

Limit your time in the sun

This doesn’t mean don’t enjoy the summer sun, but make sure you’re not overexerting yourself. Dehydration, sunburn, and general fatigue can all make symptoms of depression worse when it gets hot.

Don’t beat yourself up

Guilt around saying no and obsessing over the fear of missing out are common feelings when it comes to setting boundaries around your own mental health.

Remember that if you suffer with any form of depression, you may need to rearrange your schedule and prioritise events and occasions that work for you. Letting close friends and loved ones know how you’re feeling can be an effective coping strategy in situations like this.

Get enough sleep

Getting enough sleep should always be a priority, but schedules change with the weather and social occasions and nights out can extend the evening during summer. Make sure you’re prioritising self-care and some well-deserved ‘me time’.

If you’re struggling with sleep during the heat of summer, click here for some top tips.

Exercise regularly

Regular exercise is one of the most valuable tools for looking after our mental health. It doesn’t have to mean going for a run in the midday heat either.

Find a routine that works for you and exercise first thing in the morning or late at night if you prefer. If you are stepping outside, make sure you’re following our top tips on exercising in the heat

Don’t be afraid to say no

If an uncomfortable situation arises or you’re invited somewhere you don’t really want to go, don’t be afraid to politely leave or turn down the invitation.

Whilst socialising and being around others can benefit our mental health, forcing ourselves into uncomfortable situations can do more harm than good.

Is depression during the summer the same thing?

It’s important to note that we all experience fluctuations in our mood and mental health from time to time. Things like our work, home life, and circumstances will all play a part in influencing how we feel, whether we’re feeling good or having a tough time.

Many people experience depression throughout the year which will ultimately mean they experience symptoms of SAD during the summer months. Unless you’re experiencing an uptake or onset of symptoms during springtime when the weather starts to change, it’s unlikely that you’re experiencing SAD.

SAD is characterised by an uptake or onset of symptoms as seasons change. In the case of summer-onset SAD, this typically occurs during the spring months when temperatures start to rise and the days start to get a bit longer.

This is not to say that you should ignore your symptoms simply because they’re not necessarily an indication of SAD. Symptoms of depression or any mental health problem should always be explored with a professional if they persist and have a negative impact on your day-to-day life.

When to see a professional

Help for depression and SAD is available.

If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms listed above and feel like SAD is impacting your day-to-day life, consider talking to a professional.

At Nuffield Health, we offer a range of talk-based therapies, including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and counselling for treating seasonal affective disorder. Alternatively, you can book an initial mental health consultation at a time that suits you.

Last updated Wednesday 5 June 2024

First published on Wednesday 5 June 2024