Seasonal depression, previously known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), involves symptoms that come and go as the seasons change. The most recent edition of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)” officially recognizes this condition as major depressive disorder (MDD) with a seasonal pattern.
Most commonly, symptoms of seasonal depression begin in the fall and winter and improve as spring rolls around, but that’s not always the case.
You might instead notice the reverse: mood changes that begin in spring and persist into summer. Some people refer to this type of depression as “reverse SAD,” in fact.
Since experts have linked the winter type of seasonal depression to lack of sunlight, you might wonder what triggers a low, sad mood in the springtime. After all, the days are lengthening, new growth is blossoming, and there’s plenty of sunshine.
As it turns out, the longer days, warmer weather, and all that greenery in bloom may actually have something to do with spring depression.
Below, we’ll explore the key signs and potential causes of spring depression, plus offer some tips to cope with symptoms and find professional support.
Spring depression involves many of the same signs and symptoms as major depression, although symptoms won’t necessarily show up in the exact same way for everyone — just as they won’t with MDD.
As the winter days lengthen and spring approaches, you might notice:
You might also notice signs of depression brain fog and feel restless and unable to settle to any one activity. You could simply feel sad, low, and hopeless without any clear understanding of why.
For some people, spring depression can also involve uncharacteristic episodes of aggressive or violent behavior, so you might also notice unusual anger that seems to wash over you without any specific trigger.
Spring depression is less common than winter depression, and experts don’t know for certain exactly what causes it. A few potential theories include:
Increased daylight and warmth
If you don’t handle heat well, warmer days may bring discomfort, especially when they involve more hours of daylight. Extreme brightness and heat could leave you feeling low and unmotivated and factor into increased restlessness and irritability.
The increase in sunlight can also disrupt circadian rhythms and throw off your typical sleep-wake cycle, making it more difficult to get the amount of sleep you need for optimal health and well-being.
To put it another way, bright sunny days can leave your brain on high alert, making it difficult to relax when you need to wind down.
Many people notice changes in their sleep habits as a symptom of depression — but it’s worth keeping in mind that insomnia, a condition where you regularly don’t get enough sleep, can also
Imbalances in brain chemicals
Your brain produces a number of different neurotransmitters, or chemicals messengers, that help regulate mood, emotions, and other important bodily processes.
But having too much, or too little, of them in your system can disrupt typical function and play a part in the development of mood and mental health symptoms.
Experts believe that winter depression relates, in part, to a drop in serotonin — a chemical that’s typically produced after exposure to natural light. An increase in melatonin, another hormone linked to winter depression, can leave you feeling more tired and lethargic than usual.
It’s been suggested that spring depression may follow the reverse pattern:
- The sudden increase in sunlight cues your body to produce less melatonin, so you end up getting less sleep than you need. As noted above, this lack of sleep can contribute to, or worsen, symptoms of depression.
- At the same time, levels of serotonin in your body increase as a natural outcome of longer days and sunnier weather. While too little serotonin is linked to depression, too much could
also contributeto mental health concerns, including social anxiety disorder.
If you’re particularly sensitive to these changes, a surplus of serotonin (not to mention the lack of sleep) could potentially contribute to feelings of irritability and restlessness, along with a low mood.
That said, it’s still unclear what actually causes spring depression.
Do you have seasonal allergies? Beyond making you feel congested, groggy, and flat-out miserable, pollen sensitivity might also contribute to changes in your mood, including feelings of depression:
Research from 2007considered a sample of 845 African and African American students living in Washington, D.C. Researchers noted that African American participants experienced allergies and asthma at higher rates and often had more severe symptoms than African participants. Participants tended to have worse moods on high pollen days — and those who experienced pollen-related changes in mood were more likely to experience spring and summer seasonal depression. Research from 2019surveyed 1,306 Old Order Amish adults — a primarily farming population that has a higher exposure to pollen and other seasonal allergens. The results of this study also point to a link between high pollen days and worse mood symptoms among those with symptoms of spring or summer depression.
Other potential risk factors
A few additional factors may raise your chances of experiencing seasonal depression, including:
- Sex. Women tend to experience MDD with a seasonal pattern at
higher rates, but men tend to have more severe symptoms.
- A family history of MDD with a seasonal pattern. Having a close family member, like a parent or sibling, with spring or winter depression can raise your chances of experiencing it yourself.
- A personal history of bipolar disorder. Living with bipolar disorder can increase your sensitivity to circadian rhythm disruptions that happen with seasonal changes. Shifts in your circadian rhythm can also
play a partin episodes of mania.
- Changes in your schedule. If you have a job that changes with the seasons and leaves you less (or more) active in the spring and summer months, the resulting lack of structure or added stress can leave you feeling low and contribute to other changes in mood, sleep, and overall emotional health.
- Geographical location. Living in a hotter or more humid climate could play a part in symptoms of spring and summer depression.
You don’t have to wait for the cooler months to return to get relief from spring depression. These strategies may help ease symptoms and improve your overall mood:
- Practice good sleep hygiene. Lack of sleep can have a major impact on spring depression symptoms. To improve your sleep, aim to keep your room dark and cool with fans, blackout curtains, and layered, breathable bedding. Making it a habit to get up and go to bed at the same time every day doesn’t hurt, either.
- Keep your cool. While there’s no conclusive evidence that sensitivity to heat contributes to spring depression, feeling uncomfortably hot most of the time likely won’t do much to improve your mood. Cool off by keeping hydrated, turning on fans (or air conditioning, when possible), and dressing in breathable clothing.
- Make time for physical activity. Not only can regular exercise help relieve stress and ease symptoms of depression and anxiety, it can also lead to better sleep. To stay cool during exercise, try swimming, exercising in an air-conditioned facility, or sticking to early morning and evening workouts, if you’re able to.
- Try meditation, journaling, or art. Both meditation and journaling can help you identify and accept difficult or unwanted emotions, including feelings of depression. Art therapy may also make a difference, whether you’re artistically inclined or not.
- Reach out to loved ones. Letting the people in your life know what you’re going through might feel tough at first. It can help to remember that your family and friends care for you and likely want to offer support, even if that just means listening to your feelings or keeping you company when you feel down.
- Stick to a routine. A work or school schedule that changes in the spring can leave you feeling lethargic, unmotivated, and at loose ends. Creating a daily routine that balances chores, goal-directed activities like studying or learning new skills, and enjoyable activities can help daily life feel more structured and satisfying.
- Eat a balanced diet. Lack of appetite is pretty common with spring depression. You may not feel like eating, but not getting the right nutrients can leave you irritable, not to mention affect concentration and productivity. Reach for nourishing, depression-relieving foods, and drink plenty of water when you feel thirsty.
As with all other types of depression, spring depression may not improve without support from a trained mental health professional. Coping strategies can help, but they won’t always lead to lasting relief.
Reaching out for professional support is always a good idea when:
- feelings of depression and other seasonal mood changes last for longer than 2 weeks
- symptoms begin to affect your daily life and relationships
- you have thoughts of self-harm or suicide
- you have difficulty regulating intense emotions, like anger, worry, and sadness, on your own
- your symptoms get worse over time
To receive a diagnosis of MDD with a seasonal pattern, you’ll need to experience the same pattern of symptoms, over the same seasonal period, for at least 2 years in a row.
Initially, a healthcare professional might diagnose MDD, or another subtype of depression, if your symptoms meet the diagnostic criteria outlined in the DSM-5.
A therapist can offer more guidance with tracking patterns in your symptoms and helping you find the most helpful treatment. Treatment typically involves therapy, medication, or a combination of the two.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), an approach often used to treat depression, teaches techniques to help you identify and address unwanted thoughts and behavior patterns.
Techniques used in CBT for seasonal depression (CBT-SAD) might include:
- cognitive restructuring, which involves reframing unhelpful thoughts about the season and related mood symptoms
- behavioral activation, which helps you create a routine of enjoyable activities and positive or rewarding habits
Interpersonal therapy, an approach specifically developed to treat depression, helps you explore issues in your personal and professional life and relationships that could contribute to symptoms of depression.
If spring depression relates to a shifting schedule or seasonal changes in your home life, for example, your therapist might help you identify and practice new strategies to address those concerns and any emotions they bring up.
If you’d like to try treating seasonal depression with medication, a psychiatrist or other prescribing clinician may prescribe antidepressant medication, such as:
Spring depression may not last year-round, but it can still have a lingering impact on your overall health, well-being, and quality of life.
While you can’t stop the seasons from changing, you can take steps to head off spring depression by building a toolbox of helpful coping strategies.
Crystal Raypole writes for Healthline and Psych Central. Her fields of interest include Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health, along with books, books, and more books. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues. She lives in Washington with her son and a lovably recalcitrant cat.