Tuesday, September 22, 2020
Sept. 22, 2020

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What to do if coronavirus disruptions have you feeling like summer is over before it’s even really begun

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SEATTLE — It’s really only the beginning of summer.

We’ve just had the longest day of the year, a wetter-than-usual spring is behind us, and hot, sunny weather is on its way. Climate models suggest Western Washington is in for an average-feeling season.

But for some Seattle-area residents, that’s where the normalcy ends.

Summer usually means picnics, parks, drinks, decks, gathering in groups, coming out blinking from our hovels to reconnect with the world. In a pandemic that’s locked most of us down for months and is still changing our routines — even as certain sectors cautiously reopen — it may feel to some as though summer is over before it’s even begun.

Longtime Seattle resident and former Seattle Times writer Sally Macdonald, who lives in a houseboat on Lake Union with her husband, said they’re accustomed to having all the family’s summer events at their place. Not this year — their place is too small.

No room to keep a healthy distance? No deck parties. No grandchildren.

“I’m usually here, going into summer like, ‘Woohoo!’ ” Macdonald said. “But because of COVID, it feels like we will skip summer and have to start getting ready for winter.”

It’s hard not to feel glass-half-empty right now. After all, the longest day of the year just means a little less sunlight every day for the next six months.

David Shen-Miller, a Wallingford-based psychologist with Cascades Wellness Center, said there are layers of complicated reasons why people might feel a mix of excitement and anxiety as the next season begins.

“There’s something about summer here that’s extra vibrant, and all of a sudden, there’s a surge of excitement and life,” he said. “There’s also a sense that we have this amazing little window of time to get all our sunshine in for the rest of the year.”

At the same time, he said, 2020 can have us wanting to hunker down as the combination of COVID-19, violent images of police brutality and a high-stakes presidential election combine to heighten existing anxieties.

“For people who are used to feeling like summer is a time to be relaxed, that sense of ease may be gone,” Shen-Miller said. “They don’t have to brace against the wind and the cold now, but they have to brace against the worry. There is no reprieve.”

This is, perhaps, when we need summer most of all.

Letting your “hibernation response” linger right now could make symptoms of seasonal depression worse later in the year, said psychiatrist David Avery, who is a professor emeritus at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

“It would not surprise me to see more than average numbers of people struggling with some measure of SAD (seasonal affective disorder) in this coming fall-winter season,” he said.

Avery, a clinician and researcher, studies the effects of circadian rhythms, temperature regulation and light therapy in depression and seasonal affective disorders.

He has noticed that many of his patients’ lives have significantly less structure during this pandemic. They’re sleeping in longer and missing the clear signal of the sun rising, and then staying up a little later each night.

Combine that disruption in our natural rhythms with less time outside in the daylight or even near windows, and it’s a recipe for lower energy, lower motivation and a worse mood, he said.

Avery suggests starting a routine now to address those issues and prevent developing or worsening SAD symptoms down the road:

Firstly, he said, go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day, avoiding sleeping too little or too much. To make this easier, use a sleep mask or blackout shades in your bedroom in spring and summer, and expose yourself to bright light at midday and right when you wake up. A stable light-dark cycle means stable circadian rhythms and, in turn, stable sleep and mood.

Along those lines, try to aim for 10-14 hours of light exposure each day, Avery advises. But make sure to avoid bright light or light from computers and TVs for two to three hours before you intend to sleep — or at least use glasses that block blue light.

Spending time outside makes a difference, too, Avery said. His patients who were experiencing SAD-like symptoms during lockdown reported not going outside much or even getting much light from the windows available to them. But there are plenty of ways to enjoy the outdoors while keeping yourself and others safe from the novel coronavirus; just remember to keep a healthy distance from people, wear a mask and check the latest public health guidance.

Things may not feel completely normal for a while. But by taking care of yourself and what you can control, you can keep the disruption from putting a damper on your summer.

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