My socks are off and the sprinkler is on. The freezer’s stocked with popsicles and the kids are signed up for camp. Life is a goddamn brochure for summer, planned and plotted down to the chocolate for the s’mores. Except for the one thing I can never seem to plan for: how miserable it all makes me feel.
Unlike most Canadians, I’ve always dreaded summer, never looked forward to long weekends, certainly never been That Guy who wears shorts on the first warm day in March.
It’s not an aversion to heat – though summer SAD, where sufferers are especially sensitive to heat (which is thought to influence production of various hormones), affects an estimated one per cent of (mostly) women. No, my kryptonite is unstructured time. From primary-school recess to theatre intermissions, pauses in my schedule have always given me the heebie-jeebies – and what is summer if not one long, awkward pause? Cruising into July, I just feel rudderless. Quiet August afternoons give me palpitations.
Though I may dress the part (Daisy Dukes, bikini on top) and go through the motions, I can’t help viewing summer through a negative filter: friends flown the coop, ominous stretches of downtime, memories of my summer SAD-afflicted mother in curtain-drawn quarantine blasting her electric fan. At work, my productivity is thwarted by beach-bound colleagues — I can’t see the forest for the “out of office” auto-replies.
This year, knowing that I need more than SPF 30 to get to September, I’ve consulted the experts to build a toolbox, of sorts. My hope is that, they can at least help put a pale rose tint in my shades. So here are five things I plan to do to warm myself to silly season — if you understand what I’m talking about, feel free to take notes.
“Anticipating you’re not going to be able to cope is a recipe for anxiety and immediately puts you in the position of fighting a war you can’t win,” says Dr. Rita Santos, a London-based therapist. In other words, if I know summer brings me down, I shouldn’t mask my discomfort by planning outdoorsy activities I might not really want to do. “That’s not addressing your anxiety.”
Take the “as if” approach
Dr. Melanie Badali, a registered psychologist with Anxiety BC, suggests learning to act as if I’m not really as anxious as I feel. “Try to act bravely, as if you’re not bothered, and your emotions will catch up,” she says. “This strategy is about playing with your feelings so you’re reducing the stress enough to get through the day.”
Avoid unstructured time
“Structure your days,” says Dr. Monica Cain, a cognitive behavioural therapist at Nightingale Hospital, a leading mental health centre in the UK. “Just like most children, we all like structure to our days. When we look at managing symptoms of depression, no matter how severe, creating routine is really important.” The activities should suit me but also me, she says, like heading out for a series of walks, exploring a new neighbourhood, joining a club or cultivating a hobby I might have only considered in the cooler months. But, Dr. Cain says, don’t over-structure, or I’ll just feel exhausted.
Take care of myself
“In summer, this external body that is the ‘container,’ or structure, of your life is suddenly absent, leaving a vacuum where your inner, critical voice can come up,” says Sheila Banerjee, a Toronto psychotherapist. Her solution is to create my own meaningful “container”: a schedule of exercise and self-care that will satisfy my need for routine while making me stronger, healthier and fitter come September. “And reach out to people outside your circle – there will always be others around.”
A good cognitive behavioural psychotherapist could help me understand the meaning and origin of what’s going through my mind, the resulting emotions and the biological impact. They can help develop beneficial behaviours to change the way I see summer. “You don’t have to excavate your past,” says Santos. “Focus on the here and now. Stop and think about what you’ve been doing and if that works for you – if trying to go along with everyone else or forcing yourself into activities isn’t changing your experience, change the strategy.” Many of us may have become dependent on old coping strategies – avoidance, withdrawal – that cease working when our lives change. “You need to stop, reflect and change that thinking.”
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