Is your favorite summer activity huddling in a dark room with the AC blasting, while your friends and family enjoy the sunshine? Does the thought of a trip to the beach leave you anxious and depressed? You may feel like a party pooper, but there could well be a physical reason for your plight--each year about 1.6 million Americans suffer from summer-onset Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a condition whose symptoms include depression, anxiety, and an unusual sensitivity to heat and sunlight. Unfortunately, because summer-onset SAD is far less common than its winter cousin, experts have done less research on its etiology and developed fewer treatment options. Although there’s also less public awareness of the condition, those with summer SAD tend to be more agitated and are therefore at higher risk of suicide than those who experience the winter version.
SAD is an episodic subtype of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) or Bipolar Disorder (BD) that occurs in winter or summer. Symptoms surface with the arrival of winter or summer and relent when that season ends. Those with SAD typically experience symptoms of depression such as feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness, loss of interest in activities, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, or even thoughts of death or suicide. They also suffer from an additional set of symptoms that are unique to the season of onset:Summer SAD symptoms:
• Trouble sleeping (insomnia)
• Weight loss
• Poor appetite
• Agitation or anxiety
• Increased sex drive
• Tiredness or low energy
• Problems getting along with other people
• Hypersensitivity to rejection
• Heavy, "leaden" feeling in the arms or legs
• Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
• Weight gain
Although the exact causes of summer-onset SAD are unknown, some scientists believe that the change in seasons may negatively affect brain chemistry and the body’s balance of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep and mood. Researchers and experts have also found that this condition can be exacerbated by overexposure to sunlight, oppressive heat and humidity, allergies, misaligned circadian rhythms, or change in sleeping habits during the long summer days.
Scientists have noted that summer-onset SAD tends to be more prevalent closer to the equator. In fact, some studies have shown that in equatorial countries summer SAD occurs at a higher rate than the winter version.
SAD can be tricky to diagnose. Although this condition affects 4-6% of Americans each year, only about 10% experience summer-onset SAD. A smaller percentage have both winter- and summer-onset SAD, with windows of relief in the fall and spring. Those with year-round MDD or BP can experience SAD in either or both seasons. As SAD only occurs for part of the year, has symptoms and triggers that vary from person to person, and may be masked by depression, it isn’t always easy to identify.
SAD can also be tricky to treat. Though therapies for summer-onset SAD aren’t as developed as those for with the winter version, practitioners have found results with:
• avoiding bright light and heat
• adjusting your sleep schedule
• getting early morning sun
• and taking melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleep
Finding the right treatment plan can take some trial-and-error, and your regimen may include a single therapy or combination of approaches. You can further support your recovery and improve your health with psychotherapy or Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), daily walks, supplements such as Omega-3s, or regular socializing.
Though it can be difficult to seek help and frustrating to try different treatments when you’re feeling hopeless or lethargic, both depression and SAD can persist or worsen without treatment. If you think you may be experiencing either of these conditions, visit your health care provider and get on the road to wellness.