By Kristina Schwalm-Bacquet, BSW, MSW, RSW
It’s the heart of summertime. The birds are chirping, the flowers have bloomed, the hot sun is warming us from the outside in. Everyone is happy and healthy, at least that’s what your Facebook friends would lead you to believe. In reality, summer is not always the butterfly dreamland as advertised. For many, summer serves up a host of depressive symptoms that are aggravated, not relieved by this time of year.
What’s worse is that summer brings with it an expectation of levity and joy. If you are simply not feeling this, depressive symptoms may be further aggravated by the belief that you should be, and that everyone else is. If you are struggling with your mood this summer, you might feel entirely isolated and alone. But remember you are not. Depression is a clinical disorder, and it doesn’t just go away because of summertime, and in many cases it may be provoked by it.
Here are some of the reasons summer might be more of a hot-sweaty mess of low mood and anxiety than we are persuaded to believe:
Major Depressive Disorder & Summer Onset Seasonal Affective Disorder
As stated above, and contrary to all the aforementioned messages we receive about summer, Major Depressive Disorder is a clinical disorder and it doesn’t just bounce back because the weather is more pleasant. If you were experiencing untreated symptoms of depression in winter, it is likely that you will be experiencing the same in summer.
Summer gets a better rap depression-wise for two main reasons. One, because with summer time there is often renewed activity. Activity and routine alone can often support depression recovery as shifts in behaviours keep us from rumination and also alter hopeless and helpless thought patterns that are linked to depressive symptoms. Two, most people think of winter as linked to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a form of depression that is brought on due to shifts in our circadian rhythm effected by the elements of the particular season. However, although less common, SAD can also be triggered by the onset of summer.
If you recognize that there is a pattern to your summer lows, consult with a MD & ND about summer SAD and consider seeking a CBT therapist.
As mentioned, summer often offers the promise of renewed activity. We can finally put our guards down as the outdoors no longer seem to pose such a strong a bodily threat. We are released from the forced eternal coze-state of winter and head outside and get moving!
As promising as this appears at first glance, summer activity can bring some emotional hazards
1. Changes to Routine
As mentioned, routine is important for depression recovery and changes to routine can often upset the rhythm of daily life creating a disruption to healthy habits and behaviours that help keep us mentally healthy. Moreover, the high energy and excitement of summertime can sometimes leave our schedules overwhelmed with high energy activities day in and day out.
Take care to schedule breaks in the excitement and keep up with quiet and alone time wherever possible. Also, try your best to maintain healthy eating, sleeping and exercise habits.
2. Perfection Anxiety
In summertime, just taking a look out of our windows can amp up our anxiety about squeezing every last drop out of summer. We can easily start to believe that, “I have to do every fun thing while I can!” which leads to feelings of stress and anxiety about having fun! See the problem? What’s worse is that this anxiety likely gets in the way of spontaneous fun and genuine levity and this can easily lead to the depressive thoughts, “I am not having as much fun as I should”, and “everyone else is having more fun than I am.”
So take care to remember that while summer might offer more activities, it will not always be wonderful. Expecting perfection keeps us from rolling with whatever summer brings, and an accepting attitude will likely permit more joy this time of year.
3. Dislike of being outside or outdoor activities
With summer comes the expectation of taking on the great outdoors. And this just might not be your thing. Anxieties over sun exposure, bug bites or even the creatures in the water or the woods can become troublesome and stressful. They can cause us to stay indoors and feel left out of the summer shenanigans that are going on around us. If fears are keeping you from taking part, try your best to pin-point them and if necessary seek consult from a CBT therapist.
But many of us just don’t like outdoor activities and many of us just don’t like the heat. Difficulty with the heat can create frustration and sleep deprivation if air conditioning is not available. If we have access to A/C we might start to hibernate, moving from one air-conditioned space to another and draining our Netflix accounts just to have something to do. If you just don’t like the heat or outdoors then it will always be a tough time of year, but the goal is to avoid isolating yourself and keep up your regular routine. Keep up as much activity as humanly possible and try to get creative with seeking contact with friends and loved ones separate from their outdoor fun, (movie theatre with A/C anyone?) And remember this too shall pass…crisp fall and snowy winter are always just around the corner!
Loneliness, Loss or other Associations
Much like the holidays in December, summer is the time when everyone seems to be happy and in love. If this is not your current state of being, seeing the whole world seemingly smiling can be a very painful thing. The belief that everyone else is blissful, happily coupled, familied, or with an overflowing group of friends can aggravate and provoke depressive symptoms. It can quickly pull you down into the hopelessness and helplessness of thoughts like, “I am the only one alone”, “I am completely alone”, “everyone else is happy” and “something is wrong with me”.
We are all vulnerable to these thoughts once in a while, but if we believe them without question we are likely to help the depressive symptoms instead of fighting them.
If you have recently experienced a loss, or summer has a particularly sad association for you, you could also be in the throes of grief, and thus even more vulnerable to feeling isolated and alone. While grieving itself is healthy and necessary, grief paired with the thoughts noted above is a dangerous thing. It is important to question these thoughts, and if possible speak them out loud to friends to help you challenge them. If you are not getting very far with refuting them it’s probably time to consult with your ND, MD, and if possible seek support from a CBT therapist.
We tend to think of work as slowing down in the summer, but if you are the one in the office when everyone else is out on vacation, this is likely not the case. Stress levels increase as you try to manage the workloads of all the happy summer vacationers. Try your best to pace yourself, be realistic about your own workload and what you can handle and schedule your own time off wherever possible.
Body image difficulties are not dependent on the seasons, but can certainly be heightened in summer when bathing suits, short-sleeves and shorts abound. Take care to focus on your experience as your priority as best you can, and if your idea of your body is keeping you from an otherwise enjoyable summer it’s time to seek out a CBT therapist.
Just like the holidays in December, money issues can become pronounced in summer when vacation and “R&R” is on everyone’s minds. Not to mention,
looking around and seeing everyone else’s seemingly fabulous adventures can lead to a myriad of feelings of isolation as well as others about the state of your life and your future.
Try your best not to let these thoughts carry you away. There is plenty of free summer activities and some that we might overlook just because they don’t have the pizzazz of the fancy expensive ones. For instance, a simple mindful walk outside is likely more rewarding to our mental wellness than a trip to Canada’s Wonderland.
The Reminder of Time Passing
Different seasons mean beginnings or endings to different people. For some, summer might seem like an ending, and act as a reminder of time passing. We can be pulled into melancholy about days gone by or even anxiety and gloom about the current state of our lives.
While reflection is important, take care not to let the thoughts that accompany it turn nasty, fearful, catastrophic or self-blaming.
That is a sure-fire recipe for summer depression and will likely not serve any purpose, nor be an entirely accurate reflection of the way things actually are or will be.
Long hot days
In summer the days start earlier and last longer. This coupled with the heat can create sleep difficulties and sleep deprivation can increase cortisol levels, making us more prone to stress, anxiety and depression and overall emotional sensitivity. Try your best to maintain a regular sleep schedule, use a sleep mask or black-out curtains and keep your body at the temperature that is most conducive to your personal good night’s sleep.
I maintain a regular mental health blog on the darouwellness.com site, so check back in for more support for anxiety, depression, insomnia, emotional difficulties, trauma and general coping and mental wellness.
Kristina Schwalm-Bacquet is a Mental Health Therapist, Supervisor and Instructor.