August is hell. Yes, the calendar is a construct, and no, the weather isn’t necessarily all that different between July 27 and August 3, but each year I find that with the arrival of August 1 comes a crushing ennui that does not lift until September. There are no federal holidays, but nobody anywhere is doing any work. The days start getting shorter, which is just as well, because there’s nothing to do, and what there is to do, I’m sick of. For all but the most spirited of summertime revelers, one’s enthusiasm for beachgoing and BBQ-hosting and picnic-having has mostly dried up. Enough with the forced outdoor merriment already — we all know hibernation is coming, so let’s just get on with it.
For me, August has also become associated with spikes in anxiety. It was in August that I first had a nervous breakdown several years back, having convinced myself, an otherwise very bored and lonely policy intern, that I had elephantiasis of the foot, and a tumor, and a stroke. It’s in August that I always feel most desperate to live somewhere, anywhere else. (That New York smells the way it does in August certainly doesn’t help things.) It’s in August that I always wish I still had school to look forward to. Without it, I focus instead on the sensory, spiritual relief autumn brings: cooler weather, renewed energy, a return to discipline and order. For a long time, I assumed August-specific anxiety and depression were particular to me, or at least indoorsy type A types like me, but it’s not. When we think about seasonal depression, we typically think of winter, but what about people who find other times of year most difficult? Is there such a thing as, say, August affective disorder?
Not exactly, says Stephen Ferrando, director of psychiatry at Westchester Medical Center. Some variation in mood and mental well-being from season to season is common, but to be diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder, one must meet a number of very specific criteria. “In order to be diagnosed with a mood disorder, you have to have at least two weeks of pretty persistent symptoms that don’t really get better,” says Ferrando. Those who suffer from SAD are considered a subset of those with major depressive disorder — the former experienced by less than 5 percent of the population, and the latter experienced by 10 to 20 percent of the population. Seasonal changes in mood that fail to meet the criteria for SAD are thus considered “subclinical,” or insufficiently severe and/or consistent to merit diagnosis. “Something that is more subclinical has a shorter duration, is less severe, and fluctuates,” says Ferrando. “If something good happens you feel better, and if something not so good happens, you feel worse, but it’s a little more reactive to circumstance. A true disorder doesn’t react well to circumstance.”
There’s a reason why most people with seasonal affective disorder are affected in the fall and winter months rather than the spring and summer: decreased daylight — hence, why sufferers of SAD may be prescribed the use of a light box to artificially extend their exposure to daylight in the winter months. Insufficient exposure to daylight is what’s considered a biological trigger, says Ferrando. While subclinical mood shifts can be psychologically triggered by any number of things (including changing seasons), “disorders are more biologically triggered.” August (and summer more generally) doesn’t really have that biological component.
That doesn’t mean that August depression isn’t its own special, awful thing. Ferrando aptly describes it as the “August blues, which are sort of like the Sunday night blues for a month.” If you’re a summer hater, you’re antsy to be done with it and move on already, and if you’re a summer lover, you’re probably feeling some panic about it coming to an end. In both cases, too, there is likely guilt over not having done enough with this time, because what season comes with more pressure to “make the most” of it than summer?
Rachel Annunziato, associate professor of psychology at Fordham University, tells me this August-existentialist phenomenon is common in all ages. For school-age children (and their parents), she describes this blend of feelings as “anticipation, excitement, and a little bit of dread.” Both Annunziato and Ferrando characterize August depression as more likely led by anxiety. Ferrando describes those who experience seasonal depression in the summer as experiencing “more of an agitated and anxious depressive state,” while those who experience seasonal depression in the winter are more likely in “a vegetative depressive state.” For me, this certainly rings true: the depressiveness I often experience during the tail end of summer is always preceded by a period of high-strung neuroticism and anxiety, and for many people, depression occurs as a natural result of prolonged, exhausting anxiety.
Annunziato adds that it’s extra important to be easy on ourselves in August. “Sometimes I feel guilty about [taking a break in August], and think I have to keep plugging along,” says Annunziato. “But I think if you haven’t already, this is an important time to give yourself a bit of a break.” For some, this might feel counterintuitive — even as working adults, many of us still think of summer as a three-month vacation, if only in a symbolic sense. And that can make the division between August and September feel sharp. But August doesn’t need to be all about preparation. This is the time to rest up while you still can, too. Stay organized, says Annunziato, but know that this is a transitional month, and that means taking it slow. And if taking it slow is what’s driving you nuts in the first place, I suggest pretending August ends a week or two earlier than it really does. Pay your September rent early. Buy new pens. Unpack your sweaters. Congratulations, you made it — summer is over.