When Lana Del Ray’s song came out, the year 2006 flashed before my eyes. I had just graduated college and moved to Minneapolis with a car full of clothes and no furniture after breaking up with my boyfriend of 2 years. This was the beginning of my silent, personal struggle with depression and anxiety, and it would take those 5 years of avoidance for me to acknowledge I needed help. What stands out most during those confusing years was how hard the summers months could be. It was beautiful and bright outside and I had a large group of carefree 20-something friends who all lived blocks away. We camped, we biked, we were reckless, simply because we could be. And I, I was miserable. Somehow the summer didn’t pull me out of my cloudy head, it instead made it even more clear that something was not right. That feeling was so sickly yet so vague and fleeting, it was hard to put into words, even as I told my mother I didn’t quite feel “right.”
Yes, it’s hard to be broke in your early 20s. But sometimes we blame bigger issues on circumstantial ones. Tala is here today to dispel some preconceived notions about summertime sadness and why it’s not that uncommon for these months to be harder than winter ones.
When something is bothersome, it’s easier to name when everybody seems to be dealing with it. A case of the sniffles may not be worrisome when it’s the season for the common cold. Increased heart rate, shortness of breath, and stomach discomfort before a first date is collectively called the jitters, not cause for a doctor visit.
But how do you pinpoint what’s bothering you when it’s the opposite of the norm? Feelings of sluggishness in the dark months of winter are widely understood as the “winter blahs” – Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) in chronic cases. When the sun shines, school children vacation, temps rise and radios play the song of the summer, who can be down?
Currently, what most call SAD is generally diagnosed as major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder “with seasonal pattern.” Mayo Clinic gives a good overview here. Generally understood as a winter malady, Seasonal Affective Disorder accounts for symptoms like oversleeping, craving carbs, weight gain, loss of interest in normally satisfying activity, inability to feel pleasure, desire to isolate (or, as animals in the winter, hibernate).
This can present differently but just as intensely in the summer months: Insomnia, poor appetite, weight loss, altered sex drive, agitation, inability to concentrate or make decisions, and hypomania, which may look like hyperactivity. These are often energetic, activated symptoms, more “up” than “down.” When mixed with feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, and depressed mood, they can make a dangerous cocktail. Any suicidal thoughts and continuing struggles need to be taken seriously, and brought to a doctor or mental health professional.
Lana Del Ray’s 2012 Summertime Sadness is an unofficial anthem of sorts. Her lyrics describe symptoms that winter clichés don’t cover:
High heels off, I’m feeling alive / Oh, my God, I feel it in the air / Telephone wires above are sizzlin’ like your stare / Honey I’m on fire I feel it everywhere / Nothing scares me anymore
I like the song. It’s melancholy and descriptive and catchy without being cheap, and it tells a story that is hard to find the words to say. Depression isn’t usually equated with “feelin’ electric tonight,” making it difficult for those who suffer in this way to explain and be understood.
The search for a cause for the summer blues has been somewhat inconclusive, but researchers name factors such as the season you were born, climate in your geographic region, heat, intense sun, long days, pollen and resulting allergies, and a dip in productive activity that leads to restless boredom.
Not all episodic depression is Seasonal Affective Disorder, and you can be “seasonally affected” without meeting clinical criteria for SAD. Pay attention anyway. Other forms of depression, anniversary reactions to trauma, physical illnesses, etc. share many of the same symptoms. It’s so important…but often hardest when sadness strikes…to note all of the factors that impact your wellbeing.
Like most solutions for mental health issues, recognizing a need and accepting help takes patience, discipline, and the courage to be vulnerable. Self-awareness – along with a community to support when you aren’t able to see all of yourself – is key to any kind of health. Take time each day to hold up a proverbial mirror, reflecting on where you are, how you feel, what’s affecting you, and what might help. Regular body and mood check-ins throughout the day give good data on your emotional and physical state.
Talk to a medical or mental health professional if you exhibit signs of depression, mood swings, or unflagging irritability. Follow treatment plans as directed, or be honest with your provider if you desire a change in treatment…but continue the work even when you “start feeling better.” Professionals may recommend light or cooling therapy, psychotherapy, or medicine.
Consider how you experience light: are you less agitated in the soft light of morning sun? Does early exposure to bright light improve your mood throughout the day? Do sunglasses and light-filtering window treatments help you to relax your body and your mind, participate in social conversation, or complete your work more successfully? Record these things and let your doctor know.
Treat your body like you would treat your best friend: Allow for adequate sleep, nutrition and hydration, time for activity, creativity, laughter, quiet and meditation. Stay cool when the heat hits with air conditioning, light clothing, cooling blankets, or cold showers. Drink responsibly: carry and consume water, limit alcohol consumption, which can exacerbate symptoms. Planning a vacation? Try a different climate.
Even if the idea was well known and oft repeated, enduring summertime sadness isn’t easy. It is, however, a reminder that emotions, like seasons, are not permanent. Honor yourself by acknowledging your thoughts and feelings. Then continue, knowing that you play an important part in every period you encounter, and you can make it through the dark, the light, and the transitions in between.