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David Baxter PhD

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Living with a mental health disorder in warmer months can be 'suffocating'
By Arti Patel,
April 2017

As the weather warms up, Leesa Gaspari tends to get invites to parties, backyard barbecues or patio nights at a local pub. And while warmer seasons tend to pull people outdoors, some like Gaspari just want to stay in the dark.
?It feels like I am suffocating,? Gaspari tells Global News. ?I look at the upcoming temperature and I just cancel [plans].?

The 47-year-old makeup and skincare business owner in Toronto has been living with summer depression as long as she can remember.

?The heat has such an oppressive, horrible feeling.?

Dr. Robert Levitan, senior scientist at The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) wrote in 2016 that in spring, people living with mental health illnesses should start to take note of any changes in how they feel.
?It?s a paradox that while people with [seasonal affective disorder] tend to do better as the days get longer, spring can be a difficult time for people with some mental heath conditions such as bipolar depression.?

Levitan said people may still feel depressed and impulsive, but also have a lot more energy. This, however, could lead to increased suicide risk, sleeping troubles or feelings of exclusion (people generally tend to be more active in spring).
For Gaspari it means managing her depression and anxiety until fall, but also living her day-to-day going to work and running errands. She will, however, avoid social events during spring and summer.

?I get into deep funks and start feeling it around [April], but in September I feel great.?

Seasonal changes can create imbalances
Katie W. Robinette, executive director of Healthy Minds Canada, a charity that raises funds and awareness for mental health and addiction, says seasonal changes can create imbalances for anyone who lives with a mental health disorder.

But as days feel longer, Robinette says, people who may be suffering from this type of depression feel worse.

?They are seeing signs of life but they are not seeing it in their own mood. They want to see change, but they can?t,? she tells Global News.

She adds the most important thing people with depression and anxiety can do is to continue their daily routine (sleeping, eating, drinking, self-care etc.), but take notice if any symptoms increase.

?Check with your doctor [if they are], and see if you need to alter your medication?

Symptoms to look out for
Symptoms of summer depression can include feeling overly anxious, agitated, weight-loss, and difficulty sleeping, says Dr. Katy Kamkar, a clinical psychologist at CAMH.

?It is normal to experience mood fluctuations in the summer,? she says. ?But for some, these symptoms can interfere with daily function or become severe.?

There can also be a disruption of routine (for example, if you have kids they may be at home during summer months), and financially, people may not be able to afford certain spring/summer activities.

Robinette adds the pressure to look fit in a bathing suit can also be a stressor and as more people drink on patios, some may use alcohol as a depressant.

Social media can also be a contributing issue.

?Online we might be seeing all sorts of people looking like they?re having fun and they have their life together, and we?re in the middle of a depressive episode,? she says. ?We judge ourselves.?

Not taking summer depression seriously
Gaspari says because spring and summer are touted as the best times of the year, she often feels like she is not taken seriously when she can?t enjoy these seasons.

?Society views summer and spring weather as overly positive in all aspects, [and this depression is] impossible to be understood,? she says. ?People think it?s a joke, because it?s impossible to hate summer. People laugh and tell me to go out and enjoy it? like it?s an option.?

Gaspari says unlike most, she has zero energy in the spring or summer. Daylight hurts her eyes, hot weather ramps up her anxiety and there are days when she can?t breathe, function or think.

Robinette says others should be more sympathetic.

?It can be difficult for anyone on that edge,? she says. ?[You can?t tell someone] to appreciate the good weather, they can?t. It?s a chemical reaction in their brain.?

Seasonal affective disorder and spring
But for others, spring means the end of their seasonal affective disorder (SAD). The condition, which is usually affects people during fall and winter, is less common in the spring and summer.

About two to three per cent of Canadians experience SAD in their lifetime, CAMH reports, and 15 per cent will experience a milder form of SAD. While the cause of SAD is unknown, some experts speculate it could have something to do with general the lack of daylight.

SAD can be treated with light therapy, medication or counselling.

Spring can also cause a ?lift?
But some say spring is the best time of the year to ease their anxiety and depression.

Jenna Pettinato, a 32-year-old manager of communications in Toronto, says she generally feels more energy in the spring.

?My anxiety was particularly bad this winter. I?ve noticed that as spring has arrived, I have felt a little bit of my anxiety ? as well as the depression associated with anxiety ? lift,? she tells Global News.

Pettinato says her anxiety makes days tougher than they need to be, but with spring, she has also noticed changes in her sleeping habits.

?Light has such an affect on my mood and it makes doing things easier,? she says. ?I am doing better than I was during the winter. I have an easier time falling asleep and wake up less during the night.?

Jessica Dhaliwal agrees.

?I still feel anxious during the warmer months but not as much as I do in the winter,? the 23-year-old tells Global News. ?When I feel anxious when it?s warm out, I like to soak in the sun which tends to calm me down and ground me.?

Dhaliwal, who has been living with anxiety and Crohn?s disease for the majority of her life, says while she could sleep longer in winter months, warmer months make her want to get up.

?If I sleep in, I feel as though I?m missing out on good weather and the sun.?

How to manage mental health this spring
Kamkar says, just like winter depression, sticking to a structured routine is important for people who have a hard time coping with depression in summer months.

Stay active, eat healthy and get a good amount of sleep, she suggests.

But for people like Gaspari, the year is just a cycle and overtime, they start to feel the same: highs during the cold and lows in warmth.

Kamkar says for anyone struggling this time of the year, it?s important to look at how your previous year went and as always, seek professional help if your symptoms get worse.

?Look at your past experiences and what was helpful and what created anxiety,? she says. ?[Sometimes], summer depression may not be resolved and prolong into the fall.?
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