For many people, autumn is a magical time full of cozy, candle-lit nights and pumpkin-flavored-everything. Personally, I think autumn is the best season ever — it means I get to start wearing leggings as pants again, sport flannel shirts on the regular, eat delicious soups, and go trick-or-treating with my nieces. But for many other anxious, Highly Sensitive Persons (HSPs) like me — and also for the estimated 10 million people who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) — the numerous seasonal and lifestyle changes that accompany fall can cause something called "autumn anxiety."
Though the term “autumn anxiety” is relatively new, (it was coined by a Welsh therapist named Gene Scully back in 2005), seasonal anxiety is definitely not a new thing. Even for people who don’t deal with anxiety disorders, SAD, or the many challenges of being an HSP, the first few weeks of fall can trigger feelings of nervousness. The thing is, no matter who you are, autumn is typically full of changes. With fall comes new class schedules, new jobs, new social commitments, shorter days, cooler weather, a tendency to nest, and less free time in general — so it’s really not surprising that so many people get anxious in the fall.
Fortunately, though, managing this seasonal health phenomenon gets a lot easier if you know what causes autumn anxiety in the first place.
Decreased exposure to sunlight is one of the biggest reasons so many people suffer from both anxiety and depression in the fall and winter. As the days get shorter, the majority of us spend less time out and about in direct sunlight, and that can translate into a vitamin D deficiency. Since literally every tissue in our bodies has vitamin D receptors, and numerous studies have linked vitamin D deficiencies to anxiety and depression, it's really not surprising that even anticipating fewer daylight hours can result in increased anxiety for so many people. Fortunately, taking vitamin D supplements can be an effective way to combat this.
Going Back To School
The start of a new school year can trigger autumn anxiety for many people, and it makes perfect sense. Even if you (like myself) always enjoyed going back to school in the fall, the fact is, school is stressful sometimes. On top of that, it's not exactly easy to switch gears from the chill vibes of summer to the hustle of a fall semester. So when you add the responsibility of maintaining a new course load (whether they're your courses or your kid's) on top of the changing weather and shorter days that accompany fall, that's just a whole lot of newness to deal with at once.
Reasonably, change of that magnitude is hard for a lot of people to deal with — especially people who are already prone to anxiety. As Therese Borchard put it for Everyday Health, "Autumn is full of new things: new schedules, new jobs, new schools, new assignments. It’s no wonder why some of us experience heart palpitations trying to process it all."
A 2009 study in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that the process a person goes through when they're fighting off an infection looks the same as when that person is depressed or manic. Other studies have found that changes in allergy symptoms during low and high pollen seasons correlate with higher anxiety and depression scores. This most likely happens because allergies attack the immune system, and the body responds by pumping cytokines (proteins that signal inflammation to our cells) through the blood stream. Understandably, if your body starts freaking out as soon as fall rolls around, your mind is probably going to follow suit. So if you suffer from both fall allergies and autumn anxiety, know that treating your allergies should help you treat your anxiety as well.
I know that developing and sticking to an exercise regimen can be difficult, but it's absolutely necessary for anyone suffering from anxiety — and people who deal with seasonal anxiety are no exception to this rule. Unfortunately, though, it can be even harder than normal to get enough exercise in the fall for a number of reasons. If you prefer to take your workout outdoors, fall can be challenging because it offers fewer daylight hours for walkers and runners. Even if you're more of a gym-rat than the outdoorsy type, though, exercising in the fall can still be challenging, depending on your schedule.
All of that said, if you struggle with autumn anxiety, it's imperative that you don't neglect your exercise routine when autumn rolls around. You need those endorphins now more than ever — and you don't need to work out super hard to get them, either. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, "Psychologists studying how exercise relieves anxiety and depression suggest that a 10-minute walk may be just as good as a 45-minute workout."
Taking On Too Many New Responsibilities
Trying new things is literally good for our brains, and I can tell you from experience that maintaining an active social life (even if you're not an extrovert) can work wonders for anxious people. That said, the last thing someone battling anxiety needs to deal with is an excessively busy schedule — which can be challenging, since many people go into a"productive mode" in the fall.
If autumn anxiety is a reality for you, signing up for every new book club, cooking class, volunteer gig, fundraising event, and side job out there is not going to do your mental health any favors. You have to leave enough free time for self care, exercise, rest, and relationships. Yes, it's important for anyone suffering from anxiety to have an outlet for all that nervous energy. And yes, it's crucial not to overdo it on alone time and only nest — but it's equally important to know and respect your limitations as an anxious person. Seriously, your physical and mental health could depend on it.