At first thought, the summer months are associated with carefree behavior — breezy beach days, shaded hikes and exciting vacations. But, for many people, summer is actually more stressful than exciting because of summer anxiety.
According to Dr. Crystal Burwell, a psychotherapist and owner of Dr. Burwell Speaks in Atlanta, anxiety occurs any time there is a transition, whether it’s the change of seasons or another kind of change.
And, summer, in particular, is full of changes that could cause anxiety: warmer weather, different outfits, summer vacations, longer days and more.
Here, experts share why you may notice that you’re more anxious during the summer months.
Summer seasonal affective disorder could be at play.
While seasonal anxiety is usually associated with winter, you can still experience a version of seasonal affective disorder in the summer, Burwell said. “It’s often called summer SAD,” she said. “What happens is it throws off our circadian rhythm,” which are 24-hour cycles that help control when we fall asleep and when we wake up.
In the winter, too little sunlight causes seasonal affective issues, and in the summer, there’s too much sunlight, which also causes similar issues, she said.
“We need the Vitamin D [from] the sun, however, when there’s too much sunlight our natural sleep cycle is thrown off,” she said.
Our bodies associate daylight with being awake. So, that late-night sunset may be pretty, but it’s not actually good for your night’s rest.
What’s more, Burwell added, is that in the summer months many of us have a dip in our body’s ability to create melatonin, which is the hormone the body needs for sleep.
Dr. Rachel Cavallaro, a psychologist with Thriveworks in Boston, stated that “with the longer days, our minds and our bodies are just more awake,” and, because of this, many people may have a harder time falling asleep.
And sleeping less creates more problems in general, including heightened anxiety.
The heat itself can even make some people anxious.
According to Cavallaro, the hallmark symptoms of anxiety include a higher body temperature, sweating and shallow breathing. And what else is associated with these symptoms? Hot days.
“Anxiety breeds anxiety,” she said. “The anxious person over focuses on what’s going on in their body on any given day.”
In the summer, this is particularly problematic since the hot weather creates symptoms that are very similar to anxiety symptoms.
“Then, it starts to spiral,” she said, with thoughts like, “Oh, no, I’m getting anxious,” creeping in and, ultimately, causing anxiety.
Anxiety can be triggered through thoughts, environment, or, in the case of summer heat, through a physiological false alarm.
For people with social anxiety, more social obligations may feed into anxiety, too.
From barbecues to pool parties to family reunions, summer’s social gatherings can be a reason people deal with anxiety this season, Cavallaro noted.
This is especially true for people who have either general worry or social anxiety, she said.
But even for those who don’t struggle with social anxiety, a full calendar with not too many breaks is also a reason for stress.
The routine-less days of summer can cause anxiety.
“When you’re on vacation or you’re not in school, people have [fewer] activities” and less of a daily routine, Cavallaro said. “That can create a lot of opportunities for anxious thoughts to come in because your mind is not occupied.”
Think about it: When you’re on a beach vacation, you’re probably lounging on a beach chair with none of your usual work or to-do list distractions to fill your mind.
“Boredom can be a trigger for anxiety — your mind needs something to do,” she said.
It’s important that you take time to relax and destress, but it’s about having a balance. “This is where structure and routine really help,” Cavallaro noted, “in the summer, people’s structure goes out the window, which then creates a whole host of other problems” because your daily balance is missing.
Cavallaro stated that one of the biggest underlying factors of anxiety is intolerance of uncertainty. This is why vacations can make people anxious; they’re uncertain about what can happen on their trip, whether that has to do with the weather or their flight.
Being less covered could trigger you, too.
When it’s 90 degrees and humid, you’re probably reaching for shorts, short-sleeved shirts, or sleeveless dresses. And while this may help you keep cool, many people may also feel anxiety when they go out in less clothes than they’re used to, Cavallaro stated.
“Less clothing can create a lot of insecurity,” she said, adding that people may have negative thoughts, like ‘What if people make negative comments about my body?’ or ‘What if people see me like this?’
The pressure of expectations can lead to anxiety.
Burwell noted that many of her patients feel an added pressure to “keep up with the Joneses” during the summer, particularly as they’re faced with questions about summer plans.
According to Burwell, when you see friends traveling to exciting places, you’re faced with both socioeconomic anxiety (Questions like: Why can’t I afford a vacation?) and worries about not having interesting stories to share with coworkers or peers (Thoughts like: How will my summer stories live up to the excitement of an Italian vacation?).
When faced with the question, “What did you do over the summer?” you may have feelings of being left out of the fun, she said.
If you are dealing with summer anxiety, create a routine for yourself.
“I’m a big believer in clients having a plan, because when we have a plan, we feel more empowered,” Burwell said. Even if Plan A doesn’t work out, just focusing on the solution instead of the problem can help combat anxiety.
Burwell encouraged those struggling with summer anxiety to anticipate their anxiety trigger ahead of time and make a plan to lessen its effects.
For example, if you feel anxious around a certain day, try distraction techniques like going for a run, cleaning up your house or making plans with supportive friends.
“Having a plan for how you’re going to combat this is a way of being proactive as opposed to reactive,” she said.
And make sure you’re getting enough sleep.
“Sleep is so important for our physical and mental health,” Cavallaro said.
She added that if you’re not getting enough sleep, you’re going to have a hard time managing your emotions and any issues that may come up throughout the summer.
Sleep goes back to the importance of schedule and routine, too. According to Cavallaro, “It’s better to have a consistent wake-up time than a consistent bedtime.”
Ideally, you want to wait until you’re tired to go to bed, but should maintain your morning alarm time to help you set up a summer (and all-year) routine.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to reach out to a professional.
Anxiety can be debilitating, stressful and can take all of the fun out of the summer months.
If you feel that you’re struggling, talk to a mental health professional. They can help you manage your anxiety and get ahead of it before the next season change.