6 Summer Pitfalls That Can Jeopardize Your Mental Health

Barbecue fare is fine in moderation, but balancing it with healthy food choices is best for your mood and mental health.
Image Credit: AleksandarNakic/E+/GettyImages

School's out, the sun is shining and the barbecues are bountiful There's no denying it: Summer is a special, carefree time of year.

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But while the warmer months bring a boatload of fun for many, summer can also trigger mental health struggles for some people, says Michael L. Birnbaum, MD, a psychiatrist at Northwell Health and CMO at HearMe, an on-demand emotional wellness app.

"Without school or work to keep us on track, routines may shift dramatically, which can impact our mental and physical health," Dr. Birnbaum says.

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It's possible to prevent (or manage) these challenges as long as you're aware of a few potential pitfalls. "The key is getting to know what works best for your brain and body," Dr. Birnbaum says. "The more we get to know ourselves, the better we can prepare for changes that come along with summer."

Here, Dr. Birnbaum discusses several common summer snags that might meddle with your mood and how to maintain your mental health during the hot months.

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1. Lack of Sleep

"Few things are more important than healthy sleep for healthy brains and bodies," Dr. Birnbaum says.

Indeed, a lack of sleep is linked to depression, suicide and risky behaviors, according to the National Institutes of Health.

But during the summer, when sunsets are later and there's just generally more going on, you might notice your slumber is slipping.

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"Later nights often lead to reduced sleep quantity and quality," Dr. Birnbaum says. Not to mention those hot, sticky temps that tend to make you toss and turn.

How to Get Enough Shut-Eye

“Make sure to stick to your routine,” Dr. Birnbaum says. “Try to go to bed at around the same time every night and wake up around the same time every day."

And follow these tips for stellar sleep hygiene:

2. Overdoing It With Less Nutritious Foods

Summers are for barbecues and ice cream. But, unfortunately, all those burgers, potato salad and desserts may mess with your mood.

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That's because "what you put into your body could be directly related to your mental health," Dr. Birnbaum says. And "eating unhealthy foods can make us feel slow and sluggish," he explains.

How to Eat Healthier

You don’t need to give up all the summer goodies. Simply enjoy them in moderation, and balance the less nutritious foods with nutrient-dense ones.

“Make sure to eat lots of fruits and vegetables every day and drink lots of water,” Dr. Birnbaum says.

In fact, people who pack more produce on their plates tend to experience greater happiness, life satisfaction and wellbeing, according to an August 2016 study in the American Journal of Public Health.

3. Not Getting Outside Enough Due to Extreme Weather

In theory, summer is the perfect time to take advantage of the outdoors. But, depending on where you live, extreme heat and humidity can hamper your outdoor activities and keep you cooped up indoors.

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Here's the thing: "Exposure to natural sunlight increases vitamin D and serotonin levels, which boost your mood," Dr. Birnbaum says. So, without the sun's feel-good effects, you might find yourself feeling down.

"Some people may feel lonely or isolated from staying inside," Dr. Birnbaum says. "And exercise routines [which are key for stress management and mental health] may also suffer," he adds.

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How to (Safely) Enjoy the Outdoors

There’s no better way to have a little fun in the sun (and stay cool) than going for a swim and exploring other water activities, Dr. Birnbaum says.

You can also plan activities in the early morning or early evening, when the heat of the day isn't so oppressive.

Still, always “check the forecast, as you’ll want to avoid overexposure to extreme temperatures,” Dr. Birnbaum says. And on especially scorching days, stick to socializing and exercising indoors instead, he adds.

4. Not Taking Advantage of Your Paid Time Off

Are you the type of person who banks all their vacation days, but then never actually uses them?

"Unfortunately, many of us spend way too much precious time with our jobs," Dr. Birnbaum says. But this can take a toll on your mental health.

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Every now and then, we all need to escape the daily grind to help clear our mind and boost our mood, Dr. Birnbaum says.

How to Enjoy Time Off

If you’re stressing about missing work, think of it like this: Days off help us recharge and enable us to work more effectively once we’re back in the office, Dr. Birnbaum says.

“Getting out of town and experiencing a change in scenery is a great way to unwind and re-focus your energy on the present,” he adds.

5. Not Wearing Certain Clothes Because of Body Image Concerns

If you're struggling with body image issues (who isn't?), the summer months — when we usually show more skin — can be triggering. Negative thoughts and feelings about your body can crop up like all the crop tops you're seeing on the street.

You might even find yourself covering up — avoiding shorts or bathing suits — because you don't like the way you look. But wearing long or heavy duds in the dead of summer is terribly uncomfortable.

"Concerns about body image are — not surprisingly — much more prevalent during bathing suit season," Dr. Birnbaum says. "During summer, these thoughts can make us feel more self-conscious and lead to avoiding certain social situations, contributing to feelings of isolation and loneliness."

How to Deal With Body Image Issues

Read our lips: Every body is a beach body. Simply put on a suit and sit on the sand.

And remember: “​Healthy​ comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes,” Dr. Birnbaum says. So, go ahead and wear those shorts.

And while you're at it, practice a little self-compassion, which can go a long way toward combatting a negative self-image.

If you need a little extra emotional support, speak to a therapist, who can help you navigate these difficult feelings.

6. Feeling Disconnected From Social Interactions

While many seize summer as a time to hang with friends and family, for others it can be a little lonesome.

"Without regular human interactions stemming from school and work, we can sometimes feel lonely and isolated," Dr. Birnbaum says.

What's more, "longer and less-structured days can make us feel overwhelmed," he adds.

How to Stay Connected

Be proactive in combatting loneliness.

“Call a friend, invite your new coworker to your barbecue or volunteer at the community garden,” Dr. Birnbaum says. “Evidence shows that when you help someone, there are physiological changes in the brain linked to happiness,” he explains.

In other words, he says, “when we help others, we help ourselves."

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Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.

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