Many of us are somewhat familiar with the astrological phenomenon known as Mercury retrograde periods, during which we're all more likely to hit unexpected traffic, send a text to the wrong group chat, or show up to the wrong bar for happy hour. If nothing else, most people know it as a good time to blame their troubles on astrology. But these infamous transits aren't just reserved for planet Mercury. All the planets in astrology (save for the sun and moon) have regularly-occurring retrograde periods — and each of them shake up our lives and teach us cosmic lessons in their own unique ways.
Retrogrades are one of the more dreaded of the common cosmic events. This is because planetary retrograde periods can bring all sorts of mix-ups, mishaps, and (sometimes unwelcome) blasts from the past, requiring us to slow down and reevaluate the paths we're on — something most of us resent being forced to do when we're just trying to live our lives. But in the name of keeping our enemies closer and understanding that which scares us, it's time to educate ourselves exactly what happens during a retrograde. Because really, what is a retrograde in astrology anyway, and how do they impact our lives?
How Do Retrogrades Work?
So, let's discuss what's literally going on when we say that a planet is retrograde. "The word retrograde comes from a Latin word retogradus, which means ‘backward step,'" astrologer Leslie Hale of Keen.com tells Bustle. "When a planet ‘goes retrograde,’ it appears to be going backward." This is why we sometimes call retrogrades a backspin.
We know that planets can't actually start moving backwards in their orbit all of a sudden — that's not how physics works. That said, the key word here is appears. "Astronomers call this [retrograde movement] an ‘apparent backward motion,’ because it is an illusion, and the planet is not actually moving backward," Hale says. It's simply a trick of eye that occurs from our vantage point here on earth when a planet's orbit aligns with ours in just the right way. It's similar to the way that when we're in a moving vehicle, a bus in the lane next to us might appear to move backwards momentarily when the speed and timing is just right.
How Often Do Retrogrades Happen?
Retrogrades are actually a very commonplace occurrence in astrology. And as mentioned earlier, it's not just Mercury that retrogrades (although that's certainly the most discussed of all the planetary backspins). "Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Neptune, Uranus and Saturn all retrograde," Hale says. "In fact, it is rare there is not a planet that is retrograde." In addition to these major planets, we also have Pluto retrograde — and the asteroids in astrology go through retrograde periods, too.
As is true for all things in nature, retrogrades happen in cycles, and it's different for each planet. For example, Mercury retrogrades occur about three to four times per year, and each of those periods lasts for about three weeks. That's pretty frequent compared to other planets' cycles, which is partly why this particular transit gets so much attention. But then Mars, on the other hand, only retrogrades every two years, and for about two months or so at a time — so each planet has its own retrograde pattern. There is reportedly at least one planetary retrograde happening about 80% of the time, according to Astrology.com, so we're rarely living without one.
The Astrological Meaning Of A Retrograde
Retrogrades in astronomy may refer to an optical illusion — but in astrology, the effects of these planetary transits are totally tangible. "In astrology, the retrograde is much deeper and more complex [than in astronomy]," Hale says. Just as each planet appears to stop and move backwards on its cosmic path during a retrograde, we're asked to do the same thing within our own lives. It's a time to press "pause" on our endeavors in the retrograding planet's jurisdiction, and slowly review the trajectory we've been on to check for errors and clean up our baggage.
"Retrogrades are periods of reassessment and redoing," Hale continues. "They frequently deal with the past — so things, situations, and even people from the past can re-appear." During retrogrades, any issues that we've tried to skate over is ripe to come back to the surface, forcing us to deal with them whether we'd like to or not. Even issues that we thought were already dealt with and packed away (or information and feelings surrounding them) could bubble up again in some way, requiring us to come to new resolutions.
Hale also notes that retrogrades are "connected with karmic events in life," so we may find that the universe does a little bit of the path-adjustments for us. This is why we have a tendency to hit road blocks on projects, run into issues within relationships, or face personal crises and confusion (depending on the planet that's retrograde) during these periods — you can think of these struggles as the planets' way of nudging you toward doing the necessary retrograde work, rather than barreling forward without properly taking in these cosmic lessons.
What Does Each Retrograde Planet Mean For Us?
Each of the planets in astrology rules over a different part of our lives (you can read all about those meanings here), and it's within those parts of our life that we'll experience the retrograde-fueled effects during a given planet's backspin. So for example, Mercury is the planet of communication, timing, and technology — which is why Mercury retrograde periods are known for screwing with our schedules, confusing us communication-wise, and messing with our tech devices.
The same goes for each of the other major retrogrades. In the case of Venus retrograde (which is the planet of love and money), we'll often experience drama in our love life (like exes popping up in our DMs, or feeling confused about what we want from relationships), or may struggle to address issues around money (like revisiting our savings plans or having the urge to overspend).
Each planet's retrograde has something different to teach us, and offers us an opportunity to pause so we can review our decisions, assess where we're at, and make adjustments before moving forward again.
What's The Best Way To Survive A Retrograde Unscathed?
Contrary to popular belief, planetary retrogrades are not here to ruin our lives. While it's true that they can cause some confusion and standstills, it's all in the name of getting us to slow down and assess where we're at in life so we can make the necessary adjustments. "When a planet does retrograde, it is time for us to take a step back quite literally and look back at what the retrograding planet represents in our life. And it's time to polish that part of our life rather than moving forward," Hale says. "Even if it seems like nothing is going on underneath the surface [in that part of your life], there is likely a lot going on." In other words, retrogrades are a time for slowing down and doing some introspection.
These backspins are generally only a big problem if we refuse to slow our pace and do the work. Meaning that if we carry on with life as usual and refuse to address the things that surface, the planets will serve us the infamous retrograde snags. Of course, in our fast-paced and productivity-obsessed society, it can be difficult to press pause and take a breather. But if we're looking to align ourselves with the cosmos and facilitate some personal growth, then retrogrades are an ideal time to do just that.
Retroshade: The Lead Up & Come-Down Of The Retrograde
Last but not least, let's talk about preparing for a retrograde, and then re-adjusting after one. Because in addition to the retrograde itself (as if that wasn't enough!), every retrograde cycle also includes a pre- and post-retrograde shadow period — often called a retroshade for short, and referred to as stationary retrograde periods in astronomy. "Retrogrades have a ‘stationary retrograde period,’ beforehand where the energy begins to shift, and they have a ‘stationary direct period,’ where energy begins to shift again before things go back to normal," Hale says. These retrograde shadow periods occur when the planet is moving forward over the same portion of its orbit that it moves backward over during its actual retrograde. In the case of Mercury, for example, its retroshades last for about two weeks each before and after the retrograde itself.
During a pre-retrograde shadow period, we usually begin to feel the effects of the retrograde. It's a good time to start tying up loose ends in the areas of your life ruled by the soon-to-be-retrograding planet and start preparing yourself for the inward journey so you can avoid all the things you shouldn't do during a retrograde.
During the post-retrograde shadow period, on the other hand, it's a time to slowly transition back into normal life. The energy of the retrograde hasn't fully cleared, but it's beginning to move forward again — so we should take things slowly and make sure we're doing the personal work necessary to integrate the lessons retrogrades teach us.
There you have it: everything you've ever wanted to know about planetary retrogrades. Now that you know the deal, it's not that scary, right? In fact, if we put a positive spin on things, we can actually use the slowed-down energy of planetary retrogrades to our advantage, so long as we're willing to slow down and work on ourselves. Next time someone moans about an upcoming Mercury retrograde, let them know you've got the inside scoop — and that there's nothing to be afraid of.