Turns Out, Summertime Sadness is Real
It’s the dead heat of July, high summer, when my mood begins to bottom out. It’s a month when temperatures climb to 85 degrees by 10am, and the air outside is viscous with humidity. If the afternoon sun isn’t blinding in its brightness, then a rainstorm inevitably pours, leaving behind suffocating heat and steam in its wake.
A beer commercial blares on my living room TV. On screen, attractive young people romp around on the sand in bikini tops and board shorts—laughing, dancing. I check my Instagram feed and a flood of photos greets me; #vacationgoals, #outofoffice, #summervibes hashtags plastered beneath sun-kissed bodies on gorgeous beaches, happy friends congregating on rooftop patios, pale pink cocktails in hand. #summernights, amirite?
More often than not, I feel alone in my disdain for this season’s long, lingering days and oppressive heat. Its profound negative effects on my mood and state-of-mind are real, but also alienating. Because everywhere I look, everyone else seems to be having the sunscreen-drenched, floppy hat-adorned, poolside time of their lives.
I, meanwhile, feel exhausted and edgy, my anxiety peaking in the heat of a sun-blasted afternoon. I don’t sleep as well in the summer and find the season’s onslaught of sunshine relentless and oppressive. All I want to do until the end of September is hide in a lamp-lit, air conditioned room with an iced coffee the size of my forearm.
What I’m discovering though, is that I’m not as big of an anomaly as I’ve been led to believe. And that, like Lana Del Rey tried to tell us all back in 2013, summertime sadness is real. In fact, according to the American Psychiatric Association, even though the majority of diagnoses for Seasonal Affective Disorder are the result of mood changes that occur in the winter and abate in spring, it is also diagnosed in a smaller number of folks during the heat-drenched months of June, July, and August.
According to Nia Baker, a licensed professional counselor and executive director of Active Resilience Counseling & Coaching in East Atlanta, SAD is “basically when we experience a shift toward a depressive mood that seems to follow a season.” For many people, she says, “it is during a change towards cold and ‘drearier’ months, but for some, it’s actually summer.”
Baker says that not only can seasonal changes affect our emotional states, they can negatively impact our bodies, too, causing an increase in fatigue, affecting our ability to concentrate, and interfering with sleep. Check. Check. Check.
But you don’t have to be on the receiving end of an official SAD diagnosis to feel that general summertime malaise—and that could be the result of several factors, according to licensed professional counselor Sarah Larkin Birdsong, LPC, of Birdsong Therapy. The lack of a consistent schedule that often accompanies this time of year, for example, can have a not-great impact on our mental health.
“Generally,” Birdsong says, “people’s mental health is buttressed by structure, which is often compromised in the summer months. I have a private practice in Inman Park, and I can’t tell you how many of my clients fall off of their schedules in July.”
Blips in our regular routines also interfere with self-care, she says. “It can be nice to take a break from school or have a looser schedule from work in the warmer months, but the absence of a consistent schedule can make self-care harder, and the absence of routine can make mood more difficult to regulate.”
Summer’s “fun in the sun” tagline, its expectation that we should be relentlessly happy and social this time of year, also doesn’t help.
“I think any time there is an expectation for fun, there is a heightened probability of disappointment, self-criticism, and self-comparison,” Birdsong says. “Culturally, summer is basically framed as a three-month celebration, and that’s not realistic for the majority of people. Some of us can’t afford a three-month celebration. Some of us can be identified as introverts, and require time alone to re-energize, making a heightened schedule of socializing something that needs to be regulated at the risk of feeling imbalanced.”
Further, she says, “if we find ourselves without social plans, conserving our introvert-energy, low on funds, or just keeping cool indoors in a way that sometimes looks like a commercial for depression, our inner critic can do a number on us with negative self-talk about how we ‘should’ be out socializing—with either more or better plans, or accepting the plans we've been offered even though sometimes socializing on a heightened schedule can be too much.”
Licensed marriage and family therapist Erica James of Erica James Counseling agrees, noting that the narrative that tells us that we’re all supposed to feel bright and sunny inside just because it looks bright and sunny outside can be an unhealthy expectation to try and live up to.
“I think it puts pressure on people to live up to that narrative,” she says, “which can be harmful for some, and have mental health implications. Everyone does not experience joy and fun in the summer, and that’s okay. However, the common narrative does not have much room for that so it can feel isolating. People might withdraw, or they may fake like they are having a good time just so they can feel accepted. Both of those situations can be damaging to one's mental health over time.”
The fact that it’s hot AF outside, and the heat doesn’t cease until after the sun goes down around 9 p.m. isn’t a friend to our mood, either. Baker, who specializes in trauma-informed behavioral counseling and trauma processing, tells me that summer heat kills our energy and increases sweat, which can lead to dehydration, exhaustion, and irritability.
“On top of that,” she says, “ways to get cooler can bring up thoughts related to…ugh…bathing suits. For many of us, whether we feel fit or not, we feel self-conscious, which can lead to comparison and negative thought patterns about how others may view us. Longer days give our brains more time to think and be awake, which can also deplete us of mental and emotional energy.”
She also says that excessive temperatures actually activate a part of the brain that can lead to feeling overwhelmed, even dissociative. This can “make it more difficult to be present or productive, which can lead to an increase of guilt or frustration, and therefore a decrease in positive emotions. I have seen this with so many of my clients who come in because they feel burnt out, fatigued, and often experiencing loneliness.”
Baker also proposes another reason why some of us struggle in the summer—one that I find particularly poignant, beautiful and, in my case, true.
“One of the truths of which I’m consistently reminded in my practice is that human bodies hold our history,” she says. “And our history includes our experience in all seasons. This means that during the summer, we feel past summers, whether full of joy or pain. For those of us who may experience SAD during the summer, it could be associated with any experience of trauma that has an anniversary during these months. This painful memory, however big or small to begin, can be compounded by thoughts that we should be doing better or ‘having more fun’ than we actually feel.”
My dad died in June 2011, just seven days before Father’s Day, and his 50th birthday followed shortly after that in the beginning of July. I carry the dull ache of that loss with me every single day even now, but in a way that feels amplified under summer’s bright light. Having a mental health expert validate that feeling, even in a small way, is like being offered a tiny jewel of healing.
July has since relinquished its days to August. And while the temperatures continue to rise, my mood’s plateaued a bit. So, I’ve tried to create more of a routine for myself during the day; I’ve turned down some social invitations. I’ve also tried to move my body a bit each day, drink all the water, and add some sessions with my therapist, just for good measure.
And whether it’s the heat, or the expectations that the marketing of this season continues to thrust at us, Baker, Birdsong, and James all recommend other people struggling this time of year do some version of the same.
Baker suggests practical tips that can help mitigate the physical, negative effects of blistering temperatures. “Caring for your body is a way to care for your mental health,” she says, “and is a courageous practice.”
As such, she recommends taking a cool bath or making a cold compress with essential oils such as spearmint, orange, and basil, which she says “can connect you to both openness and clarity.” Baker also encourages folks to remind themselves that the struggle will subside. “Seasons change,” she says, “which can help remind us that pain also shifts and changes.”
Some of her other tips include:
Employing a mantra like ‘I am becoming’ to challenge negative thoughts
Drinking lots of water loaded with refreshing fruits and veggies like pineapple or cucumber
Finding slow, soothing ways to move your body – a walk around the block in the morning before it gets hot, yoga (indoors, obvs), or swimming (this also helps combat the negative effects high temps can have on body and mind)
Birdsong recommends challenging our thinking about what any season is supposed to be.
“Question this marketing that summer is a three-month vacation and everyone is skipping around on the beach in their really specific summer bodies. It’s just not true.”
Also, says Birdsong, “If you are staying inside, laying low, or struggling with depression or anxiety, you are not alone. See if you can give your inner critic a break and realize that oftentimes alone time is self-care. Conserving funds is self-care. Providing yourself much-needed structure and consistency is self-care. Be gentle with your thoughts and remember that if the struggles are tied to the season, seasons pass.”
Even for those of us just dealing with stress or fatigue, James recommends “[doing] what makes [you] feel most like [yourself]. If that means staying inside or declining invitations to parties, then so be it. Spending time with the people [you] want to spend time with, and doing the things that uplift [you] and make [you] happy are key. Being true to you is important in mitigating sadness.”
Also, she says, “make sure you’re listening to yourself and your body. Find ways to calm the inner chatter. And remember that there are people out there to help and support you if needed.”
All of the mental health experts I contacted also noted that if you ever feel like what you’re struggling with is too big to handle on your own, if it’s something that’s interfering with your ability to take care of yourself, tend to your responsibilities or something that might make you harm yourself, always, always reach out to a professional. There is never any shame in seeking help.
As for me, I’m trying to keep in mind that there is no right way to experience this season. I don’t owe anyone my joy – no matter what some beer commercial or Instagram post tells me. And if the summer starts a similar storm in you, I hope you’ll be kind to yourself as you weather it. Of course, if summer inspires you to take Fridays off, don your favorite crop top, and throw back some margaritas at a backyard BBQ, do that, too.
Either way, you’re not alone.