“I’m sure I’ll feel better once the warm weather comes.” As a psychiatrist, I hear this a lot from my patients who struggle with depression during the winter. And, often, they’re right. Anyone who lives here know winters in New England can be cold, dark and long! The warm days of summer not only bring more daylight hours and good weather, but lots of opportunities for fun with family and friends, all of which can help people with depression feel better. But, feeling good often isn’t as simple as turning the page on the calendar.
While many people are aware of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), we assume everyone with SAD is more prone to depression in the winter. However, studies indicate approximately 10% of people with SAD will experience depression during the summer, something I’ll call reverse SAD. In fact, data indicates not only is the timing of depression different for these folks, their symptoms are different, too. In classic SAD, patients typically complain of increased fatigue, food cravings and weight gain, but those with reverse SAD more often experience insomnia, decreased appetite, irritability and weight loss. We in psychiatry still have a lot to learn about why this might be, but part of the reason might be for those with reverse SAD, the early sunrises and long twilit evenings of summer are too much of a good thing.
Brain function is highly sensitive to light exposure- this is the reason psychiatrists often recommend light therapy to those with classic SAD and the reason our electronic devices and the light they emit are often accused of robbing us of precious sleep. Light receptors in the retina at the back of the eye send powerful signals to the brain about what time of day it is; and the brain, in turn, communicates that information to the body via chemical signals called neurotransmitters. And, just as too little light during the winter can leave those with classic SAD depressed, too much light during the summer can be equally disruptive and contribute to reverse SAD.
It’s important to remember, though, that summertime depression isn’t limited to those with reverse SAD. For some, the idea of summer as a time to enjoy with family and friends may emphasize the lack of close relationships in their life, leaving them feeling lonely and unworthy. Some people experience feelings of shame and inadequacy about their bodies when faced with needed to wear summer clothes or bathing suits. The disruption of the school-year routine can leave parents feeling over-whelmed by the logistics of keeping their kids safe, healthy and occupied all summer. For others, summer is the anniversary of the loss of a loved one or an unresolved trauma. These are all difficult feelings to manage at any time of the year, but perhaps more so during a time we New Englanders eagerly anticipate for so many months, a time when we are supposed to be having so much fun.
So, what to do when summer depression has you feeling sad, unmotivated, or unable to enjoy things? First, making sure you get enough sleep, exercise regularly and eat enough fruits and vegetables can really help. I know it sounds simple, but these changes really can make a big difference. Even a brief, brisk walk is enough to get your endorphins flowing and fresh fruits and vegetables are full of nutrients your brain needs to function correctly. Remember those neurotransmitters I mentioned before? Your brain can’t manufacture some of them without the right vitamins and minerals. I often tell my patients if I could wave a magic wand and make everyone in my practice sleep, exercise and eat more whole foods, I’d be writing a lot fewer prescriptions. Second, letting a trusted friend or family member know how you are feeling can help you feel less alone and allow them to better support you. If you aren’t in treatment already, think about seeing a therapist, a psychiatrist or your primary care physician to create a plan to help you feel better. If you are already in treatment, talk to your therapist or psychiatrist and work with them to consider whether antidepressant medications (either starting one or changing what you take currently), a course of TMS, or other treatments are appropriate.
Finally, what if your summer depression is worse than that? What if, in the midst of all of the beautiful weather, you’re wishing you could simply disappear or even having thoughts of ending your life? Safety first. If you find yourself wanting to die, or having thoughts of ending your life, please reach out. If you don’t have a doctor or therapist to talk to, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You matter and you can feel better.
Depression in the Summer
Written by Dr. Jennifer Boisture
Achieve TMS East Psychiatrist