With Labor Day weekend comes the unofficial end of summer and the start of the back-to-school, back-to-the-grindstone season. For some, that shift brings happy thoughts of new projects, colorful leaves, and pumpkin spice everything. But for others, the approach of cooler weather and longer days ushers in feelings of panic and anxiety.
Psychologists call this phenomenon "autumn anxiety" and if you're a sufferer, they offer both explanations and suggestions for dealing with your unpleasant feelings.
Why autumn is an anxious time for many people.
Clocks may tick steadily through the hours and days, but humans don't work that way. Measured time may be steady, but our mood and energy levels vary throughout the day and season to season.
That's a truth that you can use to maximize your productivity, but sometimes our rising and falling moods are a much less positive experience. Those who greet the end of summer with a sense of foreboding and gloom will know what I'm talking about. This time of year, a significant portion of the population experiences a cluster of symptoms--including sleep problems, low mood, fatigue, and anxious thoughts--that have been dubbed autumn anxiety.
Why does the cooling weather cause such worry and unhappiness for some? A cluster of factors may be involved. At its simplest, autumn anxiety can just mean you're bummed out about the end of the sunny, vacation-filled summer period.
For others, lifestyle factors play a large role. I know I personally feel grim when my daughter goes back to school and I need to start getting up in the dark at 6 a.m. again. If work is a stressor for you, returning to a busier, more professionally focused time of year can be a source of anxiety.
But there are also larger cultural and biological factors at play. In much of the western world, at least a dozen years of schooling trains us to associate September with transitions and new beginnings. For some, that makes this an energizing time of year filled with new possibilities. But for those who struggled at school or who generally find change challenging, it can induce anxiety.
"This is a phenomenon that occurs usually around anniversaries of events," psychologist Patricia Thornton explained to Healthline. "Sometimes it's just a remembrance of a feeling around the time of the anniversary that can invoke feelings, and you might be unaware why you are feeling anxious or depressed. There is a body awareness and unconscious awareness that, 'Oh, this is generally a tough time, so I'm going to have a tough time again.'"
Finally, there are physiological reasons the return of darker, colder months can cause a dip in mood. For those who suffer with SAD (seasonal affective disorder), the end of summer is a reminder of likely struggles to come. But even if winter doesn't make you clinically depressed, the shorter days are still likely to affect your brain chemistry.
"When days become shorter, and we are exposed to less and less daylight, our levels of ... critical neurotransmitters drop," notes professor and therapist Jennifer King in a long Medium post outlining the effects of autumn anxiety on our brains and bodies.
How to fight your fall freakout
The list of potential causes for autumn anxiety may be long, but thankfully so is the list of simple but effective methods to fight it. All the usual mood boosters can be effective, according to the experts, including:
Exercise. As one Harvard researcher put it, "exercise is like taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin."
Spend more time in nature. "Lack of daylight is no joke. See about finding ways to sneak outside, even just for five to 10 minutes at a time, throughout your day," says King. Here are some ideas.
Try something new. "Beginning a new hobby, routine, or ritual in the fall can help you to reframe the changes as not necessarily being all bad," King also suggests. Research backs her up.
Rethink the season. Scandinavians experience some of the harshest winters but have comparatively low levels of SAD and seasonal mood issues. Why? Because these cultures view winter as a playground and a pleasure, not a trial. Getting excited about shoveling snow may be beyond many of us, but you can try to focus more on the fun and cozy aspects of the colder seasons.
Get professional help. If this time of year consistently makes you blue, talking through your feelings with a professional might help you untangle the personal roots of your autumn anxiety.
The first step to putting all of these into practice, though, is simply recognizing the seasonal pattern to your dip in mood. If you thought you were weird or unique in finding September a bit gloomy, know you're far from alone. This is a recognized pattern and, once you've identified it, there's plenty to do to fight it.