Here Comes the Sun, and Here Comes Summer Mania

Just about every Canadian is aware of seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, SAD mildly affects over 15 percent of Canadians, and two to three percent severely. We Northerners in particular are more susceptible to this condition, or so we’ve been told, because of the extreme nature of our winter.

But less well-known is SAD’s sunny flip-side: “summer mania.”

I’ve lived in Yellowknife half my life, and heard stories of the negative mental effects of winter since the day I arrived. But it came as a surprise when a close friend started to discuss summer mania with me recently. She’d just realized that she might be suffering from this condition. Her sleep cycle was significantly disrupted in the summer, and she often felt increasingly unfocused and agitated as it went on. She only felt normal again once the transition into fall began. Yet despite this happening year after year, she hadn’t been able to put a name to her condition. Until now.

Summer mania is often characterized by agitation or anxiety. This results in far higher suicide rates among sufferers of this condition, as agitation is a far more potent catalyst than lethargy.

I knew nothing about the topic. Nor do many people. There simply hasn’t been much research done on summer mania. What little I found said that less than one percent of the Canadian population think they may experience some form of the condition, but noted there is a higher risk as you travel further North. Summer’s perpetual sunlight is known to affect people in many different ways, but the effects simply haven’t been studied deeply; certainly not the the degree that SAD has.

Here’s where it gets tricky, though. The results of the latest research into SAD suggest that it might be, well, all in our heads: a 10-year study involving over 34,000 people recently concluded that normal depressive cycles may have been misattributed as SAD. There was no consistent increase or decrease in depressive episodes between summer and winter, said the study, which concluded that SAD may be more of a social construct than a solid fact.

Whether SAD is a real thing, there’s no denying the seasons, and the absence of or excess of sunshine, have a powerful effect on many of us, even if it is just the disturbance of our sleep rhythms.

Yellowknife-based psychologist Jodi Kapicki deals frequently with patients suffering from depression. According to her, there is “no significant difference or increase in depression cases from summer to winter.” However, she acknowledges that “the sun does have a significant impact on Northerners,” but there have not been any in-depth studies into these effects.

From what little we do know of summer mania, it presents several different symptoms from SAD. While a primary indicator of SAD is lethargy, summer mania is often characterized by agitation or anxiety. This results in far higher suicide rates among sufferers of this condition, as agitation is a far more potent catalyst than lethargy.

Again, there is very limited research on summer mania, but what does exist identifies a few common symptoms of the condition:

Agitation and anxiety

As mentioned, this is the primary symptom. Noticing increased agitation in summer months is a good sign that you may be experiencing a form of the condition.

Depression

Extended periods of depression during the summer can be a sign of summer mania. It’s particularly important to take note of them because the usual signifier of fatigue may not be present.

Sleeplessness

The increased heat and sunlight can easily compromise the average person’s ability to sleep. In cases of summer mania, this restlessness can take a far more extreme form. Extended disruption of the circadian rhythm can be both a sign and cause of summer mania. The lack of research in this area means that this is still a disputed aspect of the condition.

Weight loss and loss of appetite

As people shed their winter layers, it often becomes an objective to shed some of that winter weight as well. While this is a positive goal for many people, it’s important to note how this weight loss takes place. One of the common signifiers for summer mania is unexpected weight loss and a loss of appetite. This is one of the symptoms that often goes unnoticed, as a majority of people are happier having lost weight. However, if there is unusual weight loss is important to recognize and combat.

It’s important to note that these symptoms are not particularly specific, and unfortunately there are many factors that could contribute to them. Self-diagnosis for such a condition can be problematic, so seeking professional help is recommended if you suspect a negative seasonal change.  

As with any condition of this description, monitoring yourself over extended periods of time can be extremely helpful in diagnosis. Keeping a journal for this purpose can be useful, as it provides a specific timeline of moods and attitudes. Keep in mind, however, that conditions like this are notoriously difficult to correctly self-diagnose, so it is important to get help.

Possible Treatments

Therapy

Just as with any case of depression, seeking professional help is often the best route back to health. Northern Canadian therapists in particular are experienced at helping people through conditions of this nature, so this is easily your best bet.

Exercise

If you suffer from summer mania, exercise can help combat the symptoms. One of the most important things to watch out for, however, is exercising/dieting too much in the summer. Pushing yourself too hard with exercise, or dieting too much for that “summer body,” is dangerous. But if done correctly, exercise is another great way of pulling yourself out of this condition. If the light levels and heat are too much, working out indoors is almost always an option.

Routine

One of the more difficult things about summer is that it’s often disruptive to a normal routine. One of the most common remedies for depression is establishing a strict routine and sticking to it. Summer mania is no different.

Healthy sleep schedule

This may actually be the main cause behind what we know as seasonal disorders, so it is particularly important to maintain. A consistent sleep schedule in the summer can be a near-impossible goal. The increased heat and light levels are detrimental to a healthy rest environment. While it may be difficult to force yourself to sleep when the sun is still blindingly bright, it is beneficial when dealing with summer mania. Blackout blinds and thick curtains are a staple in the North, and if rest is an issue, they are a worthy investment.

Reduce the effects of summer

If you notice that you’re healthier in the winter, simply try to replicate those circumstances when possible. Wear dark sunglasses, draw the blinds in your home, and crank the air conditioner or fan. Reducing both light and heat has been shown to help those who suffer from conditions of this nature, so don’t be afraid of shunning the light as much as possible. It is important to note that this strategy can be taken too far. If you feel increasingly lethargic and fatigued, it may be a sign that you’ve replicated the winter effects slightly too well. Moderation is key when dealing with conditions of this nature.

Reduce screen time

While it is difficult, minimizing electronic screen time as much as possible can help. Though the light level may seem insignificant compared to the sun, many people spend hours a day focused on electronic devices. Giving yourself two hours before sleeping with no electronics has been shown to help.

Plan ahead

All of the other methods for dealing with seasonal conditions are for people already suffering from one already, but since this is a seasonal illness, it’s fairly easy to predict when it will impact you. Preventing the disease from setting in is much easier than trying to treat it, so if you know you are prone to summer mania, find a method that works for you and stop the symptoms before they start.

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