Autumn Anxiety – What Is It and How To Rise Above It

Autumn Anxiety – What Is It and How To Rise Above It

The arrival of the fall season brings dreams of pumpkin spice lattes, autumn-inspired date ideas, and the upcoming holidays. But the turn in seasons also marks another important change. Every year at about this time, a significant number of people feel an increase in anxiety due to the autumn months. 

Autumn anxiety is a real condition. First coined by Gillian Scully, a thought field therapist, in 2005, autumn anxiety refers to the feelings of anxiousness that are suddenly present as summer transitions to fall. Patients commonly complain of a heightened sense of anticipation without knowing exactly what they were looking forward to. Psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron called these patients highly sensitive persons (HSPs). HSPs have “increased central nervous system sensitivity to physical, emotional, or social stimuli” and seem to feel seasonal shifts more acutely than non-HSPs. Dr. Aron’s work proposed that up to 20% of the general population are highly sensitive.

There are several triggers for autumn anxiety. And knowing these triggers may help you deal with the fallout better.

Shorter days

Fallen leaves
We get over 12 hours of daytime in the summer, but less than 12 hours of daytime in the fall. As the days get shorter, we spend less time outside in direct sunlight. Less sunlight leads to lower levels of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, which are the happy chemicals that control emotion. Decreased sunlight exposure can also translate into vitamin D deficiency. A vitamin D deficiency presents the same symptoms as depression, such as mood changes, feelings of hopelessness and sadness, and a general disinterest in life. Interestingly, vitamin D supplementation has been proven to reduce anxiety and negative emotions.

Exercising less

Exercise is a natural and effective anti-anxiety treatment. In fact, exercise has been proven to relieve stress and tension in the body and enhance your mental and physical well-being.

Unfortunately, the change in seasons makes it harder to stick to an exercise regimen. The shorter days offer fewer daylight hours for walkers and joggers. The colder weather also makes exercising outdoors difficult for those who prefer working out with a great view.

Going back to school

Two girls studying outside together
The start of a school year can trigger anxiety in a lot of people. For one, transitioning from the slow, lazy days of summer to the hustle of the fall semester can be strenuous. All of a sudden, mornings are filled with the frantic rush to make it to the first period (whether it’s yours or your kid’s). Class itself may be stressful, much more a full day’s worth. And when taken with the changing weather and shorter days, it can be a lot to process.

Taking on too many responsibilities

The holiday season is notorious for being jam-packed with events – from holidays to dinner parties with all of your family’s in-laws. As these invites come around, you may feel pressured to say yes to each one. But an overpacked schedule can lead to feelings of anxiety. Add all those yes-es to the new book club you just joined, the fall dates you have planned, and your full-time job, and you have the recipe for social and emotional claustrophobia.

Seasonal allergies

Girl wrapped in a blanket and blowing her nose

A 2008 study identified a link between seasonal allergies and anxiety. This link has consistently shown up in real-world settings. Dr. Maya Nanda, a pediatrician in the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, noticed that kids with severe allergies seemed to have higher rates of anxiety and depression. In one particular patient, shortness of breath was actually a symptom of a panic attack instead of asthma, as was previously believed. Dr. Nanda eventually published a study that showed that kids with seasonal allergies were three times more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety. 

Allergies and anxiety present similarly because they both attack our immune system. When our body is exposed to an allergen, it starts pumping cytokines, which are proteins that incite inflammation. These cytokines stress the body. And when the body is stressed, so is the mind.

Some people experience a more severe form of autumn anxiety called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is listed in the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders as Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern. People with SAD have depressed moods, always feel tired despite too much sleep, and usually present with some amount of weight gain. SAD is more common among women and can last about 40% of the year. 

If autumn anxiety or SAD is keeping you from working, sleeping, or is interrupting your schedule, it is best to talk to your doctor. Otherwise, here are some proven techniques to combat a severe case of fall sadness:

Light therapy

Light therapy involves sitting in front of a light therapy box for at least 20 minutes a day and is best done first thing in the morning. A light therapy box provides 10,000 lux of energy (lux is a measure of light intensity), which is 100x brighter than usual indoor lighting. In comparison, a day in the sun provides 50,000 lux or more. And while light boxes are not FDA tested, approved, or regulated, they seem to have strong benefits and little harm in fighting autumn anxiety and SAD.

Alternatively, get as much time outside in the sun as you can before winter arrives fully. Have breakfast on your patio; walk your dog through the fall foliage; go for a jog at sunset.

Take care of your health

Silhouette of a woman walking through a field

Take a vitamin D supplement. Vitamin D helps regulate the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body. These nutrients keep bones, teeth, and muscles like your heart healthy.

Load up on magnesium, the mineral responsible for sustaining and nurturing your central nervous system. A study published in Neuropharmacology suggested that magnesium deficiency can increase stress levels and induce anxiety, whereas magnesium supplementation has shown promise in improving anxiety, premenstrual dysphoria, depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.

Be mindful of your allergies. Avoid your allergens, where possible. Consult with your primary care physician for anti-allergy medication and take them as prescribed.

Exercise

Exercise has been proven to help alleviate anxiety in some people. It works by diverting your attention from the very things giving you anxiety. Moving also decreases muscle tension, which contributes to anxious states. Higher heart rates have been associated with improved brain function. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America suggests that a 10-minute walk may be just as good as a 45-minute workout. What’s better is that the effects of exercise are long-lasting. A single session can alleviate symptoms for hours. And a regular exercise schedule may significantly reduce anxiety over time.

If starting an exercise regimen seems hard, try working out with a friend or significant other. Exercising in a group will give you all the benefits of exercise and the added benefit of social support.

Honor your need for space

Woman taking a relaxing bath and reading a book

Most importantly, set firm boundaries to protect your energy and learn to say no when the experience does not benefit you. You do not have to attend every social function. Neither are you required to say yes to every family invitation. When necessary, you can choose to stay home and spend the night however you choose.

Similarly, learn to manage expectations. When you feel a bout of anxiety coming up, tell your friends and loved ones so they can also adjust to you. You never know, a quiet night in might be just what they need too.

The silver lining is that autumn anxiety typically only lasts a few weeks. While the holidays may be difficult for all sorts of reasons, it also marks the start of a fresh new year. Always remember to treat yourself kindly. Trust that the unease you feel will pass in the same way that fall turns into winter then into spring.

If you find yourself struggling, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Crisis Text Line is a great service that can connect you to a trained counselor via text through a secure platform. Contact the right number for your country below:

United States – Text HOME to 741741

Canada – Text HOME to 741741

United Kingdom – Text SHOUT to 85258

Ireland  – Text HOME to 50808

Patricia Ann Lee

Patricia Ann Lee

Patricia Lee is a writer from the Philippines, who appreciates a well-made laminated pastry. While she holds a day job as a physician, writing has always been her first love. She thinks of dating as a great exercise in communication.

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