Ah, summer. Hot days and light evenings, barbecues and beach holidays. The chance to spend every moment outdoors instead of being cooped up inside (the odd unseasonal downpour aside). A time to pack away the drab winter wardrobe, dig out the bright outfits and get that essential dose of Vitamin D on our sun-starved skin.
Everyone feels happier in summer, right? Well, not quite. For some people, summer can be a miserable season. You’ve no doubt heard about the winter blues, or seasonal affective disorder (SAD). But what about those who suffer the reverse? “Summer SAD affects about one sufferer in 20,” says UK charity SADA (Seasonal Affective Disorder Association).
“They describe having moodiness, lethargy, agitation, insomnia and intolerance of heat and/or bright light.” The most common summer complaint, hay fever, can play a large part in spoiling sunny months. But there can be more to it than streaming eyes.
“Allergies can disturb sleep and add to a general sense of lethargy and discomfort: recent research has linked summer depression to hay fever,” says SADA. “The ‘winter is bad, summer is good’ interpretation is a basic template. We’re dealing with a very complex condition with many variables.”
Why do we feel tired or depressed in the summer?
Circadian rhythms might sound like a new age dance troupe, but basically they’re what govern our 24-hour internal clock, otherwise known as our sleep/wake cycles. Too little light – or in summer, too much – can disrupt our circadian rhythms, which can leave some people feeling tired and grumpy and, at worst, ill. Particularly when they’re told by a well-meaning person to cheer up because the sun’s out.
“Increased periods of daylight result in more light entering the pineal gland, which is the part of the brain that produces the sleep hormone melatonin,” says sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakan, author of Tired But Wired and Fast Asleep, Wide Awake.
“This can inhibit the production of melatonin, which means we’re likely to sleep less or need less sleep. This ‘slicing off ’ of layers of vital healing sleep can cause some mood imbalances in certain people. Particularly if they are susceptible or hormonally sensitive, such as premenstrual or going through menopause.”
That’s the science bit, but there are other psychological and social factors at work. Summer is a very sociable time and interacting with others is undoubtedly beneficial for us. But for some, it can turn in a months-long endurance test that leaves them exhausted and overwhelmed.
“I get a feeling of dread as summer approaches,” reveals self-confessed ‘winter person’ Sarah Palmer. “I’m quite introverted and I can get away with that during winter, when everyone hibernates to a certain extent. In summer, I constantly feel guilty if I’m not outside doing something.
“I find summer socialising quite intimidating. There’s pressure to go for afterwork drinks but after a day at the office all I want to do is go home. I prefer seeing my friends one-on-one but everyone hangs out in big groups at barbecues and festivals, or they’re in the park doing some sort of group activity. If you’re not doing any of these things, you’re made to feel like you’re not having a good summer.”
Even for extroverted types, summer can be a time of stress. Normal routines go out the window and school holidays often see parents driving their offspring from one excursion or sleepover to another. That’s not even mentioning the planning and packing for a two-week trip away… Holidays and their inevitable ‘summer wardrobe’ can strike fear into the heart of any woman.
After months of wrapping up in cosy, warm clothes, we’re expected to show off our pale, wobbly bits to the world. Hot pants and crop tops rule, while diet specials tell us how to get ‘beach body ready’. It’s enough to have anyone reaching for the nearest sticky toffee pudding. But you needn’t feel the pressure to spend a few months living off leaves and cucumber.
“We shouldn’t exist entirely on salad, no matter how sunny it is,” says Kate Faithfull-Williams, wellbeing expert and author of The FeelGood Plan. “Swap chicken salad for roast chicken with all the healthy trimmings: roast sweet potato, purple sprouting broccoli, green beans and roast beetroot. When you fancy something sweet, simply stir a heap of frozen blueberries into protein-packed Greek yogurt. It’s healthy ice cream without the side-serving of guilt.”
How to beat the summer blues
If what you’ve read so far makes you think you might have the summer blues, the good news is that there are ways to combat them. To stop early morning sunlight waking you up, SADA recommend getting blackout blinds, wearing an eye mask or even sleeping in your sunglasses (just warn your partner beforehand). Lack of sleep is a big factor, but look at other areas of your life.
“It might that someone already has a predisposition to a mood problem, or is missing out on some other vital lifestyle habits – exercise and movement or good nutrition, or even being unhappy at work or in their relationships,” says Nerina. “My belief is that we are less susceptible to such seasonal variations if our lifestyle choices are robust and healthy.”
Summer can be a great time of year, but if it gets you hot and bothered just make sure you find what works for you. Don’t feel like you have to book a holiday somewhere scorching if you prefer cooler weather. Avoid beer gardens and go for a nice walk in nature instead. If you’re tired, have an afternoon siesta. Layer up in thin, natural fibres rather than baring all.
And if all else fails, shut the curtains, make a cup of tea and snuggle up on the sofa in front of a good box set. At least in the UK you can rest assured the weather will be chilly and grey again soon!
Are you a summer shouter or winter whisperer?
Does summer fill you with ‘get up and go’ or ‘oh no, not again’? See if you recognise any of these not-entirely scientific signs…
You might be a Summer Extrovert if…
- You’re at your happiest when the sun’s out, remarking on how nice it is to everyone you meet.
- You eat every meal al fresco. Preferably at a long table with lots of people (like you’ve seen Italian families do on TV).
- You start WhatsApp social groups called things like ‘Summer Fun!’.
- You tan effortlessly and never burn.
- You’re in shorts and vest tops from the beginning of May until the end of BST.
You could be a Winter Introvert if…
- You still wear black layers even when it’s 26 degrees.
- You’re secretly pleased when the weather forecasts rain.
- You prefer Baileys to rosé.
- You don’t like getting wet for ‘fun’.
- You turn down free festival tickets with an excuse about being ill. Crowds + noise + sun = your worst nightmare.
This article was originally published in In The Moment Magazine issue 2.