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Summer's not so hot for some: Heat waves can bring out depression, local doctor says

With the unforgiving winters here, you might be hard pressed to find someone who's sad to see the summer sun.

"I think people in North Dakota are probably thankful for the summer, even if it's hot," said Christine Rohrer, 34, of Moorhead, as she battled 90-degree heat at the Fargo Downtown Street Fair on Friday afternoon.

But a local physician says the extra-high temps in the summer can actually cause irritability and anxiety and bring out depressive tendencies during a time of year that is widely expected to be relaxing.

"It certainly seems to be more culturally acceptable for us to be depressed in the winter than it is in the summer," said Dr. Jon Ulven, chairman of the adult psychology department at Sanford Health.

Our bodies are always hard at work to maintain a core temperature, Ulven said, and in a heat wave like the one affecting much of the nation this summer, our nervous system can get a little fried trying to keep up with the work, which can lead to irritability.

"Somewhere our nervous system is a little worried about what the body's going through," he said. "It makes it harder for us to regulate emotion and behavior."

Physically, as the body attempts to regulate heat in high temperatures, the heart works harder to pump blood into the extremities to keep the entire body cool.

At the same time, extra water in our body is being used for sweat production. These cooling mechanisms used by our body can tire us out, Ulven said, leading to physical and mental side effects.

But on top of irritability, our behaviors can change dramatically in the summer heat. We exclude ourselves from social situations, and eating and sleeping patterns change, Ulven said.

"Now people are hunkered down in front of an air conditioner, and you have that reduction of activity," he said, "and that can contribute to depressive symptoms quickly."

Physicians sometimes have had trouble understanding seasonal depression in the summer, he said, because the symptoms - anxiety, insomnia, agitation, weight loss and increased sex drive - are often opposites of the symptoms of seasonal depression in the winter.

Neither Rohrer nor her friend Jackie Johnson, 37, of Kindred, knew of anyone who had "summer depression."

"We have so few short months of summertime. I enjoy it," Johnson said.

But these commonly held conceptions make being depressed in the summer difficult for people who feel like they've just escaped the blues of wintertime, Ulven said.

"They feel like when it hits summer that they should be feeling better, and it can become very frustrating when they're not, or when their symptoms start to manifest differently," Ulven said.

It is important to keep a consistent sleep and exercise regimen, he said, as it can help reduce stress and depression symptoms.

It's important to contact your primary care provider if experiencing symptoms of depression, Ulven said.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518