It’s Not All In Your Head: Summertime Anxiety Is Real
There’s a lot I love about summer. Not having to wake up at the crack of dawn to get my kids to school is definitely one of them. No homework is another. I can also get on board with a million excuses for ice cream, fireflies on a nice evening walk, and the opportunity to lie out in the sun on a warm summer afternoon and soak up some rays.
However, beyond a few niceties here and there, I pretty much hate summer. But it’s not for the reasons you might think. I have an anxiety disorder, and each and every summer, my anxiety sees an uptick.
In fact, the first time I ever had a major panic attack was in the summer, and all my most epic panic attacks have happened then. There have been a few summers where I’ve had daily panic attacks, where I feel like I’m caught in an endless panic loop. Other summers, it’s not quite as bad, but it’s almost always worse than it is in, say, winter or fall (my favorite seasons).
I had assumed for many years that this was circumstantial. My panic attacks started as a teen, over the summers I would spend at my dad’s house, where I dealt with mounting tension between myself, my dad, and my stepmom. Other summers that I’ve had major upticks in anxiety were summers where I was moving, or dealing with other life transitions.
But honestly, other summers nothing major was happening, yet there it was: fucking anxiety.
A few friends of mine recently confessed that they had similar experiences, which set off a light bulb for me. Maybe there was something to this, and it wasn’t all in my imagination – maybe summer really can cause a spike in anxiety for certain folks.
Lo and behold, I found a very interesting interview with psychologist Lindsay Henderson in Refinery 29 about this very phenomenon. Henderson says that our feelings and expectations about summer can be one factor that contributes to an overall feeling of stress and anxiety.
“The pressure to participate in everything is a real factor in our moods,” Henderson remarks. “This idea of FOMO and seeing the fun other people are having on social media, that just makes all of that worse. You think, I should have had so much fun by now, because there’s only so much left of summer.”
That’s definitely part of it for me, especially now that I’m a parent and I feel that unrelenting pressure to make summer magical for my children. I try to fight the feeling, because it’s so unrealistic, but it’s definitely there, lingering in the background.
But that’s not the only thing that contributes to my summertime anxiety, and Henderson also had some really thought-provoking things to say about summer weather and how that can increase anxiety levels for some of us.
Whereas colder weather can make you want to basically hibernate under a pile of warm blankets or the inside of a fluffy sweater – both of which can make you feel safe and cozy inside – summer heat can do the opposite.
“The heat can really ramp up the volume so it can be unsettling and agitating to people, it makes people really cranky,” Dr. Henderson says.
Oh boy, can I relate to that! Henderson also says that many of the ways the body reacts to excessive heat mirrors common anxiety symptoms.
“Symptoms like sweating, feeling faint or shaky, feeling nauseous, having heart palpitations — all these things can happen both due to heat and panic or anxiety,” Dr. Henderson explained. “For someone who might have a history of struggling with panic and anxiety, if you’re all of a sudden sweating because it’s 95 degrees outside, those physical symptoms can trigger really intense anxiety memories and heighten your anxiety and panic in the moment.
This makes so much freaking sense, doesn’t it? I know that for me, sometimes just feeling physical symptoms that resemble anxiety — even if they weren’t triggered by a stressful situation — can make me feel anxious.
Yes, I get anxious just thinking about anxiety. It’s super-fun to be me.
But there’s more. A little more digging and I found out that there is something called Reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is basically the opposite of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), where the lack of sunlight in wintertime decreases your serotonin levels and makes you depressed. In Reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder, the summer heat can lead to similar symptoms of depression, but also anxiety symptoms.
According to Healthline, too much sun can be as big a problem for some people as not enough sun. Excess sunlight decreases the amount of melatonin you produce, as Healthline describes it.
“Melatonin is the hormone that drives your sleep-wake cycle,” they explain. “Even turning on the light in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom is enough to pause its production. Longer days mean fewer hours at your body’s melatonin factory.”
This, in turn, messes with your circadian rhythms, and causes symptoms like anxiety, anger, and even full-fledged rage.
Reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder affects women more often than men (go figure!) and that it tends to run in families, says Healthline. Their suggestions for treatment include cranking up the A/C to stay cool, speaking to a therapist to help manage your emotions, and spending extra time in darkness.
I actually really like those suggestions. I currently see a therapist to manage my anxiety disorder, so that’s taken care of. But I’m going to seriously consider the other suggestions as well.
I’m thinking the cure for my summertime anxiety is to try to recreate winter as much as possible. I’ll put the A/C on high, turn out the lights, and wrap myself up in my coziest sweater and softest blanket. Maybe throw in a nice warm cup of hot cocoa. Ahhhhh… sounds perfect to me.
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