Winter is a hard time for me when it comes to depression. I sleep more and do less. The cold means that variety in what I eat goes out the window, and I’ll fill up on whatever is closest and easiest. I stay in bed for longer and find it almost impossible to initiate any action besides pulling the covers up closer around my head and falling back to sleep.
So when spring comes again, I relax for a moment. The heavy coat comes off. Something loosens and pulls away. There’s often a moment of wild hope where I think, this will be the summer that does it. The warmth and sunshine will come, and maybe the depression will lift. Not just at the edges, but all the way. But no such luck—because that’s just not how depression works.
I’m faced again with the reality that summertime does not cancel out depression. And this realization alone can send me spiraling back into a bad place. Yet, a lot of people still wonder, how could anyone be depressed in the summer? How could you be anything but happy-go-lucky when it’s so gorgeous and perfect outside?
There are many reasons to experience depressive symptoms in the summertime. And anyone who treats you like an outcast has a lot of blessings to count, and a lot of learning to do.
For people with depression, it becomes glaringly obvious how ill we are when everyone else around us seems so unanimously happy. Not only are you dealing with the hellishness of your symptoms, but you also have to deal with other people’s incredulity too. “How could you be in a bad mood on a day like today?” a well-meaning friend might question. In the winter, even people without a diagnosable mental health issue are usually able to grasp feeling low when the weather is cold and gloomy. But summer, on the other hand, exists in its own special cultural place; it’s the season we’re all meant to be living for.
Some of this might stem from a general misunderstanding of depression and the various ways it can present. Yes, there is such a thing as seasonal affective disorder (sometimes referred to as seasonal depression), which is a type of depression that typically peaks in the winter months and subsides in the spring and summer. And, while much less common, it’s actually possible for someone to experience seasonal affective disorder during the summer months. But this is by no means the only type of depression, so you might experience other types of depression at virtually any time of year.
When I am experiencing a depressive episode that coincides with the nice weather, I am not really motivated to experience summer in all its glory. But avoiding life is also harder at this time of the year: There’s simply more to say no to, more to miss out on. There are barbecues, beach trips, and drinks after work as the days stretch longer and the evenings stay warm. Our social feeds fill up with pictures of blissed-out people cheersing their glasses and capturing the moment in an Instagram boomerang. All of this is a lot more difficult to participate in when you’re suffering.
We often associate typical symptoms of depression—eating and sleeping more and not leaving the house as often—with colder seasons, but there are other less commonly considered factors and triggers of depression that, at least for me, occur more frequently in the summertime. I’ve found that when the weather is hotter, I typically sleep and eat less, two things which can contribute to me feeling lethargic, and in turn, cause low moods for me. For others, the season can cause a surge in body insecurities and disordered eating and thinking, which have the potential to feed depressive episodes. For people who don’t (or can’t) enjoy the warm weather or lots of sunshine, it’s easy to fall into self-isolating patterns, like not leaving the house during the daytime unless absolutely necessary and feeling unable to participate in outdoor activities. Instead of rushing home, people are rushing out, and this can mean increases in crowd size and noise in public places, which can ignite serious overstimulation or anxiety in many of us. Summer can also be incredibly expensive, and struggling financially while everyone else seems to be living their best life can close you off.
Because it can feel so deeply inappropriate to be depressed during the summer, it makes it all the more challenging to open up or actively seek help for it.
I know that it can seem like an utterly feeble gesture to even reach out to a loved one when your mental suffering is severe, but small steps like this can help. I’ve learned that finding people who understand what we’re going through and also taking the time to identify individual symptoms and triggers is essential for me. I also try to limit the time I spend on social media, and Instagram and Facebook in particular. Let’s be real: Looking at endless pictures of other people having rip-roaringly brilliant times when you’re feeling shoddy is only going to make you feel worse (not to mention the fact that these pictures rarely tell the whole story and are intended to present the most flattering and favorable impression of a person’s life).
If possible, I try to plan regular things that get me out of the house and into the world, like a walk in the evening when it’s cooler outside. But it’s also completely OK to spend a sunny day indoors if you prefer that. Sometimes just a trip to my favorite (air-conditioned) cafe is relaxing for me.
Keeping to some sort of schedule is also a priority, as disruptions in normal bodily rhythms can be a big trigger of depression symptoms. So, I try to eat and get into and out of bed at similar times every day. I also try to plan things to look ahead to, even if they are scheduled for early autumn.
And of course, checking in with a doctor or therapist if you can is hugely helpful, as they can help you learn other tools to manage your depression and tailor treatment to fit your needs. Mental health issues are legitimate, and the more people you have on your side, the more manageable you can make them.
So if your depression peaks in the summer, you’re absolutely not an oddity or an aberration. It’s an entirely normal manifestation of an illness.
It still absolutely sucks, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not a sign of any wrongness in you. So whether your darkest days actually do fall on dark days, or if you feel your worst when the sun is shining and the weather is warm, it doesn’t make your experience any less real.
Having any kind of mental illness is often still stigmatized, unfortunately. As far as we’ve come, there’s still a great deal of ground to cover. The more loudly, openly, and non-judgmentally we talk about all of the different presentations of depression, the better we can all exist and function out there in the world. And remember, no season lasts forever, and no feeling is final.