If I've said it once, I've said it a million times: summer is the best season, ever. The clothes are better, the tanning's better, the drinks are better, (Pimms > mulled wine), and post-work socialising is better. But there are of course some downsides to the warmer season and unfortunately, for some people, mental health is one of them. Did you know summer can make anxiety worse?
Everyone talks about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) as relating to dark, gloomy, winter months, but there's actually a condition called Reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder, and it affects women more than men, according to Health Central. In fact, one in ten people who have SAD experience reverse seasonal affective disorder it in the summer, according to Tonic, which goes on to say that symptoms include "agitation, loss of appetite, insomnia and sometimes suicidal thoughts." This subsequent lack of sleep and proper nutrition of course makes all the anxiety symptoms worse.
Norman Rosenthal is a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical School. He was also partially responsible for coming up with the term Seasonal Affective Disorder. Opening up about how the seasons and weather can affect mental health, he told Tonic that suicide rates are higher in the summer than winter. "While nobody knows for sure why people get summer depression, there are two main culprits: light and temperature," he said. "While many people think that light is an agent of happiness and energy, for some, light has the opposite effect. And the oppressive heat can cause people to feel agitated."
It's believed that the warmer weather can contribute to health issues such as dehydration and lack of sleep, both of which can possibly result in the body feeling stressed and therefore leaving people experiencing anxiety, according to the Calm Clinic. Professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health and Science University Dr. Alfred Lewy believes there are two ways in which the summer can have a negative impact on your mental wellbeing. The first of which is that some people physically react badly to heat and humidity, for example dehydration, as I mentioned earlier.
The second is the effect the summer sun can have on the body clock. The long days can actually be just as damaging as darkness in the winter. People might be staying up later in the summer, suspects Dr. Lewy, thus throwing their body clocks for a loop. He told NBC News that he treats summertime SAD patients by suggesting they get early-morning sun and take melatonin, a hormone which helps people to attain regular sleeping patterns.
Another issue linking summer and anxiety is that many of the symptoms associated with overheating mimic those experienced in an anxiety attack, such as sweating, dizziness, and faintness, according to Health Central. The overlap between the two can definitely be confusing, and at times, scary. In an article for Health Central, Jennifer L. Fee, Psy.D. wrote: "While anxiety may appear to come out of the blue, actually there is always an underlying cause or trigger." She went on to explain that triggers can include environmental factors such as heat. She added: "Since, it can cause discomfort, emotionally and physically, it can become a trigger for our anxiety."
Researchers in the US recently conducted a study into the potential causes of summertimes anxiety and found that hay fever can be a trigger. According to their findings, 68.3 percent of participants reported that high pollen counts had a negative impact on their moods. Although allergies like hay fever are considered minor health problems, the impact they can have on mental health is significant. In a recent study published in Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, scientists looked into the effect hay fever (allergic rhinitis) and hay fever with eye allergies (allergic rhinoconjunctivitis) on adolescents. Lead study author Dr. Michael Blaiss said: "The emotional burden of hay fever can be huge."
"Three of the studies in our review examined how adolescents are emotionally affected by hay fever [...] and hay fever with eye allergies (allergic rhinoconjunctivitis). They found adolescents with hay fever had higher rates of anxiety and depression, and a lower resistance to stress. [They] also exhibited more hostility, impulsivity, and changed their minds often."
Does any of this sound familiar to you? Perhaps a little too familiar? The thing to remember is you're not alone in feeling low in sunny weather, and you may need to seek professional help, either in the form of therapy or antidepressants. Rob Cole, clinical director of mental health services at Banyan Treatment Centret, told SheKnows that one of the best things those suffering from Reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder, or indeed general summer anxiety, can do, is get proper sleep. With circadian rhythms often thrown off kilter with the amount of daylight we get in the summer, this is easier said than done, but it's important to make sleep a priority, alongside exercise, which can help to soothe anxiety.
So while having fun in the sun is great, spare a thought for those for whom it's a bit tougher. If we're all inclusive and non-judgemental, the next few months could be a lot easier and more enjoyable all round.
Correction: This piece has been updated to more accurately cite the study published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.