Help for the Summer Blues
By Theresa Borchard
The kids are out of school. Your neighbors are whistling on their way to work, greeting you with an enthusiasm peculiar to warm weather. And if you hear one more person ask you about your summer vacation plans, you will throw a US map and atlas at them.
You don’t mean to be grumpy. But darn it, you are miserable in the oppressive heat, your kids are home for 90 consecutive days, and you are don’t have the stamina to pretend you are giddy that summer has arrived.
You’re not alone. After publishing a piece recently about the trigger of Memorial Day for me—reminding me that most of my relapses have happened in the summer months—I’ve heard from so many readers that fear this time of year for the same reason.
Ian A. Cook, MD, the director of the Depression Research Program at UCLA names five causes of summer depression in an article published on WebMD:
• Summertime SAD.
You’ve probably heard about seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, which affects about 4% to 6% of the U.S. population. SAD typically causes depression as the days get shorter and colder. But about 10% of people with SAD get it in the reverse — the onset of summer triggers their depression symptoms. Cook notes that some studies have found that in countries near the equator – like India – summer SAD is more common than winter SAD.
• Disrupted schedules in summer.
If you’ve had depression before, you probably know that having a reliable routine is often key to staving off symptoms. But during the summer, routine goes out the window – and that disruption can be stressful, Cook says. If you have children in grade school, you’re suddenly faced with the prospect of keeping them occupied all day, every day. If your kids are in college, you may suddenly find them – and all their boxes of stuff – back in the house after a nine-month absence. Vacations can disrupt your work, sleep, and eating habits – all of which can all contribute to summer depression.
• Body image issues.
As the temperature climbs and the layers of clothing fall away, a lot of people feel terribly self-conscious about their bodies, says Cook. Feeling embarrassed in shorts or a bathing suit can make life awkward, not to mention hot. Since so many summertime gatherings revolve around beaches and pools, some people start avoiding social situations out of embarrassment.
• Financial worries.
Summers can be expensive. There’s the vacation, of course. And if you’re a working parent, you may have to fork over a lot of money to summer camps or babysitters to keep your kids occupied while you’re on the job. The expenses can add to a feeling of summer depression
• The heat.
Lots of people relish the sweltering heat. They love baking on a beach all day. But for the people who don’t, summer heat can become truly oppressive. You may start spending every weekend hiding out in your air-conditioned bedroom, watching pay-per-view until your eyes ache. You may begin to skip your usual before-dinner walks because of the humidity. You may rely on unhealthy takeout because it’s just too stifling to cook. Any of these things can contribute to summer depression.
Alrighty, so now that we have a full list of what is contributing to our depression, what do we do about it?
• Get on a schedule.
As Cook mentioned, I absolutely need a schedule to stay sane. Without one, I’m in trouble. So a month or so before school ends for the year, I get out my calendar and start marking it up. They will go to this camp during this week. I will be able to work from 8 to 3 on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I will swim in the morning on these days. You get the point.
• Plan something fun.
It doesn’t have to be expensive. Something as simple as taking a day off of work to have lunch with a friend or chill out with a novel at home can be incentive to get through a few weeks. One good piece of advice I received when I was trying to work through a severe depression was to plan something enjoyable every few weeks to keep me motivated to move forward. Not that I had to envision myself as having a jolly old time. But something that could give me an ounce of joy carried me through many hot summer afternoons.
• Replace the triggers.
In their book, “Extinguishing Anxiety,” authors Catherine Pittman and Elizabeth Karle explain that in order to retrain the brain from associating a negative event to a trigger that creates anxiety, we must generate new connections by exposure. So, for me, I need to replace memories of relapses in the summer (which trigger anxiety for me during the summer) with positive events during the summer. I mentioned in a recent piece, that one way I’m doing this is by getting involved in my kids’ swim team because that generates feelings of peace and happiness. And in so doing, being around the pool won’t remind me as much of the days when I sat slumped over in the baby pool section, unable to carry out a conversation with anyone.
It’s important to maintain good sleep hygiene in the summer. That is, even though the day’s events are changing from week to week, make sure to keep your sleep schedule the same: go to bed at the same time every night, wake up at the same time every morning, and don’t sleep much less than 7 hours and no more than 9 hours a night. When depressed, it’s common to want to sleep as much as you can, to kill the hours. However, extra sleep does increase depression.
During the summer months, it’s easy to abandon any exercise program that you’ve been disciplined enough to start since the oppressive heat can be dangerous, if not terribly unappealing. So before the heat sets in, design a plan you can stick with that won’t make you stick to everything else. I run early in the morning during the summer, before the humidity sets in, and I try to swim more often.
• Be around people.
As tempting as it is to isolate during the summer, forcing yourself to be around people—even if you don’t join the discussion—is going to assist your mood and especially the ruminations that get your into trouble. If you don’t want to leave your air-conditioned home, at least make yourself call one person—a sibling, friend, or co-worker—to stay connected to the world.
Therese Borchard says this about herself, "I'm the holy whackjob who pens the daily blog "Beyond Blue" on Beliefnet.com, which was voted by PsychCentral.com as one of the top 10 depression blogs, and I moderate (with the help of two lovely co-moderators!) the popular depression support group, Beyond Blue, on this social networking site. With the help of three wonderful co-moderators, I also moderate a support group for persons recovering from or enmeshed in an emotional affair."