It’s been gloomy in the Southland. Can May Gray make you feel depressed?

An orange circle is visible through grey clouds.
(Patrick Hruby / Los Angeles Times)

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It’s that time of year again in Los Angeles. Just as we round the corner from the introverted days of winter and are graced with the briefest shimmer of sunny spring, the clouds roll in.

I’m no meteorologist, but this May has seemed even gloomier than normal. An actual meteorologist, David Sweet of the National Weather Service, gave me some perspective. “It’s a pretty typical weather pattern this time of year, these cloudy skies that last all day long,” he told me. “There are times when it’s enhanced a little bit, and this may be one of those times, because the sea surface temperatures are pretty cool still.”


This winter, we also had historic rainfall that made sunny days much less frequent. My colleague L.A. Times food editor Daniel Hernandez wanted to know how those climate phenomenons can affect mood:

“I usually, in my own diagnosis here, get a version of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) during May Gray/June Gloom in Southern California. I get very moody and somewhat, well, sad, when the sun is shrouded by that late spring, early summer marine layer. I wonder, with all this rain we’ve been having, if it is possible to get SAD from the rain … in SoCal, I mean?”

I spoke with two experts on seasonal depression to learn more about its causes, whether May gray and June gloom can cause full-blown Seasonal Affective Disorder, and what we can do to address summertime sadness.

What it’s like to be SAD

Seasonal Affective Disorder is estimated to affect 10 million Americans, or about 3% of the population.

That’s a lot of people! If we haven’t experienced SAD ourselves, it’s likely we know someone who struggles with it during the winter. But for those unsure of what the condition looks and feels like, here’s a primer of the symptoms, according to the American Psychological Assn.:

  • Difficulty waking up in the morning.
  • Changes in appetite; usually eating more, and craving carbohydrates.
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities you usually enjoy.
  • Inability to sit still, pacing, or hand wringing, or slowed movements or speech.
  • Feeling bad about yourself or guilty.
  • Difficulty thinking, concentrating or making decisions.
  • Thoughts of death or suicide.

You might notice that these symptoms are strikingly similar to Major Depressive Disorder. To be diagnosed with seasonal depression, you would have to experience at least two consecutive years in which depression becomes worse during a specific time of year, and seasonal depressive episodes should happen more often than depression that’s not related to seasonal changes. (Interestingly, the majority of people with Major Depressive Disorder don’t have winter depression, said Dr. Michael Gitlin, professor of clinical psychiatry and director of the Mood Disorders Clinic at UCLA.)

Seasonal depression is most common in the fall and winter, and people living at higher latitudes — like Alaska, Seattle, New England and Canada — tend to be more vulnerable to SAD, said Lawrence Palinkas, a professor of social policy and health at USC who’s studied seasonal affective disorder as well as the psychological effects of things like isolation, space missions and polar expeditions.

“There, the alteration of light-dark cycles tends to be more extreme, such that at the poles you have six months of constant darkness, and six months of constant light,” Palinkas said.

SAD is thought to be caused by fewer hours of daylight, but it’s not clear why — more research is needed, experts told me. One theory is that the decrease in sunlight throws off the circadian clock, and messes with the production of chemicals in the body, including cortisol (our main stress hormone), melatonin (which promotes sleep) and serotonin (which is thought to regulate mood), Palinkas said.


“Some in the field of psychiatry question whether there’s something as specific as winter depression at all,” Gitlin said. “But most of us think there really is a subgroup for whom this is a real phenomenon.”

Southern California’s May gray has been stubborn. Here’s an explanation. But be prepared for June gloom.

May 30, 2023

Summertime sadness

Now that we have a good handle on what seasonal depression can look like, I want to return to Daniel’s question: Can shorter weather patterns like May gray and June gloom also change your mood and mental well-being in a profound way?

There’s some evidence that people can feel depressed during overcast and cloudy weather, Palinkas said. A large study in China found that people were 25% more likely to report feeling depressed on overcast days than on sunny days. And a study from the Netherlands indicates that depressive symptoms weren’t just associated with seasons, but also how long people were exposed to sunshine over the past few weeks. “Even during the winter months, you can see fluctuations in how people feel, depending on whether it’s sunny or cloudy,” Palinkas said.

On overcast days, clouds can significantly block UVB rays from reaching us — and that can impact how much vitamin D our bodies produce, Palinkas said. And low levels of vitamin D have been associated with depressive symptoms, perhaps because vitamin D is involved in the synthesis of dopamine and serotonin, neurotransmitters that play a role in regulating our mood, Palinkas explained. But the research on this isn’t robust; a meta-analysis published in 2018 found a correlation between lower vitamin D levels and depression, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that vitamin D deficiency is causing the condition.

“The problem with that explanation is that even though you might be getting less vitamin D when it’s completely gray, when it’s partly cloudy, you’re still getting a lot of UVB rays,” Palinkas said. And we definitely have a lot of partly cloudy days in SoCal.

In his work as a psychiatrist, Gitlin has worked with patients who do report feeling down on overcast days in the spring and summer. But very little research has been done on this population, he cautioned. “Some people certainly have moods that are less good when it’s gloomy outside. Is that the same thing as winter depression? Probably not,” Gitlin said. “You may have mild depressive symptoms, but I would be very wary of it being characterized as the same thing as classic winter depression.”


Palinkas echoed the sentiment. “There are people who are more vulnerable to depression in general who get more depressed because of lack of exposure to sunlight, but I don’t think it causes people to experience full-blown SAD.”

The good news is that there are ways to manage full-blown seasonal depression, some of which may help with your June gloom (Gitlin was careful to point out that there haven’t been any treatment studies for the specific experience of feeling down due to overcast weather in the summer). This isn’t medical advice, so if you’ve been feeling awful, it’s best to consult with a mental health professional:

Light therapy: There are lamps (otherwise called light boxes) that mimic outdoor light by emanating full-frequency beams at high intensities. The best lights provide at least 10,000 lux of light and are specifically made to treat SAD, Gitlin said. Research has found light therapy to be more effective than placebo studies.

Be active: This is a way you can boost your mood, whether you have SAD or you’re just having a bad day. “People who exercise regularly are less likely to become depressed,” Gitlin said. “One of the paradoxes of depression is that there is almost like a magnetic pull to the bed — and it makes you feel worse.”

Socialize: If you’re feeling down or depressed, Palinkas recommends making an effort to see your friends and loved ones. “SAD can be associated with your social environment, too,” he said. “SAD can cause a kind of cabin fever, where you’re isolating from other people. And the more isolated you are, the more depressed you’ll get. We need social contact.”

Antidepressants: For about two-thirds of people, antidepressants can be an effective treatment “no matter what time of year you get depressed,” Gitlin said. These drugs aren’t for everyone, though, and they come with their own risks, including withdrawal when and if you choose to not take them. It’s best to talk with your doctor about what’s right for you.


. . .

It’s easy to feel powerless when your well-being hinges on the whims of the weather. But if you struggle with seasonal depression, I hope you’re walking away with a little more understanding of what you’re experiencing, and ways to feel even just a little bit better.

Until next week,


If what you learned today from these experts spoke to you or you’d like to tell us about your own experiences, please email us and let us know if it is OK to share your thoughts with the larger Group Therapy community. The email gets right to our team. As always, find us on Instagram at @latimesforyourmind, where we’ll continue this conversation.

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More perspectives on today’s topic & other resources

It’s dreary out there. Why do we get May gray and June gloom? To understand what’s going on, first we’ve got to turn to our ocean, which is where the gray skies, or the marine layer, come from, writes Jacob Margolis of LAist. Read on to learn more about this common spring scenario.

In this piece about Seasonal Affective Disorder, my colleague Jessica Roy offers additional guidance on how to manage the condition. And she addresses the question of whether Southern Californians can suffer from SAD.

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Group Therapy is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. We encourage you to seek the advice of a mental health professional or other qualified health provider with any questions or concerns you may have about your mental health.