3 KEY Steps for Surviving Summer
Yay! It’s summer! Nice weather, more time off, longer days, and lots of stuff to do outdoors. So, why are so many people more anxious now than they were a few months ago? As odd as this sounds, summertime can actually make your anxiety worse. In this two part post, I’ll give you three key steps for surviving summer at home and for going on vacation if you and/or a family member are dealing with anxiety.
Year after year, I hear so many patients tell me that summers are really hard for them and/or their kids. My teens and college students love that school is out but can’t understand why they are so anxious. They feel moody and on edge. Their bodies feel jittery and tight. They’re having panic attacks and/or their OCD is flaring up even though the most threatening situation they face is what plans to make with friends for the weekend. My adult patients are getting outside and exercising more, but they are still really anxious and having trouble sleeping. They are planning big family vacations to awesome locations and are dreading them. People are constantly asking “what am I doing wrong? How can I possibly mess up summer?”
I always tell people the same thing. You are not messing anything up. Summertime is actually really hard for people with anxiety.
Key Reasons Summer Is Hard for People With Anxiety:
1) Change of schedule and routine: People with anxiety, especially chronic and severe anxiety, need structure, routine, and predictability. A nervous system that is on alert 24/7 is counting on the fact that certain things won’t change. It’s really basic stuff too like what time you wake up and eat, what needs to get done each day, and going to the same places every day. Routine and predictability make it easier for a nervous brain to get stuff done because it has less to think about. The more you change, the greater the chance this system will go into over drive.
How can going to the pool every day be hard? Easy, your brain isn’t used to it. Objectively, it’s a fun activity. As far as your brain is concerned, you just changed the rules of the game. That means you have to put in more effort to keep up. That’s why you’re exhausted after something that “should” be fun.
2) Not enough structure: Too much unstructured time off is the worst thing you can give an anxious brain. During the other three seasons, days are shorter and you tend to have to do more in less time. Kids, teens, and young adults are in school which provides a ton of structure and routine. They are getting enough input to keep their brains busy. As soon as you take away levels of activity, you give the anxious brain time to go off and get lost in a storm of thoughts and worries.
3) The pressure to have fun: You’re probably saying “What? How is summer fun stressful? I thought that kind of pressure only happened from Thanksgiving to New Year’s.” Nope. There is a whole lot of hype around how fun summer is and all of the great stuff you could and should be doing: Pools, festivals, concerts, beaches, day trips, bike rides, parties, etc. All you see on Social Media is the cool stuff your friends and family are doing and it can feel like you’re just not cutting it. That’s when you start to beat yourself up over everything you’re not doing because you’re tired, afraid, overwhelmed and sad which only makes the anxiety worse.
Does it seem like I just killed summer vacation? Am I in favor of getting rid of it altogether? Not at all. The most important thing to remember is that you and/or your kids are the exact same people all year long. Summertime does not equal personality transplants even though we’re all supposed to be carefree. Remember the old song lyric: “Summertime and the livin’ is easy?” (If you have no idea what this is, Google it. Great Ella Fitzgerald song. An oldie but a goodie).
If you want to have a good summer, plan around who you are, not around who you think you should be.
3 Steps For Enjoying Summer When You Have Anxiety:
Whether you are a parent with an anxious child or have chronic anxiety yourself, here are three easy steps you can take to increase the chances that you will actually be able to enjoy your summer:
1) Keep to a structure and routine: I’m not saying you have to be as rigid as the Marines. However, try to wake up, eat, and go to sleep at around the same time. Make sure there is something to do that gets you out of the house on most days. For every one new thing or place you try, keep three to four tried and true activities in your day.
2) Schedule down time: Summer does not mean you have to be busy doing something cool all of the time. Build in time on a daily basis to rest and relax. It’s also ok if you and/or your kids spend time in the afternoon or evening watching tv. You are not lazy or a bad parent. You may be saying, “but you told me that unstructured time isn’t good!” I’m talking about time limited breaks throughout the day in which you do something you enjoy in order to let out some steam.
3) Plan things you can look forward to: Mini rewards give us something to look forward to. We are more likely to try something, especially if it’s new or hard, if we know there is a prize waiting once we’ve put in some effort. This can be as simple as going to a movie on the weekends, hiking a favorite trail, or treating yourself to lunch at a new restaurant. For kids it can be a movie, new arcade, time at the local pool, or buying something they’ve had their eye on for a while.
Make The Most of Summer
There is something to be said for longer days and more sunshine. Even if you have to be inside, opening up the blinds and sitting in natural light is great for picking up your mood. Studies show that looking at the sky and/or any kind of green natural stuff (e.g., trees, grass, flowers) helps with depression, concentration, and physical healing.
Summertime can also be a great opportunity to try new things or take on a challenge. Pick one or two things you would like to work on or try. It doesn’t have to be complicated or big. Cooking more meals instead of eating take out every day, reaching out to friends by phone or text more regularly, walking outside a few times a week, or taking longer drives outside your safety zone are great goals.
Break any task or goal into small steps and pick mini rewards to keep you motivated. It doesn’t have to be epic. Any positive step is progress.
Send this to people you know who would benefit from these tips as well as anyone you might be spending time with so they can understand your needs better.
In part II of this post, I’ll tackle planning and going away on vacation when you have chronic anxiety. It will be up on the blog next week!
Talk to you soon,