Got that Summertime Sadness? You’re Not Alone!

UT Health Austin clinical social worker reveals seasonal affective disorder may not be limited to the cold, dark winter months

Reviewed by: Maj Henriksson, LCSW
Written by: Lauren Schneider

A woman reclining under a large tree facing a body of water.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), commonly known as seasonal depression, is a form of depression popularly believed to occur as temperatures drop and nights grow longer. Recently, an increasing awareness of SAD manifesting during the summer has emerged among researchers and the public.

“Summer SAD is not as well-researched as winter SAD,” says licensed clinical social worker Maj Henriksson, LCSW, a member of UT Health Austin’s Integrated Behavioral Health care team who also serves in UT Health Austin’s Infectious Disease Clinic, Primary Care Clinic, and Rheumatology Clinic.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, while summer SAD and winter SAD have many symptoms in common, the two conditions may present slightly differently.

Symptoms of summer SAD may include:

  • Depressed mood most or all of the time
  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Appetite changes, especially decreased appetite
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Lack of energy
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Sleep difficulties, especially insomnia (lack of sleep)
  • Violent behavior
  • Weight changes, especially weight loss
  • Thoughts of death or suicide*

Symptoms of winter SAD may include:

  • Depressed mood most or all of the time
  • Agitation
  • Appetite changes, especially increased appetite
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Lack of energy
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Sleep difficulties, especially hypersomnia (excessive sleep)
  • Social withdrawal
  • Weight changes, especially weight gain
  • Thoughts of death or suicide*

Learn more about winter SAD and how best to combat it.

<br>Keeping a cool head in the summer months can be difficult even for those who do not experience SAD. “This is the hottest summer on record in the world,” notes Henriksson. “I think it’s really natural for people to have some ecological anxiety given the higher temperatures and the drought that we’re experiencing in the region” Understanding the mental health challenges posed by the summer months can prevent emotions from boiling over.

Counteract the Negative Effects of Heat

Existing research reveals heat may affect one’s levels of serotonin, a chemical signal involved in communication between the brain and the rest of the body. “Serotonin is responsible for regulating mood and memory function, and also has a role in sleep, sexual functioning, appetite and temperature regulation, and our social behavior,” explains Henriksson. “If your serotonin levels are in flux, you could feel more agitated, anxious, and depressed, but healthy coping strategies can help you compensate for these changes.”

Get in Touch With Nature Safely

Spending time outside offers numerous mental health benefits, including reduced stress and anxiety, improved mood through increased serotonin release, enhanced creativity and concentration, and the opportunity for physical activity, which releases mood-boosting endorphins. Additionally, outdoor experiences can boost self-esteem, provide opportunities for social interaction, and foster a deeper connection with the natural world. “Getting outside even for 15 minutes a day can benefit your mental health,” says Henriksson.

Explore how gardening can improve your physical and mental health.

<br>Strategies for enjoying nature safely in the heat:

  • Avoid the hottest times of day by spending time outside in the early morning or late evening.
  • Seek out environments with plenty of shaded areas and trees.
  • Protect yourself from the sun with a hat, sunscreen, and sunglasses.
  • Drink plenty of water.

“It’s important to also familiarize yourself with local cooling centers, such as those available at Austin Public Libraries and Parks and Recreation locations, which offer respite from the heat with air conditioning and water fountains,” notes Henriksson.

A map of cooling centers throughout the city of Austin can be viewed here.

<br>“Austin also has wonderful springs, such as Barton Springs and Deep Eddy Pool, which are a wonderful way to cool down,” adds Henriksson. “Being in that water for just 10 minutes can cool down your body temperature.”

Protect yourself and your loved ones from heat-related illness with these tips and resources.

<br>Dozens of research studies suggest that the sounds of nature alone positively impact mental health while reducing stress. “If prolonged time outdoors isn’t feasible,” shares Henriksson, “try listening to nature sounds, which can be found on meditation apps and music streaming services.”

Work Out Wisely

Whether performed outdoors or from the comforts of an air-conditioned gym, exercise has a well-documented positive effect on mental health. “If you don’t already have an annual gym membership, explore whether any local gyms offer month-to-month or even daily rates during the summer,” advises Henriksson.

Learn more about the health benefits of exercise.

<br>Make Sleep a Priority

Long summer days can alter your body’s natural circadian rhythms that control sleep and waking patterns, making it harder to fall asleep. “It is normal for people’s sleep schedules to go off the rails during the summer,” says Henriksson. “Not only is there more daylight, but many people experience jet lag from vacations and children may have a different bedtime routine than during the school year.”

As anyone who’s ever struggled to get enough sleep can attest, nights of poor sleep can add up quickly and seriously affect your mental health. Good sleep hygiene can help protect against summertime sleep disturbances.

Tips for a better night’s sleep:

  • Keep the bedroom cool (ideally 60 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit) and dark.
  • Exercise regularly but avoid working out within 2 hours of bedtime.
  • Turn off electronic devices (e.g., cell phones, laptops, tablets) 1-2 hours before bedtime.
  • Avoid agitating or exciting books, television, or other media ­shortly before bedtime.
  • Refrain from consuming caffeine and alcohol within four hours before bedtime.

Explore 7 tips for better sleep hygiene.

<br>“If you can’t fall asleep within 30 minutes, don’t just lie in bed,” advises Henriksson. “We don’t want your brain to associate the bed with being awake. Instead, get up and move around. Find something to do that’s mundane, or try a relaxation exercise, such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or a mindfulness meditation, before returning to your bed to try to fall asleep again.”

Keep Comparisons in Check

The pervasive feeling that summer is supposed to be a joyful season can make matters worse for those struggling with their mental health. “It’s important to recognize that we all engage in this type of thinking and there’s actually a name for these patterns: ‘should-ing’ is a type of cognitive distortion,” explains Henriksson. “It’s easy to become preoccupied with how much fun we should be having during the summer, and it can be upsetting when reality does not match up.”

Stop the Scroll

As friends and family upload idealized versions of their summer adventures to social media, the impression that everyone else is constantly enjoying themselves can be isolating. “A break from social media can help bring focus back to the here and now,” notes Henriksson.

Foster Self-Compassion and Gratitude

In a world where our day-to-day experiences are often overshadowed by the comparisons we make and the pressures we face, embracing self-compassion and gratitude becomes a vital practice for cultivating inner peace and contentment. “Comparison is the thief of joy, and it takes away from us enjoying our lives,” shares Henriksson. “It’s important to practicing self-compassion by treating ourselves as we would treat our most valued friend and talking to ourselves in a kind and nurturing way. Gratitude journaling can help us recognize what we are doing well and reflect on the things that we appreciate during our day.”

Know When to Reach Out

“For many people, the mental and emotional effects of summer are bothersome but manageable and tend to subside as the seasons change,” says Henriksson. “For others, these changes can seriously impact their quality of life.”

Signs that additional support for summer SAD may be needed:

  • Impaired performance at work or school
  • Increased use of alcohol or other substances
  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Thoughts of death or suicide*

“No matter the time of year, if you start to experience symptoms of depression, such as persistent low mood, loss of interest in activities you normally enjoy, or especially thoughts of suicide or death, I encourage you to seek help,” advises Henriksson. “You don’t have to suffer through it or try to wait for it to pass. Help is available.”

* If you or someone you know are having thoughts of suicide, please contact one of the crisis lines below.

Crisis Lines Available 24/7, 365 Days a Year:

  • Integral Care Help Line: Call 1-512-472-HELP (4357)
  • Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: Call or Text 988
  • Emergency Services: Dial 9-1-1
  • Crisis Text Line: Text TX to 741741

If you are receiving care at UT Health Austin, you can ask to speak with a social worker.

To make an appointment with UT Health Austin, call 1-833-UT-CARES (1-833-882-2737) or visit here.

About UT Health Austin

UT Health Austin is the clinical practice of the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin. We collaborate with our colleagues at the Dell Medical School and The University of Texas at Austin to utilize the latest research, diagnostic, and treatment techniques, allowing us to provide patients with an unparalleled quality of care. Our experienced healthcare professionals deliver personalized, whole-person care of uncompromising quality and treat each patient as an individual with unique circumstances, priorities, and beliefs. Working directly with you, your care team creates an individualized care plan to help you reach the goals that matter most to you — in the care room and beyond. For more information, call us at 1-833-UT-CARES or request an appointment here.