Summer is in full swing and all around you, people seem to be enjoying themselves. Happy to be outdoors, puttering in the garden, reading cheesy novels, going to the beach or nearby parks for picnics. Not only do you not get it, you feel worse just seeing their rosy complexions. Like Scrooge at Christmas, you want to scream “Baaaah humbug!” but nobody wants to hear your complaints.
Or perhaps it’s not you but one of your kids or your mate who is cranky and out of sorts. What’s going on? It may be a bad case of the summertime blues.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) Might Be the Problem
Most people, if they even know about SAD, think of it as a type of depression that occurs each year in the winter–especially in places with long winter nights and little sunshine. Like other forms of depression, SAD occurs more often in women than in men and can first occur either in adolescence or adulthood.
What many people, including psychotherapists, do not know is that a small but significant percentage of people have recurrent bouts of depression every year in the summer. While the winter blues typically make people withdrawn and lethargic, craving carbohydrates, oversleeping and overeating, the effects of summer depression are the opposite.
In the summer version of SAD, people get agitated, anxious, and irritable, struggling to get enough sleep. Since they also lose their appetite, they often lose weight. As with other depressions, they can struggle with suicidal thoughts.
No one knows exactly why summer affects people in these ways, but there seems to be three ways the season triggers symptoms. Some people are the most bothered by excessive sunlight, others by excessive heat, and a third cause is the disruption of the daily body cycles called circadian rhythms.
Another cause of increased problems in the summer can be due to bipolar disorder. Too much light exposure can provoke mania in the same way that too little light can bring on bouts of depression. In fact, hospitalizations for mania peak in the summer months. If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with Bipolar 1, it makes sense to be on the lookout for signs of mania. For those with Bipolar 2, summer can bring on hypomanic episodes or a less severe form of mania.
In either case, the symptoms to watch out for include increased levels of agitation and hyperactivity; a persistently elevated, extra happy mood; rapid thoughts and speech, with increased talking more than usual; an increase in sexual desire; an increase in daily activity. Other warning signs might be the desire to go out every night, drink excessively or use drugs, spend too much money, make new friends, or start new activities.
These symptoms, especially as they are ramping up, can be difficult to spot. Why? Because they look like the way everyone else is happily enjoying the summer months. And also, for those used to being depressed, feeling a bit hypomanic is like a breath of fresh air until things careen out of control.
The first two explanations involve very real, biological conditions that affect millions of people each summer. There are many others who struggle more in the summer because of stresses brought about by the season. One problem has to do with what our expectations are for ourselves or our families.
One possibility is that you had great expectations for how wonderful summer was going to be and, unfortunately, it is just turning out to be like the rest of the days of the year. If you are like most Americans, you don’t get the summer off of work and with the kids out of school, there is more than ever to be done at home.
Many parents worry about money because summers can be expensive. If you’re a working parent–which most people in America are–you may have to fork over lots of money to summer camps or babysitters to keep your kids occupied while on the job. On top of that, the kids often add to the stress.
With less structure, many kids fight more with siblings and complain about boredom or about being forced to go to camp when all they want to do is “hang out” (translate “get into trouble” thinks the parent) with their friends. Tensions rise especially on hot muggy days or when parents don’t get enough down time for themselves.
Another trigger for summertime blues can be caused by body image issues. As the temperature climbs, many people–both adults and children and teens most of all–feel terribly self-conscious about their bodies. If you don’t feel comfortable in shorts or a bathing suit, summers can be painfully long. Since many summer events revolve around beaches and pools, some people start avoiding social situations out of embarrassment.
If you or a loved one suffer from SAD, bipolar disorder, or depression, it is always best to get whatever professional help you need, and to get social support and daily structures in place. If you’ve had depression or mania before, you probably already have learned that having a reliable routine is often key to staving off symptoms. Check out this blog to get more ideas.
Just because it is summer, don’t throw bedtimes and wake-up times out the window. Everyone–adults and kids alike–does better with life’s inevitable stresses when we get enough sleep, exercise and regular meals. If you are parents, don’t abandon date nights or time with friends just because it’s summer.
Try to have reasonable expectations of yourself and your loved ones. There is nothing wrong with you if you find summer MORE difficult than the school year and don’t be afraid to say so. Just knowing that you are not alone can be the first step toward reclaiming your sanity. Allow yourself some regular baaah humbugs and scream out a bit of your frustration while swimming underwater in the pool. It might even help to count the days until Labor Day when the kids go back to school and life returns to “normal”.
If all else fails, put any one of the many versions of the great old song, “Summertime Blues,” on your iPod, crank up the music and sing along. There’s good reason this 1958 song has been covered by bands from the Beach Boys to Alan Jackson to Springsteen. Even Alvin and the Chipmunks chirped it out.