Seasonal depression is a regular mood disorder. People often associate it with winter because the colder months and shorter days make people feel sluggish, agitated and even desperate. However, seasonal depression may also appear in the summer when sweltering heat, more sunshine and social stress are overwhelming.
"Seasonal affective disorder presents with depressive symptoms during specific seasons," said Dr. Kristin Crawford, associate medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. "These symptoms are sometimes severe enough to meet the criteria for major depressive disorder."
USA Today spoke with Crawford about the factors that can lead to summer seasonal depression, who is most at risk and how those who suffer can cope.
Question: What causes summer seasonal depression?
Christine Crawford: (In) the summer, despite the sunshine, there are many other factors, especially environmental and social, that may make people more prone to depressive symptoms.
One study looked at pollen exposure levels and found that for some people, in the summer, when they're exposed to more pollen, it makes them more agitated and more irritable, and that can affect their mood and their day-to-day outlook on life.
Some people really need to rely on darkness to start their circadian rhythms and know it's time to sleep. The daylight hours provided in the summer can actually negatively affect the sleep/wake cycle for some people. When sleep is interrupted, it is more difficult to regulate emotions throughout the day.
Q: What social and environmental factors can contribute to summer seasonal depression?
Crawford: For some people, summer means a major change in the structure of their daily routine and daily life. Maybe they don't get as much regular sleep as they used to, or stop participating in certain activities to stay physically active to ensure they stay connected to society.
We are socialized to believe that summer equals happiness. When you see everyone wearing their summer clothes, going on vacation and showing off their fit and healthy bodies, for some people it can affect their overall self-esteem and cause psychological stress.
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Q: Are some people more likely to suffer from summer seasonal depression?
Crawford: If you're already having challenges sleeping, getting to bed on time and staying asleep, it's important to talk to your primary care provider about what options are available to ensure you get a good night's sleep. If you're not getting enough rest, that may increase your likelihood of developing the symptoms of depression.
People who may have a family history of depression are also at greater risk, as well as people who may experience significant stressors in their lives that can affect their ability to maintain structure, daily living, good sleep, good exercise and social support. All of these are important to an overall good mood.
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Q: Are there gender differences in susceptibility?
Crawford: Overall, seasonal affective disorder tends to affect women four times more than men. When we think about making some changes to daily life during the summer months, the most important is the shift in school and work caretaker responsibilities, which can be quite burdensome for specific family members.
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When you move from a situation where you need a lot of support to one where you have to provide all the activities for the kids and how to keep them busy, it creates a huge amount of stress. At the same time, you're exhausted and your energy is low. Many parents don't have the time and flexibility in their schedules for self-care because they put the health and well-being of their children first.
Sometimes we can overdo it during the summer months, especially when we are trying to make summer as meaningful, memorable and fun as possible for our children.
Q: If you are experiencing symptoms of summer seasonal depression, how do you cope?
Crawford: I really encourage people to set limits and know how to set strict boundaries with people about what you're willing to do in the summer. Often, we're used to saying "yes" to everything and not wanting to let other people down or turn down certain invitations, but if you really need to sleep in and take care of yourself, skip brunch or take a trip to the beach.
Get a good night's sleep… There is a special form of treatment called cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, which can be a very useful tool that people can use on their own.
If you're struggling, tell someone you trust. Sometimes, part of self-care is knowing how to let other people take care of you.