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Summertime Sadness

Lana Del Rey knows what’s up—sometimes, summer is the saddest season.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a subset of depression first named and defined by the comedians at the American Psychiatric Association in the 1990s.1 The condition is characterized by depressive symptoms linked to seasonal changes. When we think of seasonal depression we usually think of winter, with its short days, cold temps, and, unless you’re a powder hound or a Snowdown fanatic, dearth of engaging activities. 

Here in Southwest Colorado I see a lot of summer seasonal affective disorder both in my therapy practice and in my personal life. Summer SAD is characterized by irritability, lack of motivation, low energy, guilt, and an increase in negative self-talk. My own summer SAD is often the worst in June, Colorado’s most hell-like month (hot, bright, windy, fire-prone). The days are long and there’s usually not a cloud or a raindrop in sight. 

My completely untested theory is that the sameness of the weather makes us feel like we’re in some weird southwestern Groundhog Day, doomed to repeat the same series of activities over and over again. If Bill Murray can’t escape existential dread and depression in such a scenario, how are we mere mortals to survive? 

You might be experiencing that summertime SAD if:

  • Nothing feels fun
    You love to ride, but every time you think about pulling your bike out of the garage you’re filled with dread and “I don’t want to” thoughts. Depression is characterized by a “lack of interest or pleasure” in formerly enjoyable activities. So if you’re struggling day after day to do something you used to love, seasonal depression might be a factor. 

  • Energy is low
    Despite the bright sunshine, you’re tired as heck and dragging through your days. Naps are calling your name constantly, but it’s too dang hot to sleep. Fatigue is another symptom of depression, along with undersleeping or oversleeping. Constant tiredness contributes to the cycle of depression as the more fatigued you are, the less you do…then you feel even worse at the end of the day. 

  • You think you suck
    Another fun feature of depression is excessive and persistent feelings of guilt, like you’re letting yourself or others down. In the winter when nearly everyone is in hibernation mode, it’s easier to feel ok about your desire to hermit. But when friends unburdened by summer SAD are out there posting their triple sports days on Insta or Strava, it’s easy to drop into beating yourself up mode. “I should be out there! What’s wrong with me?!” your mind might say, and it probably doesn’t say it nicely. 

  • You have a short fuse
    This one is probably a bit obvious—heat equals irritability. Heat plus wind equals Hulk-level angry. Heat plus wind plus fire? Don’t even get me started. Anger and irritability are an under-identified symptom of depression, so if you find yourself unusually snappish and short with friends or colleagues, or crankily storming around the house, you might be able to attribute your irritability to the summer blues. 

  • Sleep is a struggle
    Do you know anyone with central AC in Durango? I don’t. When we therapists talk about sleep hygiene we often talk about making the room where you sleep dark, cold, and free of distractions. If your house doesn’t cool down at night, sleep can be near impossible. This is another one of those depressive cycles—lack of sleep leads right back into the fatigue and low-motivation, which means you do less, which means…you’ve got it…you feel even worse. 

Ways to cope with the Summertime SAD-ness

If you identify with any of these signs of summer depression, I invite you to experiment with these coping strategies:

  • Dark caving 
    Do you have a room in your house you can make into a cold, dark cave? Go big…blackout curtains, a window AC unit and/or fan, an iced drink (ideally non-caffeinated if you’re struggling with sleep), ice packs, a spray bottle filled with cold water. If your schedule allows, crawl into your dark cave during the hottest, brightest part of the day for 20 minutes to an hour and just…do nothing. Spritz yourself with some cold water, put a pillow over your eyes, and (literally) chill.  

    If you can’t dark cave, try increasing your exposure to cold and decreasing your exposure to heat. Don't force yourself to do activities in the middle of the day and instead do things early in the morning or late in the evening. Use an ice pack at your desk at work. Jump in the river or the lake. My Nighthorse pass is a big part of my summer survival strategy; when I feel my irritability peak at around 4 PM I can go jump in the cold water and I usually feel less angry and agitated. 

  • Give yourself a break
    Remind yourself you’re not alone in dealing with summer SAD. Like I mentioned earlier, depression means an increase in self-criticism and guilt. You might notice a lot of “shoulds” like “I should be on my bike!” or “I should be paddle boarding!” Shoulding on yourself is a sure sign your self-critic is present and getting really loud. 

    If you notice you’re beating yourself up, try calling a friend or talking to yourself kindly. If you can’t shift your self-talk to kindness, experiment with noticing your thoughts like you’re watching fireballs zip across the screen in a game of Mario. Remind yourself that thoughts are just words and pictures in your head, and you don’t have to believe everything you think.  

  • Watch out for the second arrow
    The idea of the second arrow comes from Buddhism.2 The first arrow is the pain all humans experience; the pain that inevitably comes from a long human life full of ups and downs. The second arrow is suffering—the judgment, frustration, and shame we feel about our feelings. The Buddhists say that while pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. 

    The second arrow is common with summer SAD. We have really high expectations of ourselves in the summer. The days are long and summers in Colorado are (relatively) short, so there’s a sense we “should” pack the days with activities. This creates even more summer suffering as we punish ourselves for our depression. Noticing when the second arrow is present and reminding yourself that suffering is optional can help begin to alleviate all the self-punishment we do when we have seasonal depression. 

  • Remember, it’s not forever
    The weather will break. We’ll forget what it feels like to be hot. The sun will set at the end of the day, rain will come, and clouds will fill the sky. Weather isn’t permanent, and our emotions about the weather aren’t either. Reminding myself my mood will shift once the fiery orb drops behind the mountains is really helpful when I’m working though summer SAD. Taking a moment to really feel the relief when the fireball goes away is like taking a big, sighing breath. 

Summer depression is completely understandable, and you’re not alone in feeling low during the hot, dry months. Summer can be hard, and therapy can help. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by summer depression, reach out for a complimentary consultation call.  

1. Origins of SAD from Harvard Health
2. More about the second arrow