Ahhh, summertime. The flowers are in bloom, the sky is a clear, vibrant blue, and all is well. Or maybe not. Even though summertime is associated with relaxing, it can be a time of considerable stress. The routines that give our lives structure take a hiatus. We may travel and deal with traffic and airline delays. Families visit and invade our space for a little too long. It can all be a little too much. If the prospect of summer makes your shoulders tense, remember that you’re not alone. There are lots of ways to keep your cool, even as the temperature rises.
Keeping physically cool
People often talk about mindfulness in relation to their emotions, but it is important to be mindful of your physical state because heat can definitely make you cranky. “Pay attention to your body, your thoughts, your emotions and know when it’s time for a cool drink of water or some air conditioning,” says licensed marriage and family counselor Brittani Hoyer. “It’s important to stay hydrated and take breaks, especially on the extra hot and humid days.”
Emotional summer stressors
Even though normal routines can be tedious, they also give us a sense of control. However, summer tends to change people’s routines. School is out so children or grandchildren may need attention, or simply be in our usually quiet space. Co-workers go on vacation leaving their colleagues to handle more work. Some of us are back to doing tasks that we get a break from in the winter, such as grass cutting and weeding. These can all feel stressful, but what is stress? “The absolute best description of stress I’ve ever heard is ‘stress is anything that requires you to adapt,’” says Dr. Mark Schirmer, director of psychological services at Norton Behavioral Health. Each year, we may have to readjust to whatever summer throws our way.
Sometimes summer just coincides with big life changes. Even though Peggy Brown, a Louisville middle school teacher, doesn’t have the stress of teaching in the summer, the season is especially challenging now that her husband, David, is working in Bowling Green at Western Kentucky University, where he has been serving as Dean of Ogden College since 2021. “My husband and I are currently maintaining two living situations. I have one child still living at home who has a full-time job. My other two don’t drive, [and] they will be working this summer. Honestly, I’m not sure how it’s all going to sort itself out,” she says.
Because summer is when families spend more time together, it can also be a time of heightened and even unrealistic expectations. Is it really possible that your extended family can travel in a car for eight hours together and not get testy? Pamela Pettyjohn, interim senior minister at Hazelwood Christian Church in Muncie, Indiana, says family members who have drastically different political or religious views may find themselves arguing or frustrated when they are spending an entire week in each other’s homes.
How “chill” are you?
While we often give credit to people for being cool and collected, Abbie Beacham, Ph.D., director of Behavioral Science at the University of Louisville School of Dentistry, says “The place of ‘chill’ is not a constant for anyone. Whether or not someone seems ‘chill’ is often dependent on a specific context. Nobody is completely chill or completely high strung.” What sets one person off on an emotional rampage would be a big nothing to someone else and that can change depending on the situation.
Individuals who don’t get as ruffled by the unexpected as some of their peers may have developed habits of mind that help them remain more calm. Abigail Rennekamp is a mother of four adult children who says she learned a lot about not letting things bother her following her divorce decades ago. She thinks her birth order as the youngest also has something to do with her being a relatively easygoing person most of the time.
Tips for keeping your cool
Whether you consider yourself cool as a cucumber or generally hot under the collar, there are things all of us can do to help our mental health when summer stress bears down. Staying consistent in some ways can help you feel more in control of life. Peggy is an early bird even when she doesn’t have to be for her middle school teaching schedule. “I get up very early every day mainly so that I’m not rushed and panicked. I keep a daily schedule, which includes time for just me,” she says. Keeping a consistent sleep schedule is also a good idea. Pamela has learned over time how critical sleep is to her mental well-being, especially if she is facing new routines.
Abigail always has something on hand to keep herself entertained, whether it is her phone, a book, or knitting. These prove especially helpful when she flies on standby to visit her children and has lots of time to fill while she waits for a seat. She has also learned the importance of giving herself a way to recharge and reset, which can mean that she rents an Airbnb instead of staying in her children’s homes.
If you keep a daily routine, get ample sleep, and can entertain yourself, you still might need some additional tools for regaining your cool in the face of stress. A mindfulness practice may sound mystical but is really quite simple. Dr. Schirmer says taking a few minutes to say aloud to yourself what your senses are noticing is a practice that helps you stay in the moment, not ruminating about the past, or fretting about the future. Doing this several times a day can help you recenter yourself:
What do you notice with your skin?
I notice the pressure of my right shoelace is tighter than my left.
What do you notice with your ears?
I notice the sound of a bird chirping outside my window.
What do you notice with your eyes?
I notice that a swirl of blue weaves itself around the edges of the rug beneath my feet.
What do you notice with your nose?
I notice the smell of lilac blooms from the open window.
What do you notice with your tongue?
I notice a bitter taste from the coffee I had this morning.
Paying attention to your breathing is another way to check in with your emotions and keep cool. “It really is amazing how we go through our days with shallow breathing,” says Dr. Beacham. She says to start by following a breath all the way in and out, really paying attention to that breath as it works its way down into your chest and out again. She says the people who do some of the courses she leads on personal resilience and well-being are often shocked at the powerful impact of stopping whatever it is they are doing and just focusing on breathing. “The hardest part is stopping,” she adds. “We talk a lot about how these practices are simple…but NOT EASY.”
By Carrie Vittitoe
P.S. Need some fitness inspiration? Read how Dot Malone keeps on course.