Dr. Deb’s Mental Health Vitamin: How to cool summer depression
By Dr. Deb Wade
GCU Vice President, Counseling and Psychological Services
OK, it is HOT outside! Summer is here in all her splendor – yet it can be the worst of times for someone struggling with mental illness. You see, mental illness is persistent; it doesn’t just “tune out” or “turn off” because the weather is warmer and the expectation for fun and frolic outdoors is upon us.
If you’ve noticed an increase in anxiety or panic attacks or depression as the temps get warmer, you’re not alone. Summer depression and/or anxiety can be exacerbated by the high heat and humidity.
It seems that people are more understanding of those with depression in the winter months; they assume that the holidays are difficult (which is often true), that it’s cold and gray outside (which is often true), and that one can feel cooped up inside because of bad weather (which is also often true).
But in the summer, the sun is out and people have more outdoors activities, such as going swimming, having a barbecue, bicycling and jogging. That makes it seem logical that just “getting outside in the sunlight” should solve the depression.
While I believe that getting into action and getting some sunlight are certainly antidotal to a depressed mood, these options alone cannot counteract serious mental illness. And when one puts expectations on a depressed individual to “just go outside and forget your problems,” then the added pressure seems to make the depression worse – it’s like a vicious cycle.
So what are some reasons for increased depression during the summer months? A few …
- The expectation that summer should be “fun”! Anytime someone is trying to live up to the expectations of others – “be happy,” “just get some sun,” “just participate in the cookout” and “just have lots of fun and forget your funky mood” – the prison of depression can seem even darker and danker. Instead, be the captain of your own ship – don’t allow yourself to be pressurized into “having fun” because that expectation is sure to backfire, making everything considerably worse.
- The lack of routine! When one goes from being highly structured to having very little structure at all, the down time can lead to other maladaptive behaviors in an attempt to battle depression – binge eating, excessive napping, impulsive spending, isolative binges (TV, computer, gaming, drinking) – all of which will, of course, make the situation worse. Most people thrive with structure and routine – if you find yourself directionless, perhaps it’s time to impose some healthy expectations into your daylight hours. Have a project where the completion of it will provide a sense of satisfaction and self-soothing; i.e., paint a room, rearrange some furniture, nurture a small garden, start a scrapbook of memories, read “War and Peace” or some other challenging piece of literature.
- The pressure to have a “summer body”! Whether you’re a lady or a gent, sometimes peer pressure unloads on us when the summer sun is baring down on the land. Are you tanned, are you sculpted, are you fit? When we feel as if we don’t measure up to the expectation of the masses, the tendency to isolate becomes great AND the self-denigration can run rampant. Body-image issues in summer are real! People are wearing less clothing and it’s easy to get into the negative self talk about “my gross body.” Once again, be aware! You don’t have to live up to anyone else’s expectation of what “healthy” looks like. If YOU FEEL satisfied with your looks, celebrate! If not, set reasonable goals – don’t feel badly if you don’t look like a celebrity pictured on the front of a tabloid magazine … remind yourself that it’s just the product of a lot of Photoshopping!
- Reminiscing about childhood memories! Sometimes reflecting on one’s childhood can bring a smile on your face and a tender feeling in your heart – because that childhood was so great. Or if you grew up in a home that was not healthy, childhood memories might surface that bring hurt and angst to your heart. Summer seems to provide the spotlight and the vehicle for a revisit to early memories. If you are battling depression and your memories are positive, allow yourself to bask in them and to realize that you have the power NOW to create your own positive memories – they’re not just in days-gone-by. However, if you’re battling depression and your memories are NOT positive but evoke pain, allow yourself to see the HOPE in today! You have the power NOW to create your own positive memories – completely different from days-gone-by.
Yes, it is true that depression can seem overpowering and debilitating during the summer months. Just be aware of the expectations from the outside of what you SHOULD be feeling and doing.
Find a great therapist who will saddle up alongside you and help you conquer the debilitating and smothering feeling of depression. It does not have to be a life sentence – it’s very real, but there is very real help for you!