With summer coming to an end, it’s normal to feel sad about the fact that longer, sunnier days and impromptu patio dinners are winding down. You may also feel bummed that you didn’t get to do everything you planned on, like that fun weekend road trip to the beach. But there’s a difference between feeling down that summer is ending and being depressed because of it. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons, says Carol Bernstein, M.D., a professor of psychiatry and neurology at NYU Langone Health. “It begins and ends at about the same time every year. For most people, the symptoms tend to start in the fall and continue into the winter,” she says. “But it can also happen in the spring or early summer.”
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 4 to 10 percent of Americans experience seasonal affective disorder. While post-summer SAD is less common than winter SAD, it still affects a segment of the population. Here’s what you should know about experiencing SAD at the end of summer and how to tell if you’re just bummed the season is over or if you’re dealing with something more.
What’s the difference between SAD and post-summer blues?
A lot of seasonal affective disorder symptoms are similar to those of regular depression, Dr. Bernstein says. They can include difficulty eating, changes in appetite, oversleeping, undersleeping, feeling anxious, not being able to concentrate, and not enjoying the kinds of things you usually do.
The difference between experiencing SAD and just feeling those post-summer blues—which many of us get—is the level of impairment you’re experiencing. It’s one thing to be distracted at work because you’re thinking about your last cottage getaway of the season. But it’s another to be debilitated by your inability to concentrate.
“If you’re just feeling a little melancholy that the summer is ending, that’s one thing,” Dr. Bernstein says. “Most of us get tired or a little sad when summer is ending because generally work is a little lighter [in the summer], and you can go outside more. But if you’re having those symptoms, that’s more like a real depression as opposed to the blues.”
Why the End of Summer Can Trigger SAD
Just like wintertime SAD, the seasonal change from summer to fall can cause your body to have depressive symptoms. Although the exact cause of seasonal affective disorder is unknown, there are several reasons why experts think people experience it.
One cause, Dr. Bernstein says, is a change in your melatonin, a hormone that regulates your sleep-wake cycle. “The change in seasons can disrupt the body’s level of melatonin. That can play a role in sleep patterns and mood,” she explains. The amount of sunlight you get can affect your melatonin production, which in turn can affect how well you sleep. “If your melatonin is problematic, and that’s creating problems with sleeping, then that can contribute to the [SAD].”
The end of summer can also affect your serotonin level—a neurotransmitter that helps regulate feelings of happiness and well-being. Serotonin is implicated in depression in general, Dr. Bernstein says, so if your level dips low right as summer winds down, that can play a role in experiencing SAD.
Some research suggests that pollen allergies in the summer can have mood-worsening effects. A report in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that a “non-winter pattern of SAD may be related to seasonal exposure to pollen, an environmental factor that sharply fluctuates with the seasons.”
Lastly, post-summer SAD may be triggered by the reduced amount of sunlight that occurs when days get shorter ahead of fall and winter. Less sunlight can mess up your circadian rhythm, aka your internal clock, which affects your mental and physical states. That’s why you’re more likely to feel sad or sluggish or want to sleep more in shorter, darker months—or when the summer sunshine is ending. On the other hand, if you’re experiencing SAD during the brightest days of summer, not when summer is coming to an end, you could be affected by too much sunlight.
How can you treat SAD?
You may have heard of SAD lamps or light boxes—and for good reason. According to Dr. Bernstein, light therapy is one of the main ways people treat SAD. “It’s a specific kind of light, and it’s fluorescent,” she says. “You need to have it on for at least 30 minutes and…you do it every day.”
SAD lights vary. So it’s best to talk to your doctor about the best product for you and how to use it. The point of light therapy is to expose yourself to artificial light. This way your body can produce more feel-good chemicals linked to mood. Like other depressions, you can also treat SAD with antidepressants. Again, be sure to talk to your doctor first.
When you’re not sure if you’re just feeling down or experiencing seasonal affective disorder, it’s best to visit your health care provider. The good thing about SAD is that it’s treatable. Plus, because it’s linked to seasons, being aware of how your body reacts to change is key in managing it. Exercise, eating well, and spending time with loved ones are great ways to practice self-care.