The combination of extra light, 80-degree weather, and FOMO can do real damage.
Isaiah and Taylor Photography
It was 3 pm on a summer Saturday. The sun was shining, birds were chirping, and my neighbors were outside playing with their kids. It was an 80-degree day that most people in a typically cloudy city like Pittsburgh were taking advantage of.
I, however, was lying on my couch, unable to move. I felt like a slug, just staring at my ceiling fan, replaying all the things I didn't accomplish that day and it made me feel like such a failure. All day my brain told me, "Just get up and do what you need to do," but my body remained stagnant.
Everything seemed like a huge chore. I didn't want to eat, didn't want to do work, didn't want to go anywhere. As I scrolled through my Instagram feed, I saw friends posting gorgeous beach shots, weekend hikes, and after-work frosé-sipping. Of course this made me feel worse. For a minute I contemplated posting an older photo of me outside having fun just to fit in, but the act of even trying to do that was exhausting.
This feeling wasn't just a random Saturday occurrence in the summer. The scenario continued for days at a time almost every summer. As I started to become more aware of my body and surroundings, I realized it might not be normal. I finally went to see my primary care physician—who's been treating my anxiety since I was 12—after my symptoms worsened. He told me that I was most likely experiencing summer depression.
I thought, "Who gets depressed in the summer? Isn't that a wintertime thing?"
After I left my doctor's, I texted a few of my friends and told them what my doctor had said. Their responses shocked me: "I hate summer, too," one friend texted back. She said she withdraws more, doesn't want to do a lot of typical summer activities. The more I started talking about it, the more people confided in me and disclosed their own experiences with summertime blues.
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It turns out that nearly a tenth of people who experience seasonal affective disorder feel their depressive symptoms in the summer."While nobody knows for sure why people get summer depression, there are two main culprits: light and temperature," says Norman Rosenthal, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical School and one of the researchers who first coined the term Seasonal Affective Disorder [SAD]. "While many people think that light is an agent of happiness and energy, for some, light has the opposite effect. And the oppressive heat can cause people to feel agitated."
One of the reasons people don't often associate summertime with depression is because the symptoms are the opposite of what most people experience with winter depression. "People in the summer tend to eat less and lose weight, whereas [in the] winter, folks eat more and gain weight," Rosenthal says. In the winter, people also tend to sleep more, whereas people in the summer often deal with insomnia."
While losing weight and staying up late may not sound so bad to most people during beach season, it only makes those experiencing summer depression feel worse. The weightloss typically is due to lack of eating, which means people might feel weak and tired because they have poor nutrition, he says. Sleep is no different: Lack of sleep can cause health issues down the line.
In the summer, people are more agitated and don't recognize irritability as depression, Rosenthal says. Summer seems to be a time for brag-worthy photos of vacations and social outings, but those who don't feel that same excitement in the summer often try to dismiss their sad or depressed feelings.
Rosenthal says that while there are no formal studies on summertime depression that he's aware of (which he attributes to lack of research funding) there have been some assessments—which he describes in his book, Winter Blues—done on who experiences seasonal affective disorders in the winter as compared to the summer. Based on assessments in the mid-Atlantic, winter depression outnumbers summer depression. The farther south you get, summer depression becomes more common, because the increase in heat can lead to issues like dehydration and lack of sleep, which can lead people to feel more on edge or agitated.
Rosenthal says suicide rates actually peak in the spring and summer (which means that those who are depressed in the summer are at higher risk for suicide), not in the winter—this is often a result of the agitation mixed with depression. (It's a common myth that suicide rates are higher during the holiday seasons in December and January, but data reports of suicide show that it is actually higher in the spring and summer.)
The light—or for some people, the darkness—at the end of the tunnel is that there is help. In fact, Rosenthal is excited about articles like this one because, he says, the more people discuss and legitimize summer depression, the more people will understand it and get the help they need. "Once you make the connection and realize it's a syndrome, it's a condition, then you can treat it and prevent it," he says.
There are things people with summertime depression can do to help minimize the symptoms. Rosenthal suggests walking, jogging or doing any type of exercise first thing in the morning to avoid the heat. It's also a great way to get your energy up in first thing to set the pace for the day.
Keeping yourself cool is one of the best things you can do to minimize summertime depression symptoms, Rosenthal says. Keep your home properly air conditioned; keep the blinds drawn or invest in the light-blocking curtains that help keep your space cool. Rosenthal also suggests checking in with your doctor to consider medication or to modify your current medication for the summer months.
Most importantly, be honest with yourself and others. Now that I know the summer months are my least favorite part of the year, I plan my schedule around it. I try to do more of my creative projects in the winter, when I'm feeling inspired and plan to do less in the summer. I'm honest with people about if I'm not feeling up to hanging out even if it means missing a "Sunday Funday" or a really cool outdoor festival. And when it comes to my personal relationships, I try not to let FOMO get to me.
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Lede image: Isaiah and Taylor Photography