Perhaps you thought the song "Summertime Sadness" was just Lana Del Rey being her melancholic self, but no: For some people, the warmest, sunniest days of the year bring on internal gloom, fatigue, malaise. Most of us probably associate seasonal affective disorder (SAD) with winter — a logical assumption to make about a stretch of cold, dark days that always seems to go on for about twice as long as it should — but as it turns out, about 10 percent of people with SAD (roughly four to six percent of the U.S. population) feel it in the summer.
This phenomenon comes with its own logic, though: The summer can feel a little aimless. Many workplaces seem to slow down, people leave town constantly, and daily routines lose consistency. People may be out more (and at all hours), structure may break down, things may feel more frivolous — sometimes, it may feel as though nothing matters much, and we're all just filling time between mid-week holidays and weekends. The free-for-all aspect can be fun, and the burst of nice weather means people can finally get outside and play. But for some, you may feel prickly in relentless, humid heat, and you may find that the thought of ingesting anything even remotely warm makes you want to barf. I for one would prefer to turn my apartment into an AC cabinet and shut myself inside when peak summer hits, but then comes the guilt at turning down plans to undertake some big, outdoorsy adventure my friends have been talking about for months.
So yes, it makes sense why some people get the summertime blues. The carefree vibe creates a kind of existential static that can feel deeply unsettling.
Regardless of whether we're talking winter or summer, SAD is depression triggered by the onset of a particular season. "There’s not a lot known about summertime depression, because so much of our effort has been put toward understanding wintertime depressive symptoms," Dr. Lindsay Henderson, a psychologist with the telehealth app, LiveHealth Online, tells Bustle. But whether it strikes in summer or winter, SAD symptoms mirror the common components of depression: Disruption in appetite, sleep cycles, mood, irritability, loss of interest in favorite activities, and difficulty concentrating. Whereas winter SAD usually means people sleep and eat more than usual, and may feel more lethargic, summer SAD can announce itself with a loss of appetite, insomnia, agitation, anxiety, and possible weight loss. As mentioned, research has traditionally favored wintertime SAD, but Henderson says the two prevailing theories for the summer subset are light and heat.
"While a lack of light can be a problem in the wintertime, too much light can be a problem in the summertime," she says. "It can disrupt the melatonin production within our bodies." The brain secretes melatonin, the hormone that facilitates sleepy feels, when the sun sets; long days can set the natural hormonal balance off kilter, preventing people from getting their recommended eight hours in the summer. A lack of sleep can throw off your emotional response, and also cue depression — and unfortunately, the hormonal factors here can be compounded by high temperatures in the summer. Some people cannot even approach snooze state when it's hot outside.
"Not everyone deals well with the heat," Henderson says. "You can be both lethargic or you can be really revved up and agitated by the heat." Put that together with insomnia, she continues, and you can see where summer puts people in strange moods.
There may be social components at work, too. "Everyone talks about how wonderful the summer is," Henderson says. "Everyone is looking forward to the summer, and they’re doing exciting things, and they’re more social," but some of us just don't work that way. While most people will agree that winter can be the pits, people put summer on a pedestal, and when you're the one who requires downtime and some seclusion, the inherent pressure to make hay while the sun shines can be isolating. And then, taking time to yourself, indoors and away from your friends, creates space for FOMO (fear of missing out) to creep in. Relatedly, the constant activity and the trips and the revelry can tear away at our daily routines, making work less productive and potentially breeding resentment among those who cannot, for whatever reason, step away from their obligations.
"All of us need structure and predictability to some degree, some of us need it more than others," says Henderson. "When schedules and deadlines kind of go out the window all summer long, and everything is a little less predictable, that can leave some people really floundering. It’s hard to stay motivated and on top of things if four people in your office are on vacation that week, and you can’t get anything done without them."
See why summer sort of sucks? What makes it worse is that the things we usually associate with managing SAD — light therapy, for example — are the very things that mess with our moods during these hottest of months. Still, there are things we can do to mitigate summertime sadness.
"The most important thing is to find a routine and predictability that keeps your healthy habits in place," Henderson says. Need to be in bed early? Look into blackout curtains — and don't feel bad about closing them early. "Give yourself permission to make your house dark in the evening so that you are doing what you need to do to unwind for the day and prepare for a restful night’s sleep."
Even if the 100-degree heat makes you feel constantly nauseated, you need to eat three healthy meals each day, Henderson says. You also need to get comfortable with your own boundaries: If your body suffers without sleep on its regular schedule, don't feel badly about skipping the week's thousandth barbecue. "It's OK to pull the blinds down and read a book in the evening instead of being outside," Henderson says. The weather is nice, yes, but that doesn't mean you need to be awake and enjoying it 24 hours per day, seven days per week. Unfortunately, the weather — sweltering terror that it is — will still be there tomorrow.
In order to help you sort through your feelings, of course, it helps to enlist a therapist: An internet stranger can tell you not to be so hard on yourself and stick to eating healthy, hell you can tell yourself to do all of these things, but that's not the same thing as internalizing them. Work with a professional whose whole job is helping people manage their interior storms. Also because you may not actually be dealing with SAD at all.
"There is a difference between seasonal blues and more serious seasonal depression," Henderson says. "I think that there are a lot of us who noticed some changes in our moods with changes in the seasons, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have a diagnosable disorder."
In fact, it's probably more common that you think. "It’s really normal to have changes in mood, symptoms and feelings," she says, "without having a diagnosable psychiatric disorder."