“Someone made a grievous mistake when summer was created; no novitiate or god in their right mind would make a season akin to hell on purpose. Someone should be fired.” — Michelle Franklin
Things are getting steamy in Cleveland, at least every other week. We had snow in May and then temperatures in the high 80s not too long after that. Now that it's officially summer, we're looking at another humidity-laden weekend
Welcome to Northeast Ohio, right? We joke about the unpredictable weather. "If you don't like it, just wait five minutes!"
I’m surrounded by people who are over the moon about the warmer temperatures. But did you know that summer, for a small percentage of the population, is met with trepidation and depression rather than joy?
When I tell folks I don’t care for warm weather (which is putting it lightly), they gape at me as if I’ve suddenly sprouted three heads and a couple of tails.
I’d rather have snow than 80-degree heat. You couldn't pay me to live in Florida.
This is not a popular perspective, especially living in the Snowbelt. People bond over their complaints about the winter weather, while I'm thinking "Bring it on!".
We're supposed to love summer, right? In fact, aside from Christmas, we're supposed to love it more than any other time of year.
Sunshine, warm breezes. Azure waters, pristine sands. Hot babes in bikinis; buff shirtless men in shorts. Suntans and freckles, laughing children.
Cookouts and picnics. Long days and sultry nights. No school, gone fishing, playing hooky from work. What’s not to like, right?
Enter Summer Seasonal Affective Disorder
Most people are familiar with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which was first described under that name in the mid-1980s. SAD affects 4 to 6% of the U.S. population, and many of us know someone who suffers from it.
The Mayo Clinic describes SAD as "a type of depression that's related to changes in seasons". For most people with SAD, symptoms begin in the fall, persisting, and potentially worsening throughout the winter.
While once written off as the "winter blues", SAD manifests as symptoms similar to any other type of depression: Low energy, trouble sleeping, appetite changes, ongoing periods of sadness, difficulty concentrating, periods of hopelessness.
Less widely known is the fact that about 10% of people who have Seasonal Affective Disorder, people like me, experience it in the spring or summer instead of the winter.
Summer SAD is not only less common than the standard winter variety, it's less understood. Some studies have shown that in countries closer to the equator, like India, more people are likely to have Summer SAD, but a definitive cause is unknown.
Summer SAD has similarities to its cold-weather relative but can manifest quite differently. Sufferers of Winter SAD may have extremely low energy levels, eat more, and feel like hibernating or sleeping all the time. Summer SAD is a more agitated form of depression, where people become anxious and angry. They may sleep less and lose their appetites.
Many Factors Can Contribute to Summer Seasonal Affective Disorder
1. Disruption of routine
Whether it's children out of school, an increase in activity on our social calendar, or taking a vacation, schedules go out the window for many of us in the summer.
Some of us may welcome this spontaneity but those of us who appreciate routine may find the disruption unsettling.
2. Body image
This is a big one. I, along with 9% of the U.S. population, have an eating disorder that distorts my body image and self-esteem. As temperatures rise, clothing becomes naturally skimpier, and my anxiety skyrockets.
Many summertime activities involve the pool or the beach, and those of us who struggle with how we look may avoid social situations out of embarrassment.
3. Financial concerns
Between vacations and increased activities, summer can be expensive. For those of us without an unlimited disposable income, we may find our budget is tighter as a result. Given that finances can be a source of stress in families at any time, this can further contribute to summer depression and anxiety.
4. The heat
I’m always too hot. ALWAYS. Sweltering weather makes me feel like I can’t catch my breath because a five-ton elephant is standing on my chest.
When I'm too hot, I sweat, a lot. I don’t even have to be doing anything. I‘m fine with breaking a sweat if I’ve earned it, like with exercise. But to just be walking down the street at a leisurely pace, in the coolest clothes I could find, looking like I just crawled across Death Valley? Not fun, especially when everyone around me appears to be cool as a cucumber.
From a scientific perspective, Summer SAD could be caused by too much sun. Sunshine shuts down the production of melatonin, which is the hormone that controls our sleep-wake cycle. Since days are longer in the summer, and we often tend to sleep less as a result, our bodies have less opportunity to produce melatonin.
Summer SAD and Climate Change
Experts worry that Summer SAD will get worse in the future due to climate change.
A 2018 study found that "both suicide rates and social media posts using language signaling lower mood increased as average monthly temperatures rose in the United States and Mexico".
In addition, pollen could increase with climate change, which also has an impact on mood. Immune responses to allergens cause a variety of physical responses, some of which have been linked to depression.
I'm not going to sit around and wait for things to further deteriorate. Let's look at some ways we can deal with this disorder.
1. Pinpoint your reasons.
Most people with Summer SAD can cite multiple reasons they do not enjoy summer, but most of us also know the "reason above all others". What this means is that there's usually one specific thing at the top of the list. For me, it's body image.
If I removed that factor, or could miraculously improve my self-esteem, I would be less anxious about the season overall, even though my list has several more bullet points on it.
By pinpointing the top driver, you'll better understand where to focus your coping strategies.
2. Manage the heat.
I may not be ready to show my pale, flabby legs to the world just yet, but there are other options for staying cool. Stick with natural fibers (polyester just doesn't feel good in the summer) and loose clothing. For those who wear such things, headbands and simple makeup are a must.
Limiting the consumption of caffeine and alcohol can also help keep our body temperature down, especially at outdoor events.
Drink plenty of ice water, especially if you sweat a lot in hot weather. You're much more prone to dehydration. In a pinch, rest the side of your glass on your inner wrist to cool down quickly.
3. Plan ahead - in more ways than one.
Because body image is my top issue, I’ve learned that it’s critical to plan ahead for special events, so I’m not scrambling at the last minute trying to find something to wear. A comfortable outfit is key. Making sure I have clothing I’m happy with will help me avoid a meltdown, in more ways than one.
If you are more worried about the disruption to routine, keeping a schedule may be key, along with choosing vacations carefully. Make sure you are choosing a vacation destination and type that will allow you to relax and enjoy your time away, instead of contributing to your anxiety.
4. Prioritize self-care
The holy triumvirate of self-care - sleep, exercise, and healthy food - can't cure depression but can certainly help with symptom mitigation. Summer SAD is just like any type of depression in that respect.
While we may not feel like exercising, especially when it's hot, fitting in even 20 minutes of activity most days can make a huge difference in mood.
In terms of diet, one of the best things about summer is the wealth of local, seasonal vegetables available to us. Even if we're not feeling motivated, it doesn't take long to throw together a salad, and it doesn't involve the oven or standing over a hot stove.
And finally, nothing seems as bad after a good night's sleep. Since I tend to suffer from insomnia in the summer, I take some Valerian Root about 30 minutes before bed. It doesn't particularly make me sleepy, but it seems to help me relax and let my brain stop churning.
5. Slow down, and protect yourself
Have you noticed, we humans tend to be a busy species. Not only are we constantly on the go, but we glorify and loathe that lifestyle simultaneously.
If you overhead in the summer, it's time to slow down. It won't be easy if you're used to feeling like the proverbial hamster on a wheel. But it's a proven way to stay cooler and calmer.
Sometimes that means saying no to social obligations. You are not required to accept every invitation that comes your way. Stop to consider whether a certain activity will bring you joy or increase your stress levels, and plan accordingly.
6. Seek help
Just because SAD tends to be temporary doesn't mean you need to suffer through it. A trained therapist can help you manage your symptoms with less discomfort.
And just because SAD doesn't last the entire year, don't discount its potential severity. Just like any other kind of depression, SAD symptoms can be life-threatening.
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, please call a hotline such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) immediately.
7. Don't beat yourself up
It's tempting to wonder why we can't be like everyone else and enjoy summer. But comparing ourselves to others is counterproductive and can exacerbate our misery. It's better to acknowledge the situation, accept it, and implement positive ways to cope.
How You Can Help Others
If you have a friend or family member with Summer SAD, the best thing you can do is acknowledge their feelings and try to understand. Many of us are used to being ridiculed because we feel depressed in the summer.
Second, please don't tell them that because it's summer we should automatically be cheerful. It doesn't work that way, and such statements are far from helpful. If we could snap our fingers and not feel like this anymore, we'd have done it long ago.
Third, suggest activities that avoid the heat. Attend a movie in an air-conditioned theater. Stroll through a museum. Go to a concert.
Truly, your loved one will be grateful that you've taken the time to understand and be supportive.
My husband reminds me I’m not the only one who feels insecure or anxious, or who sweats and always feels overheated when the temperatures rise. I tend to not believe him because I rarely see anyone else looking as miserable as I feel.
I search for them, though. When I’m out and about in the summer, I scan the crowds for a glimpse of someone else with a damp hairline or a red face. A comrade in sweatiness. Someone with whom I could lock eyes across the street and nod, and smile encouragingly. “Yep, I get it.”
But I never seem to find them. Are they as elusive as a dream, or are they out there, seeking me as well?
Maybe, in actuality, none of us look as blatantly distressed as we feel.
If you're like me and the summer heat fills you with a sense of dread, I don’t expect either of us to suddenly fall in love with the season of sweltering. But hopefully, by planning ahead and slowing down a bit, we can set ourselves up for fewer meltdowns and more picnics by our beautiful lake.