March 21, 2023

Reverse SAD: What it’s like getting through reverse seasonal affective disorder

I dread painfully warm summers and anticipate cool, cosy winters

Josefina Troncoso

Guest writer

Reverse SAD: What it’s like getting through reverse seasonal affective disorder

Content Warning: this article discusses diet culture and eating disorders

The winter solstice brings hope for the many people in the northern hemisphere who are affected by seasonal affective disorder (SAD). After solstice, the days slowly start to grow lighter and before we know it, evenings last until 10PM again. Especially since we are still coping with the COVID-19 pandemic as best as we can, the prospect of literally brighter days can be very encouraging for people with SAD. But for me, it’s exactly the opposite. And it’s hell.

Summer-onset SAD, or reverse SAD, is the little-known, alternate presentation of SAD, not least because many find it unfathomable to think anyone could be unhappy during the summer months. Longer holidays, days at the beach, late evenings spent outside with friends: what’s not to like? A lot, it turns out, especially if you’re autistic and already more sensitive to light and heat.

At the moment I find myself back in Chile where my family has always been based, in the midst of summer along with the rest of the Southern hemisphere. I chose to return for the holidays because, especially during tricky periods, I need the care and stability that I find at home. Christmas time this year was already set to be markedly different from what we’ve all known due to the pandemic, so I was set on going home. Normally, I love being back home with my mum and cats, but summer has often been a more turbulent time for my mental health. In addition to summer being difficult in and of itself, the period between Christmas and approximately the end of January is rife with horrible diet talk and advertisements for products or services that promise weight loss. If you find the Christmas edition of diet culture impossible to endure when it’s cold, imagine if at the same time you had to wear clothes that exposed your body, not by choice but by necessity. It’s a dreadful cultural expectation for most people, but it’s even worse and more impossible to escape when you’re in recovery from an eating disorder.

Autism and eating disorders make a brutal little combo that is often talked about, but usually not beyond the fact that they co-occur very frequently. Sensory sensitivity, difficulties with expressing or even identifying emotions, traumatic changes, and trouble understanding our bodies are only some autism-related difficulties that can contribute to an eating disorder. I experience all of these, but none are harder to cope with during the summer than sensory sensitivity. The clothes I feel comfortable in make me feel too warm, and the ones that are apt for hotter temperatures show parts of my body that I’m still learning to like. I also hate the feeling of sweat, though even heat without sweating is so uncomfortable that for me it simply translates to pain. I reached a dangerously low weight in the summer of 2019 for no reason other than it being extraordinarily hot, though life outside my eating disorder had been going well. Every part of me seems to hurt when it’s hot, and that leads to anger, which leads to meltdowns.

People with regular SAD tend to experience excess sleepiness and gloominess that can vary in intensity, but remain present for as long as the season lasts. In reverse SAD, however, we struggle to sleep enough, and it’s not gloominess but constant aggravation and irritability that we struggle with.

Heat and sleeplessness are some of my meltdown triggers. Sleep is especially tricky and not just because of the temperature: I am so sensitive to sunlight that I have to wear an eye mask to bed in winter. Covering my eyes is one thing, but getting used to the sun rising much earlier is an entirely different challenge, one that my body simply seems to react adversely to.

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When I was in Reykjavík for a month-long language course, five years ago in July, I was experiencing all the symptoms of reverse SAD even though the weather was to my liking—the reason being that, because Iceland is so far north, the sun sets well into the night hours during summer, only to rise again just a couple of hours later. I struggled to get enough sleep and as a result I couldn’t concentrate well enough during my lessons nor when I did my homework, and was constantly grumpy. Many people with winter SAD will find the long hours of darkness unnatural no matter how many times they’ve experienced them and I can somewhat relate, because the long hours of daylight seem unsettling and alien to me no matter how many times I acknowledge that they’re going to happen for at least three months every year. I experienced SAD even though I was born and raised in a city that experiences very little seasonal change, and the transition to the extremes of the north of England was another shock in itself.

Something has got to be said about the emotions we attribute to certain weather conditions and how—or if—they contribute to seasonal affective disorder.

Summer makes me think of dreaded vacations at the beach (which I’ve always hated as it’s noisy and sand is a big sensory dislike); it makes me think of forced socialisation with extended family, staying in places other than my own home, and being physically uncomfortable the entire time. Winter, on the other hand, brings too many memories to list: for example, finally getting a break from school to go see my grandmother whose house is in a forest, and the motorway on the way there being lined by trees and fields with cows and sheep.

I could read by the fire wearing fluffy socks, and I never had to force myself to chat when I felt tired.. Many of my favourite books and lifelong special interests were discovered whilst reading by the fire at my grandmother’s house. And before I even learnt what stimming was I always knew that I enjoyed having some form of pressure on or around me, which I enjoyed best when wearing thick socks and fluffy jumpers, and being in bed under several blankets—none of which are really possible when it’s warm.

Once I’d moved to England, winter became even more special when I could finally enjoy the countdown to Christmas the proper way, with spiced drinks and hot chocolate and snow-themed decorations that made sense. And snow days, whether close to Christmas or not, have always been my yearly highlights—when it snows, I feel as if the world is full of possibility. So, while my love for the colder months is mainly about finding sensory regulation, there very much is an emotional component to it too.

That all said, even considering the sensory distress of sunlight and warmth, the absolute most challenging part of experiencing summer seasonal affective disorder is the lack of solidarity I receive from others. I struggle to pick up any tacit rules to socialising, so when people would question how I could hate the ‘glorious sunshine’ I would feel genuinely offended, as I assumed everyone had the same sensory responses as me and ignored that society deems summer to be the most enjoyable season. On the other hand, before learning of the very real impact of winter seasonal affective disorder, my arguments in defense of the season could seem very insensitive, when I only really meant to highlight some nice things people may want to try to focus on. As my empathy and understanding for those who feel crushed by winter darkness has grown over time, that same empathy and understanding has hardly been shown to me. Often, people have assumed that I just don’t care about people who work sunrise to sundown and don’t get to feel any natural warmth in their offices, or have downplayed the severity of my symptoms because it’s easier to believe that I’m being a contrarian for fun.

Those at Tiimo HQ will be very familiar with hygge, a Danish concept commonly associated with wintertime cosiness and warmth, but actually meant to evoke conviviality, peacefulness, and contentment. Spiced candles, hot drinks, and blankets marketed as hyggelig are some of the things that people with winter SAD can make the darker months more bearable, and in fact they’re part of why I enjoy winter so much. But I fully believe it is possible to create that feeling for those of us who need solidarity in the summer months.

As a former medievalist, I can tell you that it comes from the Old Norse hugr, meaning thought, or the mind—hygge is therefore the concept of a convivial mindset. No matter what novelty books will tell you, you can’t buy something that feels hyggelig; you have to create that sense and atmosphere yourself.

For me, summertime hygge means spending time in places where I can adjust the amount of light that comes through, as with blackout blinds. It would also include lots of breeze, which not only gives me the chance of wearing a jumper but can also help bad smells fade away from indoor spaces. It means allowing me to spend time alone, since I need it to recharge a brain that is already with low reserves of battery as soon as I wake up. But mostly, I think it means to make sure to have people around that care for me during months where my vampire-like constitution is always put to the test.

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