Why Anxiety Can Get Worse In The Summer

We usually think of seasonal depression and anxiety as issues we only have to deal with in the fall and winter. But as it turns out, we can experience seasonal depression even when the days of pumpkin spice lattes and compulsive autumn leaf Instagramming are months away — many people feel that their anxiety and depression can get worse in the summer. An estimated one percent of the population experiences a form of summertime seasonal affective disorder (SAD); the mental health problem that we traditionally associate with the shorter days and limited sunlight of the winter months.

But many of us who don't formally suffer from SAD still feel summer depression and anxiety, often brought on by the very things that are supposed to make summer enjoyable. The pressure to constantly be having as much fun as everyone on your Instagram feed, the loneliness you might feel when all your friends are away on vacation, the financial stress of paying for summertime vacations, or the isolation of being cooped up indoors when it is too hot out can all make us feel bleak, despite the sunshine outside.

Summer SAD has different symptoms than winter SAD — those afflicted with summer SAD will typically sleep and eat less than usual, and feel agitated, anxious, and irritable, rather than experiencing the lethargy we often associate with depression. (This is why summer SAD sufferers are at higher risk for suicidal ideation than winter SAD sufferers, and why it's important to take the disorder seriously.) Some researchers believe summertime depression and anxiety are caused by allergies, circadian rhythms disrupted by longer days, or even the season when we're born.

Of course, if you're in the thick of summer anxiety and depression, you're probably less interested in the abstract causes than in how you can help yourself right now. So what can you do if summer is a total bummer for you? Read on.

1. Get A Handle On Your Sleeping Patterns

Summer can disrupt our sleep cycles in lots of ways — you might be getting poor quality sleep while crashing on friends' couches as you travel, you might be woken up by energetic children home during school break, or you may just be getting woken up extra early by the sunlight streaming into your room — all of which can make us feel worn down, making us run the risk of developing anxiety and depression.

But there could be even more to it than that — Dr. Alfred Lewy, a psychiatry professor at Oregon Health & Science University, told NBC News that some people's circadian rhythms (our internal clock that tells us when to feel sleepy and when to wake up) can get thrown off by the summer sunshine. Lewy suggested that people suffering from depression related to delayed circadian rhythms can benefit from measures that help regulate our sleep cycles; such as getting exposed to half an hour of sunshine in the morning, maintaining a regular sleep schedule, and using melatonin supplements to maintain a consistent bedtime.

2. Take A Cold Shower And Jack Up The AC

This seems obvious — if you feel bad in the summer, the heat and humidity are almost definitely a factor. But according to Dr. Norman Rosenthal, a clinical professor of psychiatry who conducted pioneering research on seasonal affective disorder, "cold therapy" — i.e. taking a cold shower, going for a dip in an icy pool, or turning the air conditioning up to 11 — is the closest thing summer SAD sufferers have to the winter SAD sufferer's light box.

So if you feel the urge to reject summer picnic offers in favor of holing up with your AC, don't feel guilty — you're not being lazy or anti-social; you're actually trying to help yourself. Unfortunately, research hasn't revealed a way to prolong the mood-enhancing effects of cooling; they tend to only last as long as you're in your cool situation, leaving you back at square one the second you walk out your front door into that face-melting humidity.

3. Stay On Top Of Your Allergies

No one is quite sure what causes summer sadness — but psychiatrist Alvaro Guzman has theorized that allergies might play a role. Writing in The Journal of Affective Disorders, Guzman postulated a connection between allergies and feeling down in the summertime, noting that in his research, people who reported bad moods during times with high allergen counts also often felt depressed in the warm weather — meaning that for some people, summertime depression is literally in the air.

So if you have seasonal allergies, be as proactive about them as you can — remember to take any daily meds you're prescribed, and if you're not under medical treatment for your allergies, you might want to make an appointment with an allergist. They might have ideas about how to get your allergies under control if over-the-counter pills just aren't working for you any more.

4. Take Care Of Yourself

When it comes to mental health, being aware that you're suffering is half the struggle. So don't blow off any depressed or anxious summer feelings as "nothing" or "just FOMO" — take them seriously, and take care of yourself. If you find your appetite retreating, as many summer SAD sufferers do, ask your friends and roommates for help sticking to a meal schedule. If you get irritable, make sure to prioritize things you enjoy, like trips to the movies or dinner with friends. If you know that looking at Instagram or Facebook sends you into a FOMO sadness spiral, set limits on your social media usage, or even block the sites entirely with site-blocking software and apps (social media has been tied to depression by some researchers, so it's probably a good idea to get a handle on your social media habits in general if you suffer from any kind of depression or anxiety).

And if you feel seriously depressed, make an appointment with a therapist or other mental health professional. You shouldn't blow off summertime sadness — it's real, and getting help can make a huge difference.

5. Don't Isolate Yourself

Being socially isolated can often feel like both the chicken and the egg of depression — isolation can be a sign of depression, and it can also worsen pre-existing depression. And despite the season's rep for parties and togetherness, it's very easy to accidentally get isolated during the summer, especially if you have to stay indoors with the AC on in order to feel human. This can lead to feeling like everyone else is enjoying life without you, which then makes us feel even worse. So as tempting as it can be to spend the summer vegging out in your comfortably cooled cave, make sure to stay in contact with friends and family. You don't have to engage in summer-y activities with them — despite what Instagram would have you believe, you are legally allowed to do things besides barbecue in the summer. But you'll be happier if you see them and maintain your relationships.

And who knows? After some conversation, you may find that they, too, are desperately counting down the days until sweater weather.

Images: Yaoqi LAI/Unsplash, Giphy (5)