Photo Credit: by Sofiia Vytrishko, Unsplash.com
Everybody thinks of summertime as the best season of the year, a time for fun and happiness for several blissful months in a row. School is out, families go on vacation, travel is booked, and life is supposed to be a bowl of cherries all season long. But if you suffer from summertime sadness, you know that summer isn’t all good feelings for everyone.
Not everyone finds the same joy from summer, especially those who reside in places hit by extreme weather or very hot conditions. Is your city hit by hot weather? Do you feel depressed and wonder if there’s a link between your negative, down mood and the extremely hot weather around you? You’re not alone. Many people experience summer depression.
Read on to find out more about summer seasonal affective disorder, why it happens, and what you can do about it.
What you need to know about Summer SAD
Summertime isn’t the most fun or exciting season for everyone. The New York Times puts it this way: “Feeling blue even though everyone seems to be basking in perfect summer weather? There might be a good reason for that.” The paper refers to summer seasonal affective disorder as “a less common and much less understood counterpart to seasonal affective disorder.”
If you live in a place that approaches extreme temperatures during the summer, you’re more likely to experience summertime sadness. While in most places, summer is the best time to be outdoors, in some places the weather is too extreme to go outside during summer.
WedMD provides a great explanation of how some people can be negatively affected by what is supposed to be the happiest and most carefree season of the year:
“Ah, the joys of summer: The withering heat and school vacations, when your kids give you minute-to-minute updates on their boredom levels. Isn’t summer supposed to be fun and relaxing? If you’ve got summer depression, it isn’t. For some people, summer depression has a biological cause, says Ian A. Cook, MD, the director of the Depression Research Program at UCLA. For others, the particular stresses of summer can pile up and make them feel miserable. Especially hard is that you feel like you’re supposed to be having a great time. Everyone else seems so happy splashing in the water and sweating in their lawn chairs. So why can’t you? And more importantly, what can you do to make this summer easier?”
Summer depression is the same thing as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which affects a small percentage of the U.S. population, likely between 4% to 6% of people. Most people experience seasonal affective disorder as winter approaches and the days grow shorter, darker, and colder. However, a small percentage of people with SAD (likely around 10%) get it in the reverse: at the onset of summer rather than winter.
If the arrival of summer triggers your depression symptoms, you may be a person with summertime SAD. According to WebMD, “Some studies have shown that in countries near the equator – such as India – summer SAD is more common than winter SAD. Why do seasonal changes cause depression? Experts aren’t sure, but the longer days, and increasing heat and humidity may play a role.”
If you live in a place that gets very humid and muggy during the summer, such as Florida, it can feel even harder to be outside, since these conditions make it feel even hotter than it actually is. For many people, disrupted schedules, lack of routine, and additional stresses and costs (like having the kids home from school) are also a factor.
It’s also a time that people may be hit with body image issues, while people wear less clothing in general and there’s more pressure to be in a bathing suit or in shorts or other skin-revealing clothing.
It can be hard to watch the sun shining outside while you are stuck inside, watching the long days pass from behind your window (and in the safety of your cool and comfortable air conditioning). Long days can make you feel like you should be outside more or doing more, even though summertime can be the hardest time to be outdoors if you live in a place affected by extreme temperatures that actually make it exhausting or dangerous to spend too long outdoors.
If you reside on an island or near the water and the weather gets very hot in the summer, it may be tempting to feel like you should be spending time at the beach or soaking up the sun. But actually, you may be putting yourself at too great a risk of sunburn or heat exhaustion. You may live in a place where only small doses of the outdoors are safe during summer. And this can be confusing and hard to deal with, which can lead to summertime depression.
Symptoms of summer depression
People with summer SAD usually have their depression triggered at the arrival of summertime or during the dog days of summer. Summer can disrupt your body’s circadian rhythms, which can be disorienting and a major factor in your summertime sadness.
Symptoms of summer depression can include loss of appetite, trouble sleeping, weight loss, and anxiety. Feeling like you’re missing out or should be doing something else is also common in people with summer SAD. People may also feel unbalanced, experience allergies, or be unable to get outside to exercise during the months of extreme heat.
As The New York Times explains, “Summer SAD presented differently than its winter counterpart, and might have different causes. ‘Summer SAD is more of an agitated depression,’ said Dr. Rosenthal, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Georgetown University School of Medicine. While those with winter SAD tend to oversleep and overeat, summer SAD often shows up with insomnia and lowered appetite.”
In addition to the symptoms of summer depression, you should also be aware of the health risks associated with exposure to extreme heat or harsh summertime weather conditions. Heat cramps are considered a milder symptom, while some people can even experience a heat stroke, which can be fatal. Exposure to extreme heat may not actually be a better alternative to summertime sadness, even if you feel like you’re missing out while you are stuck inside feeling depressed while the sun shines hot and bright outside.
The Washington Post also points out that as the world heats up due to climate change or global warming, more and more people may be facing hotter temperatures than they are used to:
“The record-high temperatures that have affected swaths of North America, including the Pacific Northwest, where an alarming and historic heat wave has caused hundreds of deaths, have signaled to health and environmental experts that the public needs to know how to deal with extremely hot weather. ‘As we move forward into essentially a hotter planet, we need to really rethink heat as a risk,’ said Sabrina McCormick, an associate professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University. ‘Everyone is vulnerable, and these exposures can creep up and unexpectedly affect you, so you need to really keep an eye on it.’”
Tips for feeling better despite the summer heat
The number one thing you should do if you’re struggling with summertime depression (or any kind of depression) is to get help from a medical professional. Find a counselor, therapist, or psychiatrist who is aware of depression and can help you make an action plan of what to do about it. Just because it’s usually temporary (during the summer) does not mean you should just grin and bear it. Enduring depression and waiting for the arrival of fall is no way to live.
Cosmopolitan recommends transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS): “TMS is a NICE-approved treatment for depression that modulates brain activity, leading to a reduction in symptoms and it has been shown to treat SAD safely and effectively.”
In some cases, your doctor may also recommend medication. Antidepressant drugs aren’t for everyone, but they might be right for you. Talk to a medical professional about this possibility if you are concerned that your summertime sadness may require drug intervention.
Some other ways to combat the effects of summer SAD include sleeping in a darkened room, getting regular exercise (even if it’s inside only), and planning ahead to be ready before summer hits each year. Make plans with friends but don’t overextend yourself.
Success TMS recommends keeping up with your exercise by playing more inside: “The dog days of summer usually are too hot for outdoor exercise. Take your aerobic activities indoors, even if it’s only a short stint. During exercise, your body increases its production of serotonin and norepinephrine, which are neurotransmitters that send feel-good signals throughout your body to handle the physical stress of exercise. Unlike endorphins, these two messengers can pass the blood-brain barrier. The best part? The more you exercise, the more your body gets used to handling the stress of all kinds.”
Don’t overdo it on diet and exercise, but make sure you’re eating healthy and keeping up your fitness to give your body the best possible chances to get what it needs to keep your mood elevated. Prepare nutrient-dense meals and make sure to stay hydrated so you feel good physically.
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