Last summer I met a friend for coffee. I cried through most of our hour together, as I was in the midst of a severe depression episode.
At one point, she folded her hands on the table, looked intently into my eyes, and said, “It’s a hard time of year.”
I started laughing … because we say that about every season. Autumn seems to bring anxiety with all of its change. Winter’s short days are difficult for those of us who need lots of sunlight. And Spring actually has the highest suicide rates of any other season.
But, yes, summer is a hard time of year, especially if you need structured days, or like the house to yourself, or can’t stand the heat. In fact, 10 percent of those diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) suffer symptoms at the brightest time of the year. Because my two biggest breakdowns have happened in the summer, I know that I have to be proactive about having sanity boosters in place, ideally before school lets out. Here are a few of them.
1. Force Some Structure
The two summers I had minimal depressive symptoms were those in which I was working an 8-to-5 job. I had a structure already in place, and my days were not so different to those in other seasons. Working from home is really bloody difficult in the summer if you have energetic bodies in the house that summon your help every five to ten minutes. They do go to camps, but different ones each week, so the schedule changes every five days.
In order to force some structure into my day, I decided I would get up and swim early, like I usually do, and then work at a coffee shop for a few hours in the morning, to make sure I get at least some writing done. So right now I’m writing from a back room of a coffee shop that is under construction and am thinking those energetic bodies at home might be less of a distraction than the pounding. Ah, well. Summer.
2. Hydrate With Water, not Diet Soda
I brought up this point in my post, “6 Conditions That Feel Like Clinical Depression but Aren’t.” Dehydration is one of those conditions. It sneaks up on you, because by the time you feel thirsty, you are already dehydrated. According to two studiesconducted at the University of Connecticut’s Human Performance Laboratory, even mild dehydration can alter a person’s mood.
You might be tempted to grab a Diet Coke at a family picnic, but it’s best if you stay away from all diet sodas. A recent study by the National Institute of Health showed that people who drink four cans or more of diet soda daily are about 30 percent more likely to be diagnosed with depression than people who don’t drink soda. Coffee drinkers are about 10 percent less likely to develop depression than people who don’t drink coffee. People with mood disorders are especially sensitive to the superficial sweeter aspartame in most diet sodas. In fact, a 1993 study conducted byRalph Walton, M.D., 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.
3. Remember Good Summers Past
Rick Hanson, Ph.D., and Richard Mendius, M.D., explain in their book, “Buddha’s Brain,” that the brain has a negativity bias. They describe it as Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones. Moreover, pain today can breed pain tomorrow because negative experiences and memories can reshape the circuits of our brain to think more negatively in the future. However, positive experiences also shape the brain. By intentionally activating positive memories, we can shift the emotional backdrop of our minds. So when I think about “summer,” my mind usually goes to those painful summer memories when I was on so many different drugs I fell into my cereal bowl and couldn’t stop bawling. Naturally, I panic. Summer! However, by consciously changing my memory to be of those summers when I was younger, when I started the day with swim practice at 8 a.m. and stayed at the pool until dinner, soaking in the sun and playing all kinds of imaginative games with my friends in the water, I am actually rebuilding my neural structure to recall positive memories the next time someone mentions “summer” in the general sense, or when I start to become anxious and think I’m relapsing like I did last summer. The memory doesn’t have to be of summer, of course, but by activating some positive memory and savoring that experience, you help your brain run like an optimist … one that’s not annoying.
4. Find Support
This summer I’m equipped with an important tool that I didn’t have last year: a kick-butt online support group that I started a few weeks ago on Facebook. Some of the members have the same summer fears as I do, which helps me to put mine into perspective. Others simply remind me to try to enjoy what I love about summer — lots of open-water swimming, paddle boarding, kayaking — and be sure to do those things that protect me from self-sabotage: meditation, exercise, a diet rich in leafy greens and omega-3 fats, laughing, and time to myself. They encourage me to stay in the moment as much as is humanly possible, because peace exists in the present moment.