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Summer is not sunny for everyone: What it's like to have seasonal depression now

For some people longer, sunnier days cause summertime SAD and they find themselves hiding and not enjoying the long sunny days.
/ Source: TODAY

When May arrives, Lindsey Smith withdraws. She skips picnics, hikes, vacations and pool days. Sometimes she just sits on her couch in the air conditioning. When people invite her out, she often declines. If she goes to an event, she wants to leave immediately.

“I just call it ‘going dark.’ In June, I just go dark. It is really difficult for me. I feel like I have to do so much more to maintain,” Smith, 30, an author in Pittsburgh, told TODAY. “I started saying ‘I hate summer’ but I was struggling with seasonal depression in the summer.”

For years, Lindsey Smith simply thought she hated summer. But it turns out she has summertime SAD. She traveled to Iceland and Denmark in November and felt at peace in the cold dark weather.Lindsey Smith

Seasonal depression, otherwise known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), is a type of depression that is caused by changing seasons. Most know about wintertime SAD, when people feel depressed during the dark, cold winter months. But there’s a smaller group of people who experience summertime SAD.

“It is a thing. It is not as common as winter SAD,” Kathryn Roecklein, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, told TODAY. "We don’t have a lot of research on summer SAD."

Yet, there are several theories explaining why seasons influence depression. In winter, not being exposed to enough sunlight and UV rays changes the body’s internal clock, the circadian clock, and that causes some people to experience depression. This is well understood, Roecklein said. The mechanism behind summertime SAD is less understood, but likely still relates to how sun and UV light contribute to how people feel.

“Heat, sun and UV exposure limit people’s ability to engage in pleasant activities,” she said. “It reduces your positive mood and increases depression.”

Julie Wolfe relates to this theory. For 22 years she lived in Los Angeles and felt miserable with so many sunny, hot days.

“I was just (miserable). I could not help it,” the 47-year-old screenwriter told TODAY. “I have no patience. I am short tempered. I just kind of lose my chill.”

Wolfe never went to the beach and only took her son to Disneyland when it rained. She finally moved to Connecticut because she craved dark, cooler weather.

“I feel like we are living our natural lives and not stuck inside with air conditioning for eight months,” she said.

How to recognize summertime SAD

People with summertime SAD experience similar symptoms as those with winter SAD or major depression disorder, such as losing interest in fun activities, feeling depressed, hopeless or worthless and struggling to concentrate. Other more common summertime SAD symptoms include:

  • Loss of appetite and weight loss
  • Insomnia
  • Agitation
  • Restlessness
  • Episodes of violent behavior

For Smith, eating during the summer feels tough. The thought of eating hot food turns her stomach. Recently, she started eating more raw vegetables or smoothies just so she’s consuming something.

“I don’t want to cook. It is just another heat element,” she said. “So I try to think of different ways of eating.”

What to do if you experience symptoms

While experts understand that SAD occurs in the summer, many people do not think they “should” be depressed in warm months. This might cause them to force themselves to do things they won’t enjoy. But it also creates a bigger problem: They don’t ask for help.

“There is probably the ‘Hey I shouldn’t be feeling this way’ that would definitely be inhibiting them seeking out and getting treatment,” Dr. Thea Gallagher, clinic director at the Center for Treatment and Study of Anxiety in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, told TODAY.

Treatment includes cognitive behavioral therapy and medication, and Gallagher urges people to seek help if they notice symptoms of summertime SAD or depression. She stresses that depression happens year round.

“The first step is just accepting that this is something that people experience. Like all mental health, sometimes we don’t control when we feel certain ways,” she said.

What makes summertime SAD more complicated is that there’s a lot of pressure so people feel like they have to participate even when they don’t feel up for it.

“There are these implied expectations and people aren’t talking about the challenges," Gallagher said. “You can feel isolated and alone when everyone is having fun."

Smith hopes that awareness will help others like her.

“I do think there is definitely more of a stigma to summertime depression,” Smith said. “The more people that talk about it, the more it will give more people permission to get the help they need and know they are not alone.”