After a long winter in New York City, spring has sprung. The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and you’re on your way to brunch at that Insta-worthy restaurant patio. It’s the season in which many of us optimistically emerge from the darker, colder months to the brighter days ahead. Not me. I am inside, waiting for dusk. Too dramatic? Allow me to explain.
I have summertime sadness. No, not Lana del Rey’s 2012 hit song. I have reverse seasonal depression. I don’t share the same optimism that others feel when the flowers bloom and temperatures rise. My friends laugh at me when I tell them, “I’m the best version of myself during the last three months of the year.” I’m the one anxiously waiting for the first leaf to fall, for the first hint of a breeze that warrants a jacket. I get excited for November’s Daylight Savings Time and sunsets at 4 p.m. Temperatures drop and light dims, and I feel deep comfort. I know this sounds bizarre. I can’t help it; I love seeing rain outside my window and I’m ambivalent when sunlight creeps in. Am I a freak of nature? Am I the only one who feels this way? To better understand this seasonal quandary, I spoke with Madeline Lucas, LCSW, Therapist and Clinical Content Manager at Real.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a subtype of depression that occurs during the fall and winter months and typically improves when spring arrives. According to the American Psychiatric Association, SAD affects about 5 percent of U.S. adults and is more common among women than men. Whether officially diagnosed or not, many people experience general sadness and fatigue during the colder, darker winter months.
But SAD doesn’t always happen in winter
I, however, experience the far less common (and socially confusing) SAD in the summer. Lucas explains that the experience of summertime sadness can be very real, despite the late sunsets and warmer weather. While winter SAD symptoms include low energy and persistent low mood, summer symptoms may show up as irritability, agitation, restlessness and insomnia.
According to Lucas, the onset of summer SAD is impacted by several different factors. Our daily structure or routine may change during the summer; we might be at home less, have a quieter time at work, and potentially isolate ourselves when friends travel so much. On a biological level, the summer exposes us to far more sunshine than in the winter. Personally, I have a tenuous relationship with the sun. We’re cordial, we’ll see each other at parties, but we’re not friends. Lucas explains that while the increased sunlight may counteract the winter blues for some people, this change in natural light exposure can negatively affect others. Longer days of sun can affect our sleep cycle, most notably in a lower production of melatonin. Lack of sleep combined with high temperatures in the summer months can lead to “irritability and aggravation, all the way to more lethargy, physical discomfort, and the ability to relax.”
Summertime is a bigger hurdle for me
Lucas’ clinical explanation gave credence to my frustration. My instinctual reaction to sunny weather is unenthusiastic, but I also grapple with the social expectations that accompany the brighter season. While my friends welcome spring with open arms and picnic baskets, I sniffle and brace myself for the onslaught of outdoor social gatherings, beach body promotions, and almost-suffocating happiness intrinsic to the warmer season. Warm weather enforces socialization. It’s nice outside, so you have to go outside. I wish it was that simple. In college, my roommate famously had to drag me from my dark bedroom to join the masses on our campus lawn to sip Twisted Tea and take in the sunshine. Meanwhile, I was very busy watching old episodes of The Real Housewives of New York City for the tenth time.
Getting out to enjoy the weather involves more mental labor for me. First of all, I’m basically the palest woman in America. My complexion is Wonder Bread; if placed in a hot and sunny environment, I have approximately five minutes before I’m toast. My beach setup involves a comically large umbrella, copious amounts of sunscreen, and being left the f*ck alone. As someone recovering from an eating disorder and struggling with body image, I rue the day the bikini was invented and wince at the season’s first glimmer of sunlight, because I know what this period of time entails. Lucas concurs:
Exposure to wearing minimal clothes to survive the summer heat can instigate body image concerns that may not arise as much in the colder months. We aren’t able to cover up certain areas of our body in the same way the winter offers, especially as the activities themselves change, too…The fact that the way we spend our time (and what we wear doing it) changes so distinctly in the warmer months can contribute to feelings of low self-esteem and confidence.
My experience with depression involves searching for outward comfort because existing inside my own head is so uncomfortable. I’ve found it’s nearly impossible to clean house on my internal issues without making changes in my external life. But when the weather seems to dictate my morning mood, finding the motivation to better myself feels even more difficult than normal. I asked Lucas for some advice.
How to deal with Seasonal Affective Disorder
Find a balance between challenging and comforting yourself
Allow yourself to find a balance between your wants and needs. Lucas says, “Our needs for things like alone time, routine, etc. don’t change based on seasons necessarily…If we want to be able to take advantage of the sunny summer months as much as possible, we need to spend our time and care for ourselves in a sustainable, supportive way.” A true introvert, I find joy in the quiet moments alone to recharge before venturing out for socialization. Although my family (affectionately?) calls me “Debbie Downer,” I truly do not consider myself a recluse. I have lovely friends and a healthy romantic relationship that give me reason to crawl out of my sunny sadness. Prioritizing my mental health and speaking openly with loved ones allows me to get ahead of my seasonal depression. We should value honesty with ourselves and others, so that when the summertime sadness or winter blues kick in, we can surround ourselves with healthy coping mechanisms and systems of support to help us through.
Try to maintain a routine
The transition from winter to spring can bring about unpredictability or changes in our daily schedule. Lucas advises, “Check in with yourself if you’re noticing you’re in a flurry of back-to-back plans. Schedule a date night with yourself to regroup, even if it’s a sunny day out!” Continue the pieces of your routine that create consistency and help your mental health, like regular movement, keeping a balanced diet, and maintaining a supportive sleep schedule.
It's not all doom and gloom
Don’t get me wrong: life with SAD isn’t all doom and gloom. I have plenty of fond summer memories, but it’s not always prime real estate for my mental health. And that’s OK. My interview with Lucas helped me to better understand my own seasonal depression; I’m not a freak of nature! My summertime sadness, albeit inconvenient and troublesome, is very real. But that does not mean I cannot enjoy the new season with everyone else. By taking the necessary time to check in with myself and prioritize my mental health (even when the weather makes it difficult), I will be all the more prepared to take on the summer with a balanced mindset.
So where does that leave us, on a sunny and 75-degree day? Yes, I would love to join you for brunch. But can we please ask for a spot in the shade?