Hot and bothered: Summer starts today –
While many of us may rejoice, those who suffer from seasonal affective disorder can’t wait for the cold to return
Wednesday, June 21, 2006
It’s not easy to find people who don’t like summer. Ask around and you might hear something to the tune of, “No, I don’t know anyone who hates summer, I only know normal people.” But today marks the debut of Summer, 2006, and those who loathe the hot, sunny season are beginning to grumble like a pasty white guy with a sunburn.
Hating summer is a brave and unpopular sentiment in a country where winters can seem eternal. One might even peg summer-haters as killjoys or defeatists, but there are a host of valid reasons why one might long for the leaves to begin falling. Summer-haters can be organized into two camps:
1) Those who get the summertime blues because they are mainly introverts. They dislike group activities, heat and humidity and embrace rainy days and the return of cooler weather so they can indulge their favourite pastimes of reading, cocooning and wearing sweaters.
2) Those who dread summer and suffer from a little-known but medically recognized condition known as summer SAD (seasonal affective disorder), which is the opposite of the more common wintertime depression. Winter SAD is caused by the lessening sunshine of shorter days, which causes an increase in melatonin secretion and, ultimately, lethargy, depression and sleepiness.
What drives summer SAD is less clear, but according to Dr. Norman Rosenthal, a Maryland-based psychiatrist and the author of Winter Blues, heat seems to be the main culprit. “These folks with summer SAD really hate the heat. But I had one person with summer SAD who told me light cuts them like a knife.”
Naturally, winter SAD is more prevalent in northern regions and summer SAD occurs more often in areas that are farther south. A recent psychiatric study found summer SAD far outweighs winter SAD in China due to the combination of hot summers and little air conditioning.
While people afflicted with both kinds of SAD are depressed, they show opposite patterns of behaviour. “The summer folks tend to be hyper, agitated and irritable, and they have more suicidal ideas — and, in fact, suicide is much more common in summer than in winter,” says Rosenthal.
The first camp of summertime suffering is based in societal pressure. When warm weather hits, there is pressure to be out having a fabulous time, say, wake-boarding, when the reality is that the nearest available body of water is a wading pool. But, truth be told, this is OK with most summer-haters because they’d be happier if it rained so they could stay inside and not feel bad about it.
Aviva Abramovitz is typical of this group. “Our summer is so short, so I feel a lot of pressure to have fun because I know I’ll be hibernating for the rest of the year,” says Abramovitz, who lives in Toronto and says her summer blues began in May with the onset of rising temperatures.
“I began to feel this pressure and then this complete depression. It’s starting to get better because I’m easing into the summer and making an effort to get out,” she says. “I’ll sit on my balcony instead of sitting on my couch, or go for walks. During the winter, I can sit on the couch all weekend and I’m perfectly happy, but in the summer I feel guilty.”
Abramovitz says weekends — particularly long weekends — bring the anxiety to a head. “The pressure starts to set in on a Wednesday. I think, ‘Omigod, the weekend is coming up and I don’t have plans and I need to take advantage of the nice weather!’ “
Dr. Rosenthal is also familiar with this malady. “In the spring, there is that expectation of now you’re going to get into gear, do your spring cleaning, get into your swimsuit and so on. There is this sense of a great festival occurring, and if you aren’t up for it, for whatever reason, there is a feeling of being left out,” he explains.
While Rosenthal has suggested geographic moves for patients suffering from winter SAD, he believes moving is too radical for summer patients as it remains unclear what climate would be best for them.
But for Trevelyn (who asked that only his first name appear), a man from Pennsylvania who suffers from summer SAD, moving north is the plan. I spoke to Trevelyn after reading a comment of his on an online chat about summer SAD: “I dread summer. The last time we had a big snow here was the last time I was truly happy.”
Naturally, Trevelyn’s home has central air, and during the summer months he stays inside as much as he can. “My books, movies and Nintendo DS have become my friends,” he says. “My real friends don’t bother to call me as much in the summer because if I am out, I am complaining.”
Unlike many people who don’t like summer and are thrilled to wake up to a rainy Saturday, not even this brings Trevelyn any reprieve. “I feel relief but with slight caution, for the sun always makes its way out.” He says both heat and light are equally bothersome. “I am the only person I know under the age of 60 who wears Solar Shield sunglasses.” Trevelyn jokes that his plan is to become a nomad and head north in search of some relief.
Dr. Rosenthal prescribes a less drastic course of action, starting his summer SAD patients on antidepressants prior to the change in season to preempt symptoms.
But with regard to the milder summer angst, he says it’s quite common. To prove it, Rosenthal quotes T.S. Eliot, who wrote of April being the cruellest month.
“Mixing memory with desire, something pulls you back and pushes you forward,” he says, “and there is a kind of tension between those two forces. All of these are different aspects of what the seasons can do to us.”
© National Post 2006