Added 24th April 2021
I’m writing this as we semi-emerge from Covid-19 lockdown in UK. The sun is bringing happiness and excitement for many people. It is also highlighting the ambivalence that others feel about exiting lockdown, particularly given that Covid is likely to be here for a while, and that many do not feel fully safe, vaccines or not.
What is summer depression?
I will start with my own experience. I remember the feeling vividly. It came on at the start of the school holidays when I was about 14. After the elaborate goodbye rituals, the end of term (and every end of summer term after that) felt like falling off a high building, but slowly, into a state of emptiness and loss. This feeling was made all the worse by the fact that when the sun’s out and the temperature goes above a certain level, you are supposed to be out there having fun. It is practically the law. ‘But you’ve got to go outside! It’s sunny!’
Gradually the feeling bedded in through university and into my twenties. Summer meant other peoples’ lives, not mine. Staying in sometimes helped, sometimes not. Sometimes seeing blue sky through a window made it even worse, because the barrier between me and the world was tangible, something I could touch.
‘Summer SAD’?? But everyone loves summer, don’t they?
‘April is the cruelest month…’ This endlessly quoted line from TS Eliot’s The Waste Land evokes the sense of alienation brought on by this phase of nature. Green shoots, flowers, colours, warmth, baby animals – all these things symbolise the world turning and everything changing and moving on. It’s Hollywood tropes like Yay! Beach! Shorts! Convertibles! Drink! Sex! And it is precisely those aspects of the spring and summer seasons that fall on some of us like hailstones. The suicide rate is highest in late spring and into the summer.
Summer also makes itself known to us through sound. Windows open. Music, laughter, glasses clinking, beer cans crushed in hand, barbecues – heard from just across the way, just out of reach. And so the sounds and smells of someone else’s new season hang over you. Fresh cut grass and the sound of lawnmowers. The obsession with light is perhaps unsurprising in the UK’s northern European climate. But this is not always healthy. Light is very exposing. There is a sense that once the bright light has been on you, you cannot go back. And social media can make all this feel so much worse. As with other holiday periods, you may feel surround by people telling you that you can choose how you feel about this.
What does summer SAD feel like?
In a way it’s like any kind of depression, but it has a particular flavour. Symptoms could include:
- A desire to withdraw from the world
- A strong feeling of alienation from culturally defined and enforced notions of happiness due to the temperature going up and there being more light
- A sense of exclusion
- A fear of exposure
- A sense of being trapped
- A desire to cover up the body
- FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out
So what causes it?
I think it’s from the same family of responses brought on by Christmas and other annual festivals. The difference is that summer is more drawn out. (For some more detailed thoughts on why holiday times are so stressful, please go to my blog post here. Although what I’ve written there applies to end of year festivities, I think many issues there apply to summer as well.)
Here I’ve listed some aspects of what may contribute to it:
- The weather may push you into remembering difficult times and traumatic experiences you had when you were younger.
- You may be trans or gender non-conforming and may dread the exposure that summer brings.
- You may have children and be dreading trying to fill up the long weeks until the autumn term starts.
- The obligation to look as if you’re having fun, and being singled out and exposed if not.
- A sense of a vast natural cycle that is leaving you behind. You may be ‘still’ single, ‘still’ unemployed, ‘still’ without a child, or ‘still’ married to the wrong person or living somewhere you have outgrown.
- As with Christmas and other festival times, you may feel obliged to see relatives or go to places that you dislike. If you are a young person you may have no choice in the matter.
- Summer can be expensive and you may have fears around money. If you had holidays when you were young, perhaps they were stressful and you could not escape. If you didn’t have them, another summer reminds you of what you didn’t have.
The feelings can also be anticipatory. Many people dread summer for reasons which occur at different places on the continuum between practical and emotional.
The fear of being exposed physically
- You would rather cover up your body because your size or shape attracts attention and this causes you anxiety.
- You wish to avoid comments in the street/on the beach because of the above.
- You wish to avoid sexual harassment.
- There are aspects of your body that others may be more likely to notice and comment on when you are wearing fewer clothes, or doing sporting activities (for example if you are transitioning, or have tattoos, extensive scarring, or an ostomy.)
- You dread fending off the expectation that you will participate in sports.
Summer-related physical health issues
- Hay fever (many suffer miserably with this for months)
- Rashes (including heat-related, ‘chub rub’ and running/cycling rashes etc)
- Insect bites (many people have a terrible response to mosquito bites, and there is Blandford Fly, ticks etc)
- If you cover up in jeans/layers in order to hide your body, excessive sweating can cause problems
- Sleeping problems due to light and heat, which can contribute to depression
- Light sensitivity (some people find the bright light makes them physically ill and need to wear sunglasses frequently)
So how did I deal with it?
I was astonishingly lucky. Having spent many years doing self-care (see below) fairly badly, my summer SAD was lifted overnight in 2003 by a kind American hippy I met online. We were members of a support group email list and we chatted quite often. When I explained my feelings to him, he suggested I do a ritual of thanks to the sun for giving me life. I was to write a message to the sun on a piece of paper and throw it in the nearest river and watch it float away on the tide. At the time I was living not far from Westminster Bridge, so the river bit was easy. However, the Iraq war had just begun and there were police everywhere. So he suggested I burn the piece of paper instead.
I did it – and it worked. I woke up the next day and the feelings had gone, never to return.
What was going on there, you might be wondering? I cannot tell you. The message seemed to be about personifying my relationship with the sun, and reframing it so that the summer did not feel like enemy territory, or a malign superego, or that something was being taken from me. Also, the previous year had been momentous and life changing in terms of my own survival, and perhaps subconsciously I was ready to let go of my fears.
Strategies for self care
So what to do, short of upping sticks to the antipodes, or very far north, for four months of the year?
- Choose your clothes and research the best medications well in advance so you feel prepared. Get a good hat and sunglasses.
- Are there work projects that you can just spend the summer getting on with?
- Get a good fan or air-con unit for hot days when you don’t want to be outside, so that your home feels like a refuge.
- If it is not safe for you to be open and honest about how you feel, you are going to need a cover story about why you’re not going swimming, playing ball games or going to the beach. Prepare it carefully. Burn easily? Knee injury? Allergy to XX? Get it straight and stick to it.
- Suggest activities to family/friends which have an indoor and outdoor aspect, so you can take cover without hiding.
- Hiding away and saying nothing may feel safer, but may not be a good long-term strategy overall. Can you share your feelings with some friends and others who are close to you? You may find they feel the same.
- Relish the cloudy days, those grey and green veiled and comforting days when other people are complaining. Even better when there’s a rainstorm!
- Some people give a lot of significance to solstices and equinoxes and the various festivals that go with them. Even if the language and pageantry around neopaganism doesn’t appeal, observing these time markers give a sense of the world turning and impermanence which you may find helpful.
- Make plans for the autumn and winter so you have something to look forward to.
- If you don’t feel you can share what’s going on with people close to you, a therapist can help.
My second holiday season post also has a number of thoughts on how to prepare for a difficult holiday period.
I hope my article gives you something to work with as the summer approaches.
You can contact me here.