Seasonal Affective Disorder – in summer?

Cornish beach in black and white

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. In human society, it’s 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. And the light is very exposing. We have an obsession with light – unsurprisingly perhaps in the UK’s northern European climate. But this is not always healthy. 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
  • Loneliness
  • Anxiety
  • 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 trigger you into remembering difficult holiday times when you were younger.
  • 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.

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 have extensive scarring, an ostomy, or are going through gender transition.)
  • 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)
  • Sunburn
  • 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 has 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. It 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 is not a good long-term strategy overall. Can you share your feelings with some friends and others who are close to you?
  • Don’t feel ashamed to go to the doctor and discuss your options if things feel unmanageable. The same goes for getting therapy.
  • 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 some of 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.

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.


Nine things not to say to someone with a phobia

x-1-33

This post isn’t ‘Phobias 101.’ It’s about the kinds of well-intentioned (or less so) enquiries that phobia sufferers are sometimes subject to. If you would like to know more, you can find detailed information here and here.

Phobias are very common and often misunderstood

Once upon a time the level of fear evoked by a phobia may have been useful, because it encouraged us to avoid genuinely dangerous things like poisonous snakes. In modern life, some phobias have a certain logic to them, despite statistical reassurance – for example, if you are in sitting in a jet-powered metal box 30,000 feet up in the sky.

They can also be distressing and debilitating

A phobic attack is really unpleasant. The body goes straight into a very primal state of fight or flight.  If you don’t manage to get away from the situation or object fast enough, it can take several hours to calm down.

Sometimes people plan their lives around their phobia, in case they are triggered. Thoughtlessly placed glass lifts and open footbridges can be really unhelpful to those with vertigo or agoraphobia, so routes have to be planned meticulously. Someone who is claustrophobic needs to gamble on whether the rush hour tube train will get stuck in a tunnel and whether it would be easier to spend two hours getting home on the bus. Some people never use underground trains at all and experience long convoluted journeys if they want to go anywhere. Arachnophobes may end up choosing to live higher off the ground so it is less likely that spiders will come in from outside.

They are also hard to explain

Perhaps due to the seemingly mysterious nature of phobias and the extreme responses they evoke in the sufferer, non-phobics (even with the best intentions) often make statements and ask questions that are at best unhelpful and at worst potentially damaging. Given parts of our culture’s obsession with the rational and explainable, the phobic person may be called upon to give an account of their apparent irrationality solely for others’ benefit.

Here is a list of things it’s best not to say to someone with a phobia:

(1) ‘Ha ha, really?! That’s too weird!’

The phobic person is likely to have taken a lot of time wondering about their phobia. Mocking or questioning them is not going to help.

(2) ‘Lol! There’s one right behind you!’

For some people, just seeing a picture of the feared object can cause a reaction. (The internet makes this a lot more challenging.) At worst at comment like this could cause someone to have a panic attack.

(3) ‘That three-year-old over there isn’t scared.’

It’s hard to know where to begin to unpack this. Just don’t go there.

(4) ‘That spider/dog/snake is more scared of you than you are of it.’

As well as being mostly untrue, this brings a jarring personalisation into the encounter, as if there was some sort of mutual exchange going on.

(5) ‘But I saw you do X the other day.’

So – well spotted – you saw them going down into the tube. Perhaps it was 11am and they had spent hours weighing up the mental risks of getting on the train against the importance of their appointment, and calculated that the tube would not be excessively crowded at this time. They may spend their entire journey praying nothing bad happens.

(6) ‘Have you tried CBT/hypnosis/flooding therapy?’

They may have tried all sorts of things. At the same time, it’s also likely that shame around their situation has prevented them from doing so. It’s also best not to keep offering to do therapy on them yourself, however kindly meant, even if you are a trained practitioner.

(7) ‘One day I decided to conquer my fear of cats/mushrooms/lifts. If I did, then so can you. You can choose to change your feelings.’

I have written elsewhere about the idea that you can ‘choose how you feel’.

(8) ‘Can’t you just pull yourself together?’

This one applies to mental health conditions across the spectrum. Please don’t say this to anyone, ever. It’s profoundly invalidating.

(9) ‘I read somewhere that people who live in war zones don’t suffer from phobias, and it’s just people with easy lives in the West who get them.’

Ah, how westerners love to tell each other how easy their lives are. A person who makes such a statement is generally hiding a vulnerability of their own.

 

Actually, this could be a bingo card. If you know of any others like these, please send them over.