Happy Solstice | Welcome Summer SAD

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by Marsha Stopa

Summer relief?

Many people breathed a silent sigh of relief yesterday with the official start of summer in the Northern Hemisphere.

“Finally. I made it through winter again.”

Ironically, just when we feel it’s really, truly safe to go outside and we can bask in the warmth of the sun, the daily minutes of sunshine start ebbing away again. The summer solstice is the longest day of the year, and the day/night ratio begins to slowly reverse as the calendar moves again toward the cold seasons.

Morning guilt

I feel guilty if I sleep in on these glorious summer mornings. Because my circadian rhythms have reset and are now in sync with the season, I can sleep in without too much ill effect, such as foggy-headedness or lethargy.

I can sleep in, that is, if my cat lets me. Morning light means breakfast, so he’s crying and scratching at the bedroom window shade at dawn, now between 5:30-6 a.m. His body clock is set to another ancient rhythm: daylight = hunting = food.

My house is filled with the lovely bright light of summer through the southern and northern windows. But again, I feel guilty if I don’t get outside and get more direct sunlight. My work, however, is at the computer and the desk.

Summer SAD means depression

Which raises an important question: It’s summer but are you getting enough light?

There is a lesser-known summer light deprivation disorder, appropriately called “Summer SAD.” People in hot climates who have access to air conditioning tend to spend their days inside, venturing out only in the early morning hours or after dark and losing the benefit of summer light.

This leads to seasonal depression in the middle of summer, with people cooped up in their houses, offices or cars because it is too tiring to go out in the relentless heat and sun – especially for people who are older or unhealthy. Heat stroke is another concern for people who are chronically ill or who have fragile systems.

Tips for getting summer light

Coping with summer SAD is similar to dealing with winter SAD. Your system still needs a bright light stimulus very early in the morning and may need a boost in the afternoon.

  • Get outside as early in the morning as you can to beat the heat. Take a walk if you’re able or shift some or all of your exercise routine to the deck or patio.
  • Or sit and read or sip your tea or coffee. Sitting in dappled shade will give you some direct light without hurting your eyes, but even sitting in bright shade will give you more light then you’ll get inside. Aim for 15 minutes at least, more if you can.
  • Plan garden or yard work for as early as possible without disturbing the neighbors. I was surprised to hear a lawn crew around 7 a.m. just outside Nashville, Tennessee, a few years ago, until my hostess explained that all outdoor workers started early to avoid the mid-day heat.
  • If getting outside is not practical, consider using a light box shortly after awakening, just as you would during the fall and winter. Giving your brain and system the light it requires first thing in the morning is still critical to keeping your body clock on track.
  • How much summer sunshine is making its way into your home? If your blinds, draperies or shades are always closed to shield from the sunlight and heat, you are depriving yourself of light your system needs. Experiment with ways to allow more light into your home with sheer draperies or partially open blinds.
  • If you’re feeling sluggish, unmotivated and depressed, using a light box for additional light therapy in the afternoon will help overcome the lack of natural light but not heat up your living space.

A light box in summer

Will it seems counter-intuitive to use a light box in the middle of summer, it may be exactly what you need. I’ve experienced unexpected bouts of summer depression when I’ve taken vacations farther north in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula in a friend’s cabin surrounded by woods.

Even on sunny days the inside of the cabin was dark and gloomy. I never felt energized until I went for long walks on the hot, dusty and mostly sunny roads nearby. If it rained my energy dropped so low I gave up and read until I fell asleep.

If you have trouble getting up early on sunny summer mornings, I have a cat that can help.

What questions do you have about Summer SAD? How can I help? Tell me in the comments.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Stacey June 22, 2010

Thanks so much for this fascinating post! I never thought about SAD in the Summer, but it makes sense, especially because I try to make sure I’m covered up with a hat and sunscreen. I definitely feel better when I get walks outside first thing in the morning, and your article encourages me to make it more of a habit. Thanks again! Stacey

2 Marsha Stopa June 23, 2010

Thanks, Stacey. It is a balance between getting too much light on our skin and in our eyes and getting too little. Awareness can help us choose.

3 Michelle June 29, 2010

Hi Marsha-

This post really hits home for me. I’m a morning person but sometimes when it’s really hot I don’t want to get out of bed! I’m a bit sluggish I’d say.

Thanks for sharing these tips.
Michelle´s last blog post ..Your Anti-Stress Resource Up and Running

4 Marsha Stopa June 29, 2010

Hey Michelle,
I am more and more amazed about how the effects of sun and weather on our systems. Be well.

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