The days are getting shorter, the sun is setting earlier, and it feels like your spirit is changing – along with the color of the leaves. You’re feeling the weight of your responsibilities, your urge for adventure has diminished, and things feel a little bit heavier and well, different.
You can’t seem to put a finger on what you’re actually experiencing, but some experts say it could be a case of the annual fall anxiety, or to be more exact, “autumn anxiety.” Dubbed by a Welsh therapist named Gillian Scully, the term was coined after she saw many clients with similar feelings of anxiety around summer ending and fall commencing. According to Wales Online, Scully even experienced these same feelings. Within two weeks around the end of summer and start of fall, she treated 15 clients with nearly identical feelings of anxiety and anticipation that were not connected to any life-daunting tasks or altering changes.
She described how autumn anxiety was something outside of the textbook psychology cases and what her clients were feeling, “They described feeling a bit anxious — these are not people who are generally anxious — but without knowing the cause of the anxiety. They said it was almost a feeling of anticipation but, again, without knowing what they were supposed to be anticipating,” Sully stated. Individuals who are more sensitive and aware of their surroundings are also more inclined to these feelings of anxiety and anticipation. “It seems that people who are already quite sensitive and aware of their surroundings have been experiencing these feelings,” she continued.
To dive a little deeper, I connected with Dr. Therese Mascardo, Psy.D., CEO of Exploring Therapy, who gave me a better definition of what autumn anxiety really is: “Autumn anxiety is a non-clinical name people have used in recent history (traced back as far as 2005) to describe the phenomenon of experiencing symptoms of anxiety that tend to be most pronounced in the fall, typically in September and October, and lasting a few weeks up to several months.” For these people, fall is not all pumpkin lattes, colorful leaves and sweater weather – but something a little graver.
“Autumn anxiety can be experienced as feeling overwhelmed, tense, or worried, while possibly feeling physical symptoms such as muscle tension, headaches, stomach aches, and trouble sleeping,” continues Mascardo. Cooler weather, shorter days, saying goodbye to summer and vacation season, the start of school, anticipating the upcoming holidays – to name a few – are also factors that could have an impact on our individual emotional and mental well-being.
Dr. Mascardo also stressed that what you could be feeling could be more than just that annual fall anxiety, but Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). “Seasonal Affective Disorder is a seasonally-based depression that is linked to shorter days and less sun exposure, and can result in symptoms shared in common with anxiety, such as sleep problems, difficulty concentrating, changes in appetite or weight, agitation, and social withdrawal/isolation.”
While I had an inkling that annual fall anxiety, was much more than just heightened stress and trouble sleeping linked to new responsibilities at work and the changing of the weather, I had no idea how many people were experiencing it or what they were doing to get a handle on it. Dr. Mascardo, who specializes in anxiety, shared that fall is a particularly busy time for the mental health profession in general, describing it as its own sort of “new year” and because of this, she does see an increase of people reaching out for help around September.
“While professionals in the mental health field don’t necessarily use the term ‘fall anxiety’ (because it’s not currently a diagnosable or well-researched condition, to my knowledge), there are certainly many people whose symptoms and timing would be consistent with the concept of experiencing anxiety that tends to creep up in the fall,” says Dr. Mascardo.
With this definition and explanation, it seems like everyone may have their own varying personal cases of annual fall anxiety – but I wanted to get a better understanding of where the anxiety itself comes from.
The experience of anxiety itself is connected to a part of our brain that is called the amygdala. Dr. Mascardo described this part of our brain as the “smoke detector” – AKA the chunk that let’s us know if there’s a “perceived threat.” “The key word [is] perceived. When anxiety becomes a problem it’s typically because the amygdala is thrown off and starts telling us there’s a problem when there really isn’t one,” says Dr. Mascardo.
Dr. Mascardo described this as burning popcorn or toast. For instance, I recently exploded two Eggo waffles in the microwave – legitimately ruining the microwave and setting off the fire alarm (note to readers: you’re not supposed to cook Eggos in the microwave). But the Eggos didn’t actually catch on fire – that is what anxiety is like: knowing there really is no fire but the alarm still goes off without any real danger in sight.
“Overcoming any type of anxiety means trying out different coping mechanisms that help retrain our brain to know when it’s appropriate to sound the alarm,” Dr. Mascardo states. So how do you deal with those feelings of unexplained anxiety and anticipation that tend to creep up in the fall? How can we ‘sound the alarm’ during the changing of the seasons”?
Dr. Mascardo shared eight proven strategies below, pulled from her blog to help beat your annual fall anxiety.
Burn, Baby, Burn
(Cortisol, that is!) Stress hormones were designed to help us survive by increasing our respiration, heart rate, and pupil dilation so we could escape threat quickly. These are GREAT things when you’re trying to run away from something dangerous, but it’s really NOT helpful if you’re just trying to live your everyday life. When you have excess stress and anxiety, it can help to expel energy and burn off cortisol by doing things that increase your heart rate and respiration, of course. Running, swimming, or even jumping around crunching the autumn leaves are all great ways to burn off that excess stress hormone hanging out in your body. Any form of cardiovascular activity can do the trick! Try for at least 20 minutes to start.
Mindfulness aka meditation is an empirically (that means scientifically) proven method for helping keep anxious thoughts at bay. This helps for many reasons. First, most people with anxiety tend to have shallow (not deep) breathing, which restricts oxygen to your brain and reduces your brain’s ability to perform all it needs to do to be healthy, including getting rid of cortisol, the stress hormone associated with some of the symptoms of anxiety.
Secondly, mindfulness allows us to compartmentalize our worries and experience a sense of control over our thoughts. When we realize we can control our thinking and that it doesn’t control us, it’s a powerful thing! The trick to doing this effectively is to practice, daily. I recommend at least 10 minutes of mindfulness a day. You can try apps like Headspace and Calm to guide you through it, or one of the thousands of meditation and mindfulness videos on YouTube. It may not change your life in the first session, but be patient — people often experience some relief or improvement immediately, and the more they practice, usually the better the results.
Get Some Sun
There are a lot of benefits to getting out in the sun — Vitamin D elevates our mood and has been linked to all sorts of good health benefits. The trick is, you have to have relatively direct sunlight on your skin to receive the benefit — glass windows tend to block the goodness that we need from Vitamin D. (Of course, I’d advise people with skin issues to consult with their medical professional first.) Some experts suggest that getting early morning sun — before 11 am ideally — is best. The shorter fall days mean that it might require a bit more effort to get direct sunlight, but it’s well worth it. Most people are Vitamin D deficient and can benefit from adding in a reasonable dose of sunshine.
Sleep is important, and I know that you know this. But the reason it’s SO helpful for combating anxiety is that it allows your brain to get the restoration it needs to fend off stressful thoughts! Most people make common mistakes with sleep — they don’t sleep enough or go to bed too late, they don’t sleep in a consistent fashion, or they just don’t make it a priority. Not sleeping enough and trying to fight off anxiety is like preparing for a triathlon by eating donuts. Now I love donuts, but if I’m trying to run a marathon, then eating them just doesn’t make sense and it’s NOT helpful.
With sleep, consistency is key. Napping during the day is not an effective way to make up for inconsistent or poor sleep in the evening. Make a sleep hygiene plan that includes identifying the same time every day to wake up and to go to sleep, a “going to bed routine” such as dimming the lights and putting lavender essential oil in the diffuser, getting OFF your phone, and removing extraneous lights (especially sources of blue light) in your bedroom (from things like your phone, TV, etc.). If you’re not familiar with blue light, Google it, and then AVOID it several hours before bed. Take sleep as seriously as you would taking medicine. If you do, you may help prevent the need to take meds in the future.
Feel free to check out the importance of sleep here, too.
Laugh and Practice Gratitude
Both laughter and writing gratitude lists has been shown in studies to reduce cortisol. It’s nearly impossible for the brain to experience feelings of gratitude and anxiety at the same time, thanks to a little phenomenon called cognitive dissonance, which basically means that the brain struggles to hold onto two opposing thoughts or feelings at the same time. Haven’t laughed in a while? Go to a comedy club, or be with people whom you enjoy. (See, fighting off anxiety can be FUN, too!)
What’s a good strategy for writing a gratitude list? Set aside 5-10 minutes a day where you write down 3-5 things (no matter how big or small) that you’re grateful for. Try to make them different each day.
You Are What You Eat
Caffeine can make anxiety worse. So can sugar. These substances mess with your body’s natural regulating systems and can lead to mood swings, irritability, heart palpitations, and difficulties sleeping. So, try staying away from the Pumpkin Spice Lattes and Halloween candy this fall and instead, replace with a healthier alternative with less sugar. The cleaner you eat (minimizing carbs, sugar, and caffeine) the better (and less anxious) you are likely to feel. Most of us (thanks to the average American diet) are relatively addicted to carbs and sugar, which can make our brain sad and anxious. Don’t believe me? Try giving up one of these things for a week or two and see how you feel! You may initially experience a bit of withdrawal and irritability, but soon thereafter I bet you’ll be feeling like a million bucks. (PS — If you’re recalling the fact that I JUST said I’m grateful for Portuguese bread, hey, don’t judge! Psychologists like carbs too. This one happens to like them a little too much.)
Feel free to check out how this reader cut out sugar for a week.
Get a Checkup
It can be helpful to confirm with your doctor that your anxiety isn’t related to something physical. The change in seasons brings about weather changes that can impact the presence of allergens such as pollen. If in doubt, getting a checkup and running your concerns by your doctor who can check for allergies (or other physical concerns) is a good move.
Seeing a good therapist is an effective way to help you beat your anxiety because you’ll have someone experienced in your corner. If I break my leg, I don’t second-guess that I’m supposed to go to the doctor. When we experience anxiety, we shouldn’t hesitate to go to a therapist. If there’s help just a phone call away, why make things harder on yourself by trying to be a lone wolf? C’mon, you’re smarter than that! Get the help. If you are unable to seek therapy for whatever reason, consider finding a support group online, share your struggles with a trusted friend, or find a good book on anxiety to help you get informed (I LOVE Mind Over Mood by Greenberger and Padesky) and stop putting so much pressure on yourself to know everything! Professional psychologists like myself spend years in school and thousands of hours learning our craft so that you don’t have to struggle more than you have to when you need help.
If you feel you are experiencing that annual fall anxiety, take some time to take care of yourself and work into your routine some of Dr. Marscados insights. It’s also important to try to learn and understand your fall triggers. Realizing what is bringing on your anxiety and reflecting on what is going on is essential to dealing with it head-on. Dr. Marscado even said that once you learn what they are, write about and try to understand these triggers to try to give them a new meaning so you can walk into fall shedding your stress like the trees shedding their leaves.
Feature image via Stocksy