For many people, summer is a happy time, filled with pool parties, barbeques, and vacations, but people who experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD) during the summer months often find themselves dreading the heat and longer days.
Dr. Norman Rosenthal, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine, is credited with describing and naming SAD, a mood disorder that is most often associated with the winter months because of the link between reduced sunlight and depression.
Rosenthal sent out a survey to find out more about people with winter SAD and got thousands of responses. Many people reported that their moods dropped during the winter, confirmed his assumption about winter SAD, but he noticed that several people also reported their moods were affected in the summer. “That really made us realize there were other kinds of seasonal problems [than] winter SAD,” he says. And it led to him discovering summer SAD.
Diagnosing summer SAD
Winter SAD and summer SAD are each entities in their own right; aside from the time of year they occur, the two present differently, notes Rosenthal, author of the forthcoming book Defeating SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder): A Guide to Health and Happiness Through All Seasons.
“With winter SAD, people are sluggish. They need more sleep. They overeat, especially sweets and starches, and they gain weight. In contrast, with summer SAD, people tend to eat less, and they may lose weight. Instead of [being] sluggish, they’re rather agitated and antsy,” he says.
In Defeating SAD, Rosenthal discusses two ways that summer SAD differs from winter SAD:
- Summer SAD tends to come on more quickly and may not appear as consistently year to year as its winter counterpart.
- Those suffering from summer SAD are at a higher risk of suicide. Increased energy in the summer months as well as higher rates of suicide occurring during spring and summer months play a role in this.
Summer SAD can often be confused with general depression, which affects people year-round, notes Ashley Lowe-Simmons, a licensed clinical social worker who has spoken about summer SAD previously and has worked with clients with this condition. She says that the best way to differentiate the two is by recognizing patterns in a client’s history.
In a blog post about summer SAD, Rosenthal lists symptoms that people with summer SAD are more likely to report:
- Sleeping less
- Feeling overactivated and easily agitated
- Having a smaller appetite
- Having increased suicidal thoughts
- Being bothered by heat or light
Although some of these symptoms could indicate general depression, if they consistently occur around summer and are not an issue during the rest of the year, then it may indicate the person is suffering from summer SAD.
“It’s important for the mental health professionals to ensure that they get complete and thorough evaluations when assessing individuals,” Lowe-Simmons stresses.
The fear of missing out in the summer
People often have an idealized view of summer — one gleaned from pop culture and social media—and think they should be having nonstop fun. They imagine themselves enjoying the warmer weather and spending lots of time outdoors. But this perception can make it challenging for those struggling with summer SAD to recognize their condition, says Alyssa Mairanz, a licensed mental health counselor who specializes in depression.
Summer is often a time filled with vacations and outdoor activities. Kids and young adults are often out of school, and many people try to spend a little less time in the office. But people with summer SAD might not be able to enjoy the extra time off. Going to the beach may sound like a terrible time to them, for example, but avoiding it may mean spending less time with their loved ones, which can make them feel even worse, Mairanz notes.
They feel as though they’re missing out, she says. In the winter, many people stay inside and aren’t as active in the summer, so those with winter SAD don’t experience the same anxiety around missing out on activities, Mairanz explains.
Seeing people be more active during the summer can make those suffering from summer SAD feel like an outsider, and they often judge themselves harshly for not being able to join in, she adds.
Treating triggers for summer SAD
Temperature and light are major factors for those suffering from summer SAD. They feel as though they suffer from getting too much light in the summer. People “can’t bear the dazzling light,” says Rosenthal, to the point where the light is painful for them.
Counselors can help clients with summer SAD by helping them adjust their exposure to lights in the summer. Rather than adding more lights to their routine, they reduce some of the lighting in their homes by dimming lights, closing blinds or adding blackout curtains, Rosenthal says.
Heat in the summer may also be an issue. Some people who suffer from SAD in the summer have issues with heat regulation (i.e., they are less tolerant to hot weather), and others find themselves more irritable during the summer months.
Mairanz often recommends clients use air conditioning and cold baths or showers to help with temperature regulation. Going to the movies, where it’s dark and often much cooler, is a great way to have fun outside the home while still staying out of the sun, she says.
Although it might seem like a good idea to stay inside during the summer, Mairanz cautions clients against this because it could cause the person to further isolate themselves and worsen their mood. Instead, she advises clients to go outside and build up their tolerance to the sun and heat by taking short walk outside with a small fan and sunglasses, or if that isn’t a good fit for them, then she recommends they find things they can do indoors with loved ones, rather than spending time alone.
“It’s a matter of doing all the little things that you can do to help yourself,” Mairanz says. Having a support system can be extremely helpful, to ensure the person doesn’t fall into complete isolation, she adds.
Medications such as antidepressants may be helpful for some clients, Rosenthal adds. Counselors can work with psychiatrists and other medical professionals to figure out the best plan for the client and how clinical therapies can work in conjunction with any medication the client may need.
Rosenthal is concerned that issues related to heat tolerance and summer SAD might increase with rising temperatures worldwide. This summer has been one of the hottest on record, and experts agree that summer temperatures will continue to rise. “It’s becoming more and more of an issue so I think we have to be more cognizant,” he adds.
Samantha Cooper is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at email@example.com.
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