How Seasonal Changes Can Affect Our Mental Health
Ah, the joys of summer: The withering heat and school vacations, when your kids give you minute-to-minute updates on their boredom levels. Isn’t summer supposed to be fun and relaxing? If you’ve got summer depression, it isn’t.
For some people, summer depression has a biological cause, says Ian A. Cook, MD, the director of the Depression Research Program at UCLA. For others, the particular stresses of summer can pile up and make them feel miserable.
Especially hard is that you feel like you’re supposed to be having a great time. Everyone else seems so happy splashing in the water and sweating in their lawn chairs. So why can’t you? And more importantly, what can you do to make this summer easier?
Understanding Summer Depression
Why do some people feel more depressed in summer? Here’s a rundown of reasons.
- 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 shown that in countries near the equator – such as India – summer SAD is more common than winter SAD. Why do seasonal changes cause depression? Experts aren’t sure, but the longer days, and increasing heat and humidity may play a role. Specific symptoms of summer depression often include loss of appetite, trouble sleeping, weight loss, and anxiety.
- 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 “This summer, we have worries about the economic crisis layered on top of everything else,” says Cook. “People are feeling more financially strapped. They’re wondering, ‘If I go on vacation, will the job still be there when I get back?’”
- 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 eyesache. 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 depressio
What can help you feel better? What can you do to make this summer different? Here are some tips on taking control of summer depression.
- Get help. It’s simple. If you think you’re getting depressed, no matter what time of year, get help. Talk to a therapist, like a psychiatrist, psychologist, or social worker. Or see your general medical doctor or a psychiatrist who can evaluate whether medicines for depression might be appropriate. Never take the signs of depression lightly. Don’t wait them out, assuming they’ll resolve. Sometimes, what started as summer depression can turn into a longer-lasting bout of major depression, Cook tells WebMD. "and even if your depression will resolve in September, that’s no reason to ignore it in June. We’re talking about three months of potentially avoidable misery. A temporary depression can still be pretty awful,” says Cook. While the symptoms lift in a few months, the impact on your family and job can be permanent.
- Plan ahead. Cook says there’s one advantage to a summer depression: you know when it’s coming. June is right there on the calendar. So if you’re feeling OK in the spring, think about the specific aspects of your life that become difficult during the summer. What will help prevent summer depression? What’s the best way to take time off from work? Would signing up the kids for summer programs or camp help relieve your stress? You’ll feel a lot more in control heading into the summer if you have plans in place.
- Sleep. Vacations, summer barbecues, the short nights – they can all encourage you to stay up later than usual. But not getting enough sleepis a common trigger for depression. So make a concerted effort to get to bed on time.
- Keep up with your exercise. Many studies have found that regular physical activity can help keep depression at bay. So even if it’s getting too hot for your normal activities, find other ways to stay active and head off summer depression. Start earlier in the morning or later in the evening, when it’s not so hot. Consider fitness equipment for the cool basement. If an annual membership to a gym is too expensive, consider joining one for a couple of months just to get you through the summer.
- Don’t overdo dieting and fitness. Don’t kick off the summer with a frenzy of dieting and exercise in order to fit into last year’s bathing suit. It’s bound to make you unhappy and anxious. Instead, exercise sensibly and eat moderately. If you try an insanely restrictive diet, you probably won’t be able to keep it up. And that “failure” will just leave you more demoralized and worsen your summer depression.
- Protect yourself. Don’t let obligations drag you down. Maybe you always host the enormous family barbecue on Memorial Day or the July 4 picnic. But if you’re feeling overwhelmed, give it a pass this year. Ask another relative to host. Don’t risk pushing yourself into a summer depression just to live up to tradition.
- Think about why. If you struggle with summer depression year after year, ask yourself if there’s a reason. Do you associate summer with a difficult time in the past – the death of a loved one or the break-up of a relationship? Have you had previous bouts of depression during the summer? Without even realizing it, you may have started to associate the summer with sadness – an association that gets stronger every summer that you spend depressed. If you do have some unhappy connection with the summer, sorting it out could help you break the cycle.
- Talk to your doctor about adjusting your medication. If you’re on medicine for depression, and you find that summer – year after year – makes your depression worse, talk to your doctor about changing your dosage. Maybe he or she could up your dose in the late spring and taper it back down in the fall. It could really help head off summer depression problems, Cook says.
- Plan your vacation carefully. Before you book your plane tickets or load up your car’s roof rack for your annual summer vacation, ask yourself this: Is this what you really want? Or is it an obligation you’re fulfilling to a relative? Will it make you happy? Or will it stretch your finances, stress you out, and make you fall behind at work? Consider alternatives. Instead of taking a whole week off at once, might it be better to take off several long weekends spread out through the summer? Would taking time off but staying at home – a “staycation” – be more relaxing? Don’t get locked into a vacation that won’t feel like a vacation.
- Don’t beat yourself up. One thing that’s hard about summer depression is that you feel so out of step. Everyone else seems to be having such a swell time. You aren’t. You keep asking yourself, “What’s wrong with me?”
Try not to think that way. “So much of our misery grows out of the gap between where we are and where we think we ought to be,” says Cook. So stop worrying about how you feel relative to other people. Stop assuming that you’re supposed to be happy just because the calendar says it’s June. Instead, concentrate on what’s triggering your summer depression and how you can overcome it.
“Treatments do work,” says Cook. “Psychotherapy or medication can blunt the effects of a seasonal depression. Summers really don’t have to be so bad.”
Ian A. Cook, MD, Director of the Depression Research Program; Miller Family Professor of Psychiatry, University of California Los Angeles.
NAMI: “Seasonal Affective Disorder.”
National Sleep Foundation: “Depression and Sleep.”
WebMD Medical Reference: “Exercise and Depression.”