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  • Writer's pictureTamaraMillerPsyd

Stress, Sadness and Summertime Blues – How to Respond to Anxiety and Depression in the Summer

Updated: Sep 27, 2023

What do you think of when you envision someone with Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD)? Chances are you conjure an image of someone with symptoms of depression in the cold, dark months of winter and which the American Psychiatric Association states impacts five percent of adults in the United States. But what about the anxiety and depression that crops up for people in the bright summer months when we have long days and there is extra time for leisure and fun? While less common than the more classic Seasonal Affective Disorder winter presentation, I find that summertime comes with its own treasure chest of challenging emotional experiences. Perhaps because there is the impression that it’s unusual or inappropriate to struggle in the summer, people may hold embarrassment or shame when acknowledging that they’re going through a tough time. I often hear relief along with surprise when I let folks know that they are most certainly not alone in experiencing increased bleakness and angst in the summer.

Summertime brings plenty of its own sneaky challenges that can amplify dreariness, gloom, unease or self-doubt. First, fear of missing out is a real phenomenon and this can heighten in the summer. There are outdoor concerts, restaurant pop-ups, one-day festivals, and weekend get-aways, and extra hours each night to take advantage of these events and get-togethers. The pressure to not miss out on the fun or feel badly about yourself when you do opt out can activate shame, guilt, and conflict. A second summertime challenge is the increase in financial stress. With more room to go out and travel comes increased pressure to spend. Third, hot weather and its accompanying outdoor activities can broaden or magnify body image challenges in new and unhelpful ways. Finally, all that summertime freedom has a cost – disrupting routines and schedules can mean carefully constructed calendars balancing work, leisure, childcare, and relationships are thrown out of whack, not to mention the changes that it can have on sleep, food and self-care routines.

Here are three tips to shift the pattern of thoughts, emotions and behaviors that can arise from those summertime blues:

1) Recognize Your Personal Stimulation Spectrum: We all have different ranges for how much stimulation is pleasurable and constructive. It may be that your co-worker or friend reaches their limit after three hours of engaging socially but that you reach yours after two. It could be that going to an evening event Friday and Saturday night is too much for you, and that choosing to go out just one of those nights and having a solo night at home the other is your sweet spot. Check in with yourself to honestly consider what range of time spent engaging with others or going out is most suitable for you. When asking yourself this don’t get fooled into identifying the range which means you’re experiencing no stress or discomfort at all. For a lot of people their no-discomfort point, or when you feel the least anxiety, might mean that you don’t end up engaging in experiences you value. What this does mean is that you don’t need to push yourself to the limit every moment of every day just because you feel that you “should,” or because someone else is doing more than you are.

2) Behavioral Activation: Now that you’ve thought about your own personal stimulation spectrum it’s time to engage in actions that are helpful for you and meaningful to you. That may be meeting a friend for lunch, walking by yourself in a park, or following through on the goal you’ve had to try a new class once a week. While it may be easy to identify significant and worthwhile actions when they’re securely in the future, it can be tempting to back-out as the event approaches. The trick is acknowledging that in the minutes and hours before engaging in these activities your anxiety may go up, and there could be an understandable temptation to avoid the outing in order to make those feelings temporarily disappear. You can recognize the anxiety and acknowledge its discomfort without taking it as instruction that you’d be better off engaging in avoidance. If you’ve already considered your stimulation spectrum and identified an activity as something that you know benefits you in the long-term even if there is anxiety in the short-term, this is the moment to challenge yourself to do the behavior first and let the emotion-shift follow later. Experiment honoring your own stimulation spectrum while still participating in events that are important to you.

3) Mindfulness: Behavioral activation without a dose of mindfulness can result in some unhelpful thought patterns while you’re out and about (“What’s wrong with me that it’s hard for me to do something that should be fun?” or “I can’t believe I have to go to this class every week, that is way too much for me”). According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. Practicing mindfulness allows you to shift away from ruminating on the past or worrying about the future, and instead allows you to be attuned to what is happening at the moment. This allows you to get the most out of the experience you’re having, whether that’s going out and doing something new or staying home and watching a familiar television show. It allows for more honestly about how helpful or unhelpful the current activity is, and where you may have a need this is not being fulfilled. It also helps turn down “should” messages about what type of experience you think you should be having and allows you to be grounded in the experience you’re actually having.

Don’t feel ashamed or embarrassed to acknowledge that you experience summertime blues and stress. When you talk to those around you, you may be surprised to find out that you’re not alone in waiting for shorter days or the sweet smells of autumn. In the meantime, I invite you to experiment with the three tips above. They may just help make the overwhelming brightness of summertime a little less intense.

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