It’s summertime, and the livin’ is easy. At least that’s what you’ve been led to believe based on songs and film—and your friends’ Facebook pages. But, for some, summer isn’t quite the funfest it’s cracked up to be. In fact, it turns out plenty of people don’t find bliss during summer. The hot, bright, long days turn them into gigantic grump buckets or make them genuinely sick. From vacation envy and body-image anxiety, to actual summer-onset seasonal affective disorder (yes, it exists), here’s what may be dragging you down during the dog days of summer.
If circadian rhythms are messed up it can mean trouble—even if it’s just a few less (or more) hours of sun each day. Norman Rosenthal, MD, and colleagues at the National Institute for Mental Health discovered seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and realized there’s also a summer version. Summer SAD shows up as agitation rather than winter’s lethargy. If you’re not yourself and are too jittery to eat, sleep, or follow your usual routines, you may want to talk to your doctor about SAD.
Summer solution: Your doctor may want you to stay out of the bright light and heat and/or take antidepressants. While summer SAD is relatively rare, it can be dangerous and lead to feelings of suicide. If summer makes you manic, don’t ignore it.
The expectation gap
If you build up something up in your mind—whether vacations, holidays, or even the first bite of $50 truffle mac ‘n’ cheese—there can be a little (or even a ginormous) disconnect between your expectation and reality. That “gap” can cause minor disappointment, major stress, or even depression—especially if you feel you’re the only one who’s not having as much fun as expected.
Summer solution: Summer is no different. Expect perfection and you’re bound to be bummed. Instead, be ready for rain on picnic day or lines at Disney World and you’ll be pleasantly surprised if the day goes smoothly. Your attitude and ability to go with the flow have a lot to do with how much the “gap” will throw you. If reality is consistently getting you down, see a doc.
That over-amped feeling
Life seems more animated in the summer—kids shriek, crowds bustle, fireworks explode—even the clothes are louder! The cacophony can make you anxious if you’re already on overload or you need your quiet time.
Summer solution: Map your summer days and weeks so that you have plenty of quiet time built in, says Julie de Azevedo Hanks, author of The Burnout Cure, An Emotional Survival Guide for Overwhelmed Women. Intersperse higher-octane activities with lower-key ones. Leave time to wind down every night and limit caffeine, electronics, and distractions; focus on calming the noise inside and outside your body.
Your mixed-up sleep schedule
Long sunlit days can mean you get up earlier and stay up later—a recipe for sleep deprivation, which is more common in summer than any other time of the year, says Michael J. Breus, PhD, author of Good Night: The Sleep Doctor’s 4-Week Program to Better Sleep and Better Health. “Your body releases more of the stress hormone, cortisol, when you’re sleep-deprived,” he says, which can contribute to depression. It can also increase emotional sensitivity.
Summer solution: Try to keep normal sleep hours in the summer, even if it means using heavy curtains to block out light. When you do get up, eat outside or in bright light to get a depression-fighting boost of sunlight. “Getting consistent sunlight in the am helps reset your circadian clock,” he says. If you feel your sleep problems are getting in the way of your quality of life, see a doctor.
Admit it, me-time is the only thing that saves your sanity on most crazy-busy days. And summer can do a major number on it as schedules are shot and commitments pile on faster than fleas on your hound.
Summer solution: If you have kids, share childcare or chauffeuring responsibilities with other parents so you have time to do your stress-relieving workout early in the day. Use some vacay days just for yourself—to take a solo bike ride, get your feet or body beach-ready at the spa, or simply sit in a cool, dark movie theater blissfully alone. This is not an indulgence. This is preventive mental health care at its best.
All those slackers
You’re surrounded by them, right? Or at least it feels that way. If you’re in charge of getting things done at work and half the office is out on vacation and you’re not, it can feel like nothing gets done—or it only gets done If you do it. No wonder you’re a frustrated, angry crankypants.
Summer solution: Don’t throw a pity party or make yourself sick with stress, take a vacation yourself! It’s easy to feel put-upon when you’re carrying the load for someone else, but they’ll be there for you when it’s your turn. And be sure to take your turn, Ms. Type-A-the-World-Can’t-Turn-Without-Me. People who don’t take vacations aren’t likely to be any more respected by upper management than those who do. And vacay-takers are healthier.
There’s no doubt about it: Everybody on Facebook has a better backyard, dog, and marriage than you do. So, of course, they have a better vacation (30 days long, really?!) and summer (Did they hire Martha Stewart for that luau?!) too. It can be depressing.
Summer solution: Pick your head up off your keyboard and take off the rose-colored glasses, says therapist Hanks. “You’re not seeing the real version of a person on Facebook,” she says, “They’re not going to post the fight they had with their husband. You can feel bad about Facebook or use it to inspire you, she says. “No one has a perfect life but some people do have more resources, time, and money. If you like what you’re seeing on someone’s Facebook, ask yourself ‘How can I create that kind of fun within my budget?’ or ‘How can I make that happen my way?'”
If you’re already a bit uncomfortable with your body (and more than half of us aren’t that thrilled with certain body parts), skimpy, warm-weather fashions may send you running for cover (the number of stories about how to cover up arm flab or prevent arm jiggle in the summer says it all).
Summer solution: “Given the unrealistic media expectations of how we’re supposed to look, it’s not surprising that body image is a depression trigger for women in the summer,” says Hanks. But instead of feeling bad about it, focus on being the best possible version of yourself, Hanks says. “My friend is 6’2″ and I’m a foot shorter. I can’t have her long legs; I just have to be the best me.” Find summer clothes that flatter the parts of your body you like best and camouflage the parts you don’t.
Fear and loathing of the outdoors
This might seem amusing, but the truth is if you’re not Nature Girl, summer can be a real bummer. Either you feel left out of activities (camping, fishing, snorkeling, hiking, etc.) or you go along and are miserable because you’re afraid that you (or a loved one) will get Lyme disease from a tick or bit by a shark.
Summer solution: In reality, the odds of such things are quite low. But if you’re a woman, your odds of worrying about these (i.e. generalized anxiety) are twice has high as a man’s. If your worries keep you from taking part in summer fun, consider seeing a therapist; cognitive behavioral therapy can ease anxieties and phobias. Try to plan fun events closer to home where you can be social without being on edge.
Time really does fly
Some seasons feel like beginnings (the new school year in Fall) and others feel like endings, which can make you feel nostalgic or melancholy. For some people, summer rituals—unpacking the car after vacation, for example—are a reminder of how fast they or their children are getting older or how fleeting life is.
Summer solution: Yes, time is passing, but living in the past is no healthier than having unrealistic expectations of the future, experts say. Instead, it’s best to live in the present. (If your feelings of sadness are overwhelming, seek medical help.) Take your best Instagrams of the summer and frame them on your wall—not as a sign of how fast time is passing, but as a reminder of how great you felt in the moment and how you should focus on this one, because right now is great, too.
You have winter SAD in the summer
If your summer has been particularly gloomy or rainy—or so hot that you’ve closed all of the curtains and closeted yourself in a darkened air-conditioned cocoon—that could be making you depressed, especially if you’re prone to winter-onset SAD, according to Dr. Rosenthal, the SAD researcher who is currently Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown Medical School.
Summer solution: Open the blinds, get light therapy, and talk to your doctor about other ways to combat the winter SAD symptoms, which can range from carb cravings to severe lethargy.