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It’s Picnic Season, but You’d Rather Stay Home. Is It Burnout, Anxiety or Summer Seasonal Affective Disorder?

June 29, 2022

Does an invitation to the neighborhood block party make you want to close the curtains and pretend you’re not home? Do group texts about summer barbecues make you want to break up with your phone, once and for all? If you’re feeling antisocial, on edge or just a little low this summer, it could just be your personal preference to spend time solo and in the comfort of air conditioning. Nothing wrong with that. But it could be a symptom of something else – like burnout, anxiety or the summertime version of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Here’s a guide.

When you might be experiencing burnout:

Prolonged, repeated stress leads to burnout,” says clinical health psychologist Valeria Martinez-Kaigi, PhD. “That’s what a lot of people in the world are experiencing right now. It’s a common reaction after a difficult two years of the pandemic, finances changing, multiple mass shootings in the nation, the Russia-Ukraine war, social injustice – all these stressors that are constantly coming at you.” How do you know if that includes you? “Burnout is a feeling of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion,” says Dr. Martinez-Kaigi. What to look for:
  • Low energy.
  • Low mood.
  • Feeling cynical or pessimistic.
  • Emotional or stress eating.
  • Increased use of alcohol.
  • In more extreme cases, physical symptoms like headaches and migraines, chronic fatigue, or gastrointestinal distress like diarrhea or heartburn.
Tell-tale sign of burnout:
  • You probably feel better, at least temporarily, during fun or relaxing activities.
What to do:
  • “Dealing with burnout is really about setting boundaries,” says Dr. Martinez-Kaigi. “It’s about sitting down and saying, ‘What is causing me this constant, prolonged stress? How can I take steps, in a realistic way, to take some of these stressors off my plate?”
It’s also important to add self-care habits to your daily and weekly routines. Make these simple and enjoyable. Think: five minutes of mindfulness breathing meditation every day, or taking a brief walk in your neighborhood or a park multiple times a week. “These measures can be very small,” says Dr. Martinez-Kaigi. “It’s about the consistency and quality. For example, screen time is often people’s go-to for taking a break for self-care, but it’s usually not restorative. It distracts from stress, but does not help relieve the stress. Implement self-care activities that feel restorative.”

When you might be experiencing anxiety:

If your mental playlist tends to be one loud worry loop, you might have generalized anxiety disorder. When that’s the case, worried thoughts can become sweeping, irrational and constant. “It’s not: ‘This challenge came up with my child, and I’m worried about them,’” says Dr. Martinez-Kaigi. “It’s: ‘What am I going to eat for dinner? Did I turn off the lights? What am I going to wear to work?’ No matter what you do, you can’t control it.” What to look for:
  • Constant and uncontrollable worry, about almost anything.
Key difference from burnout:
  • You can’t stop worrying, even temporarily, during activities that used to be fun or relaxing.
What to do:
  • If worry is interfering with how you function in your daily life, it’s time to talk to a medical professional.
“A good place to start for most people is their primary care physician for a discussion about potential medication that can be helpful, and a referral for a mental health professional,” says Dr. Martinez-Kaigi. “You can also call the behavioral health number on your insurance card for providers in your network.”

When you might be experiencing summer seasonal affective disorder (SAD):

You’ve probably heard SAD linked to winter, when lack of sunlight, among other factors, triggers depression for many people. But for a smaller percentage of people, depression goes hand in hand with summer. “When everyone else is excited for a beach day, a person with major depressive disorder with a summer seasonal pattern may feel disinterested and irritated with summer social activity,” says Dr. Martinez-Kaigi. That’s because the underlying causes of depression, and the factors that cause it to flare up, are unique to each person. “There are biological, psychological and social-environmental factors that contribute to and trigger a person’s depressive episode,” says Dr. Martinez-Kaigi. One individual’s depression may be triggered by the heat and humidity. Another person’s mood might plunge due to an overbooked social calendar. Whatever the trigger, if you have a history of feeling depressed in summertime, it could be summer SAD. What to look for:
  • Feeling a constant sadness.
  • Lack of interest, motivation or pleasure in things you used to enjoy.
Key difference from burnout:
  • You don’t feel better, even temporarily, during activities that used to be fun or relaxing
What to do:
  • Even if you’re only experiencing mild depressive symptoms, it’s still worth getting treatment. “Find a good psychologist or therapist who can offer you an evidence-based treatment for depression, such as cognitive behavioral therapy,” says Dr. Martinez-Kaigi.
Whether it’s a stress-related issue like burnout, or a clinical disorder like anxiety or depression, “it’s important to understand your own triggers for any mental health condition,” says Dr. Martinez-Kaigi. “Mental health is health, and when we care for our mental health we increase our overall health, wellbeing and quality of life.” So this summer, pay attention to what brings on the blues – and what might lead to brighter days.