According to all the Instagram pictures of toes stretched out on deck chairs, many people looove the summer. They bask in the bright sun, revel in the heat, and don’t especially mind the sand-in-the-bathing-suit/sunscreen-in-your-eye sensations of July and August; the moment Memorial Day weekend rolls into sight, it’s constant watermelon, sailboats, and beach barbeques.
And then there are the rest of us. We are the people who hug the one foot of shade along the sidewalk, who seek out the closest possible parking spots to the supermarket entrance, who feel like a day at the beach is pretty much like a scene of desert alienation from The Sheltering Sky.
For me, summer is a challenge to my mood, but a manageable one: I can deal with and even enjoy July and August with a few lifestyle modifications. For others, the summer triggers a full-blown depression known as reverse seasonal affective disorder. Just as some people experience mood lows in the cold months, others feel crummy in the summer. And like the winter blues, the disorder exists on a spectrum: Some people get a little down; others feel so low that they entertain suicidal thoughts. To get a better understanding of reverse seasonal affective disorder and how to combat it, I spoke to Dr. Norman Rosenthal, a professor of psychiatry at Georgetown and the author of Winter Blues.
Light might be as important as temperature
“This seems obvious,” Dr. Rosenthal said, “but stay cool. There are lots of thing you can do—cool baths and showers. Keep blinds and shades drawn to prevent a greenhouse effect in your home.” If getting overheated makes you feel irritable and stressed (as it does for me) or depressed, make staying in the air-conditioning a priority. Some summer depression people sleep with ice packs or cooling pads (or a Chillow); I keep my bedroom at an arctic temperature starting in early June. Depressed people tend to higher body temperatures at night than non-depressed people do, and Dr. Rosenthal found that patients wrapped in cooling blankets experienced relief from their symptoms (that was short-lived when they went back out into the heat).
The piece of advice about keeping shades drawn has a second element to it: “Some of the reverse SAD might be induced by the light,” says Dr. Rosenthal. “It’s not entirely clear, but I have seen cases in which I am convinced the light is a significant factor.” Some doctors think that the bright, long days modulate melatonin production and affect mood, just as low light levels affect mood for some people; others think that the long days wreak havoc with circadian rhythms and so disrupt sleep cycles.
And here’s an interesting commonality among reverse SAD sufferers: Some people report that the bright sun feels like an “assault” or an “attack”—which is exactly how stepping out the front door into the burning sun feels to me. I manage this reasonably well with a big hat and big sunglasses, and in my bedroom I have blackout shades so I can start winding down for sleep when the sky is still light (and not have the 5AM dawn roust me too early).
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But don’t avoid sunlight entirely
Dr. Rosenthal notes that he has had patients judiciously expose themselves to bright sunlight with good results: He had a colleague who suffered from reverse SAD who would step out into the light in the morning for very short periods—10 or 15 seconds—and she found that brief exposure, combined with the other defensives measures, to be therapeutic. If you generally like to be outdoors, make sure you do it in the early morning or late evening when it’s cooler and the sun isn’t so bright. I still take an early-morning jog and have a cocktail on the porch in evening, but I do my best to be inside during the brightest part of the day.
Take a trip
One of my priorities of adult life is to spend as much of the summer as I can manage in the cool mountains rather than in humid, mosquito-infested New York City. We can do this because we’re in academic/telecommuting fields, which obviously not everyone is, but for major reverse SAD sufferers a summer vacation to anywhere cool might be worthwhile. (Or, if you can work remotely or work in a tourism industry, split your time between two home bases.)
At the very least, be strategic about your leave, says Dr. Rosenthal, and “take a trip away from the equator.” He had a patient who took a summer holiday to upstate New York and experienced immediate relief after a vacation swimming in the cool water of the Finger Lakes.
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Get over your FOMO
One of the particularly insidious things about warm-weather SAD is that summer is supposed to be a bacchanal of good times: waterskiing, beach frolicking, back-porch grilling. It can take a while to come to terms with your own aversion to hot, bright weather, because it seems so incredible—who doesn’t like summer?
“Many people feel like there’s this carnival going on, and they’re left out,” said Dr. Rosenthal. “The socialization associated with summer is very difficult to deal with.” One of the double whammies of depression is that one often feels bad about feeling bad, and that can be amplified when everyone else seems to be having a marvelous time while you want to crawl under under the porch like a dog. “It’s terribly important to recognize who one is,” says Dr. Rosenthal. “If this is who you are, just be who you are. That’s the key to being happy with one’s biology and psychology. This is something you can’t change.”
I was well into adulthood when I realized that sitting on a scorching beach actually induced a mild feeling of panic rather than excitement. A friend recently invited me to her beach club and my first question was “is there ample shade?” But I’ve finally come to terms with it: This is my neurology, and there are actually upsides—in October I get a huge mood boost, bordering on giddy, that lasts through March, even when I’m dressed in Fargo-like outerwear and leaning headfirst into a biting wind. The sound of football games and the smell of hearty stews on the stove make me feel literally like dancing.
Exercise, but inside
Exercise is a known mood booster, but a sweaty jog in the humid mid-day sun is not at all fun for reverse-SAD people. I asked Dr. Rosenthal about swimming, and he agreed that swimming is great if that’s your thing, but the effort that surrounds swimming—getting to the pool, changing, showering, showering again, changing again—can make it impractical for a lot of people. He recommends investing in a piece of equipment you can use at home, like a exercise bike, to get your cardio in without exposing yourself to excessive heat and light. I take my morning run at dawn, when I can still manage without sunglasses, and that keeps my mood reasonably stable all day.
Seek a doctor’s help
Warm-weather depression tends to take the form of insomnia and agitation, rather than the low funk of the winter blues, and that agitation can lead to suicidal thoughts. If this is you, please see a doctor. Dr. Rosenthal has patients who take medication cyclically for seasonal depression—ramping up in February and March for the summer people and in the fall for the winter people. If a big hat and a trip to Portland isn’t helping, it might be time to consider intervention from a medical professional.
As for me, I’ll be under my porch starting in early July. See you in football season!