Too Hot To Handle

Too Hot To Handle

A reality check to help cool down summer stresses that can ruin the season and harm your health
By Donna Shryer

“During the summer, there’s more pressure to get out and enjoy every minute. But for many of us, we lose perspective.” So says Dr. Jennifer Klapatch, PhD, BCBA, director of
Applied Professional Practice, department of Applied Behavior Analysis at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology.

“Just because it’s summer, our other responsibilities don’t fly out the window to make room for new obligations. So we plan more, accomplish less and feel worse,” she says. “The perfect summer can be an overwhelming expectation.”

And those expectations can indeed be daunting. There are backyard barbecues, rooftop soirées and alfresco cafés calling your name. If you don’tget to the beach once a week, you’re not a good Chicagoan. Young ones, facing a three-month summer break, not only need structure, but the best, most exciting structure available. Let’s not forget the pressure to plan a summer vacation, with every minute memory-worthy.

And you’re expected to have all this fun on top of a packed workweek.

“If we don’t do these things—as soon as the weather turns warm—we’re inadequate,” Klapatch explains. “But like most demanding situations, regardless of the season, you have the power to manage stress.”

Stress Fracture
When left unchecked, summer pressures can escalate into debilitating illnesses that affect sleep, productivity and physiological aches or pains. The key, Klapatch says, is finding the sweet spot where life’s pressures are a boon rather than a bust.

“Stress occurs naturally in life, and I don’t think we want to get rid of it completely,” she says. It keeps us productive and motivated to get things done. Obviously, though, huge amounts of long-term stress are unhealthy.”

Excessive, ongoing stress, categorized as chronic stress, can contribute to serious health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

Summer stressors typically manifest themselves as acute stress—the most common form of stress—and are usually triggered by recent or anticipated demands and pressures. The American Psychological Association proclaims that acute stress is thrilling and exciting in small doses. Think water skiing at 25 miles an hour, or that initial rush after scoring a coveted promotion.

But, it can also follow a series of incidents gone awry, which are more annoying than exhilarating, and in excessive amounts, downright nerve-racking. Short-term stress can trigger unpleasant symptoms including, but not limited to, emotional symptoms that include anger or irritability, anxiety and depression; physical symptoms that may manifest as headaches, stomach problems, back pain and muscle tension; cognitive symptoms that involve constant worry, racing thoughts, an inability to focus; and general negativity and behavioral symptoms that may include sleep issues, procrastination, changes in appetite and increased use of alcohol, drugs or cigarettes.

Managing stress and avoiding its symptoms depend on the expectations you create for yourself, says Dr. Ken Duckworth, medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “If you set unreasonable expectations, like meeting every single social obligation during a period of high demand, you’re setting yourself up for internal distress.”

Fun in the Sun
After hunkering down all winter, we ease ourselves out of the cocoon, expecting to embrace the summer social scene with gusto. But even before opening day at Wrigley Field, our first summer stressor hits us right where our six-pack abs should be. “Every April, the media makes us feel horrible about our bodies,” says Elizabeth Anne Scott, health educator and author of 8 Keys to Stress Management. “There’s this expectation that a healthy weight isn’t good enough; you need to be rockin’ a bikini. If you’re not, you’re dropping the ball.”

While no one’s saying obesity or a sedentary lifestyle is OK, Scott quickly adds that anyone who’s healthy, but still feels physically inadequate, should reframe his or her expectations.

“If you don’t feel comfortable in a bikini, don’t wear one! And maybe it’s a good idea to surround yourself with friends who aren’t obsessed with bikini-body expectations. Or, you can second-mortgage your house to pay for plastic surgery, a personal chef and a personal trainer. But isn’t that adding more stress?”

As for summer’s never-ending social scene, Duckworth emphasizes that RSVP-ing with a few regrets doesn’t make you a loser; it makes you busy. “It’s a different cognitive framework. You can think, ‘I’m in my busy years now, tending to my career and family. I don’t have the spare time and money for dining alfresco every night.’ Or you can say, ‘I’m a loser.’ Look at your automatic thinking behavior and where it takes you.”

A similar thought process applies if you’re overstressing about that dream summer vacation or designer camp for the kids. These expectations may not be possible now, and an inability to achieve these expectations doesn’t define you as a person.

“If you don’t do well on an exam, that means you didn’t do well on an exam. It does not mean you won’t go to the University of Chicago or that you’re a miserable person,” Duckworth says. “Drawing conclusions about yourself from one adverse experience or one unachieved expectation is a problem. You have to recognize that your life[’s] well-being isn’t dependent on which summer camp your children attend. In fact, when you look back in five years, I doubt that it will even be a piece of your life[’s] narrative.”

Sweet Nothings
Another summertime thought process that could stand updating, Klapatch says, is our notion of downtime, or put more poetically, the joy of daydreaming. “In the winter, I think it’s more acceptable to stay in and watch the fire. But in the summer, if we have a moment of downtime to truly relax and turn off, we often see it as wasted time and missed opportunities.  There is no gold standard, no right or wrong way to live your summer. If you think there is, that’s only putting more stress on your plate.”

Exacerbating matters, even the best parent may be passing down a legacy of summer stress. “Parents need to reframe the notion that they’re failures if a child’s entire summer isn’t micromanaged,” says Scott. “Every child’s needs are different, but giving our kids downtime, a chance to daydream, can be nurturing. It’s how we learn self-coping skills.”

At the end of the day, perhaps there is merit to the old cliché: Stop and smell the roses. And if planning, planting and growing an award-winning summer rose garden is too stressful, then stop and smell the roses in your neighbor’s yard or at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

“We’re all just human beings doing the best we can,” Duckworth says. “And modern life isn’t easy. But if you can modulate your expectations—what you think you need to do—then you’ll be in much better shape.”

Published in Chicago Health Summer/Fall 2013