10 Summer Depression Busters

There are four distinct types of people when it comes to weather and mood, according to a study published in Emotion in 2011.

  • Summer Lovers (better mood with warmer and sunnier weather)
  • Unaffected (weak associations between weather and mood)
  • Summer Haters (worse mood with warmer and sunnier weather)
  • Rain Haters (particularly bad mood on rainy days)

Although my mood seems to be better with more sun, I understand why a substantial number of folks get more depressed in the summer. Extreme heat is hard to tolerate. In fact, in a study published in Science in 2013, researchers reported that as temperatures rose, the frequency of interpersonal violence increased by 4 percent, and intergroup conflicts by 14 percent.

Ten percent of those diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder suffer symptoms at the brightest time of the year. The summer’s brutal heat, bright light, and long days can affect a person’s circadian rhythm and contribute to depression for the opposite reasons that winter conditions do.

If you’re a Summer Hater, or just notice that your mood is affected negatively by the heat, here are some summer depression busters that may help you better tolerate these months — maybe even enjoy them.

1. Plan Something Fun

You don’t need to plan some elaborate cross-country trip that’s going to deplete your savings. Just taking off an afternoon to have lunch with a friend or go kayaking by yourself can be a pleasant break and something to look forward to. When I was working through a severe depression, someone told me to plan something enjoyable every few weeks to keep me motivated to keep going. Scheduling fun activities sporadically throughout the summer might help carry you through some hot afternoons.

2. Be Around People

It can be as tempting to isolate yourself during the summer months as during the winter months, especially if you have body image issues and don’t like showing your legs and arms. But isolation breeds depression, especially if you’re a ruminator like I am. You don’t need to hang out poolside with a crowd of people in order to connect with friends. Sometimes just picking up the phone is enough to fend off depression and anxiety.

3. Add Some Structure

Summer is typically more relaxed, which is why some people look forward to the season all year. It’s nice not having to get the kids out of the door at 7:30 a.m., lunches packed. But those of us who are prone to depression do better when we have some structure to our day. If you don’t work outside the house, you may have to design this structure during the summer months and dig deep for the discipline to stick with it.

4. Stay on Your Sleep Schedule

Related to the last point, it’s easy to get off a regular sleep schedule in the summer if you don’t have anywhere you have to be at 7:30 in the morning. A few days of sleeping in feel great, but an aberrant sleep schedule is a slippery slope to depression for many of us. Even if the day’s events are changing from week to week, make sure to keep your sleep schedule the same: Go to bed at the same time every night, wake up at the same time every morning. Try not to sleep much less than seven hours and no more than nine hours a night.

5. Hydrate

Dehydration is one of the conditions I mentioned in my post, 6 Conditions That Feel Like Clinical Depression but Aren’t. It sneaks up on you, because by the time you feel thirsty, you’re already dehydrated. According to two studies conducted at the University of Connecticut’s Human Performance Laboratory, even mild dehydration can alter a person’s mood.

Dehydration causes a shortage of tryptophan, an important amino acid that is converted to serotonin in the brain. Our bodies can’t detoxify when there is a shortage of water, so tryptophan isn’t distributed to the necessary parts of the brain. Low levels of amino acids in the body can contribute to depression, anxiety, and irritability. A good way to make sure you’re drinking enough is to calculate how much water you should be drinking based on your weight, height, and age, and then fill up two or three containers equaling that amount of water and stick it in the fridge each night before you go to bed. Each day, try to drink enough to empty the containers.

6. Eat Mood-Boosting Foods

It’s not uncommon to eat more sweets and drink fancy, fruity drinks during the summer. But sugar is poison to depression. For one, it causes spikes and drops in glucose, and your brain does much better when it has an even supply of blood sugar. Processed foods — those that come in pretty packages listing a bunch of ingredients you can’t pronounce — aren’t going to help your depression either. During these hot months, stick with foods that can boost your mood, like turkey, pumpkin seeds, fatty fish, walnuts, turmeric, dark leafy greens, avocados, berries, and dark chocolate. I try my best to be sure and pack some nuts and seeds if I’m going to a picnic because the average American picnic is not supplied with brain food. And even one day of eating processed junk, and especially sugar, will do a number on my mood.

7. Get to the Water

Hanging out near water is one strategy for calming down your nervous system that Elaine Aron offers in her book The Highly Sensitive Person. She writes, “Water helps in many ways … Walk beside some water, look at it, listen to it. Get into some if you can, for a bath or swim.”

I find this to be especially true during the summer. I love to run by the Severn River, or walk to Back Creek at the end of my street, or have my lunch on the dock by Spa Creek. I find that being close to the water does calm me down and reminds me what I like most about summer.

8. Avoid Diet Soda

It’s easy to grab a Diet Coke when you feel hot and thirsty, but a study by theNational Institutes of Health (presented at the 2013 American Academy of Neurology meeting) showed that people who drink four or more cans of diet soda daily are about 30 percent more likely to be diagnosed with depression than people who don’t drink soda.

People with mood disorders are especially sensitive to the superficial sweeter aspartame in most diet sodas. In fact, a 1993 study conducted by Ralph Walton, MD, of Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine found that there was a significant difference between aspartame and placebo in both number and severity of symptoms for people with a history of depression, but not so for persons with no history of a mood disorder.

9. Replace Your Depression Triggers

In their book Extinguishing Anxiety, authors Catherine Pittman and Elizabeth Karle explain that in order to retrain the brain from associating a negative event to a trigger that creates anxiety, we must generate new connections by exposure.

So, for me, I need to replace memories of depression relapses in the summer (which trigger anxiety for me during the summer) with positive summer events. One way I’m doing this is by getting involved in the kids’ golfing events. It gives me joy to see them learn a new activity and it generates happy memories of my dad taking my three sisters and me for a ride on the golf cart when we were young.

10. Try Something New

Summer is a great time to try a new activity. Ten years ago, when I was emerging from a severe depressive episode, I took a tennis class with about 20 other women. It was one of the best things I ever did to move past the depression. I still remember the evening that I thought to myself, in the midst of executing a volley, “I am going to beat this thing” (the depression, not the ball).

For the last few summers, I’ve tried new things: kayaking, paddle boarding, and open-water swimming. Each activity has helped my mood because it not only distracts me from ruminations, but the process of learning a sport gives me confidence. Neurologists have found that trying something new essentially rewires our brain. In the process of learning, our neurons become wired together.

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