It’s summertime, and the livin’ is easy, right? Not necessarily.
If you find the back-to-school blues affecting you this month — despite no school to go back to and no life changes since June or July — you’re not alone. There’s evidence that the return of chillier weather, including shorter days as we edge toward winter — can raise anxiety levels among adults and school-age children alike.
What is “Autumn Anxiety?”
Ginny Scully, a therapist in Wales, has named the phenomenon “autumn anxiety” after seeing so many clients with feelings of anticipation and nervousness during the last week of August through the first weeks of September. Although it’s not an officially diagnosable condition the way seasonal affective disorder (SAD), or clinical depression with a seasonal onset is, Scully says this is much more than a coincidence and beyond the usual feelings that people have when the seasons change.
If you’re a summer hater, you’re antsy to be done with it and move on already. If you’re a summer lover, you’re probably feeling some panic about it coming to an end. In both cases there is likely guilt over not having done enough with the time, after all what season comes with more pressure to “make the most of it” than summer?
It makes sense, 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.
How Autumn Anxiety is Similar to SAD
Autumn anxiety can feel like the Sunday night blues (a.k.a the “Sunday scaries”), but for an entire month. It’s also similar to SAD but has a different effect. According to Stephen Ferrando, director of psychiatry at Westchester Medical Center, the experience of seasonal depression in the summertime is more of an agitated and anxious depressive state.
On the other hand, those who experience seasonal depression in the winter are more likely to fall into a vegetative depressive state. Seasonal mood changes that don’t meet the SAD criteria are considered “subclinical” — insufficiently severe and/or consistent to merit diagnosis.
How to Beat Autumn Anxiety
If these autumn anxiety symptoms sound familiar, here are a few tips for taking back your month.
1. Go outside
This type of anxiety can make you want to hibernate and lock yourself indoors. Spending time outdoors and in nature combats this desire, and restores mood and energy levels.
While outside, focus on your breathing. Deep breathing isn’t always the best tool for an anxiety attack, but it is a good tool for high stress or high anxiety. Taking deep, diaphragmatic breaths has a soothing effect on your body.
2. Be mindful of allergies
Autumn, much like spring, is difficult for those who are allergy-prone, which can definitely contribute to anxiety and depression. Exploring antihistamines or other allergy remedies with your primary care physician can lead to a calmer nervous system.
3. Get sleep
Long sunlit days can mean you get up earlier and stay up later — a recipe for sleep deprivation. Your body releases more of the stress hormone cortisol when you’re sleep-deprived, which can contribute to emotional sensitivity.
4. Take it easy
Give yourself a bit of a break. August doesn’t need to be all about preparation. This is the time to rest up while you still can. Stay organized, but know that this is a transitional month, and that means taking it slow.
Intersperse higher-octane activities with lower-key ones. Leave time to wind down every night and limit caffeine, electronics, and distractions; focus on calming the noise inside and outside of your body.
5. Get some light
If your summer has been particularly rainy and dark — or so hot you’ve closed all of the curtains and closeted yourself in an air-conditioned cocoon — that could be making you anxious, especially if you’re prone to winter-onset SAD.
Light therapy boxes can offer an effective treatment in this case. A light therapy box mimics outdoor light. Researchers believe this type of light causes a chemical change in the brain that lifts your mood and eases other anxiety and depression symptoms.
6. Seek help
Despite not being categorized as a formal disorder, the August blues are something to monitor and take care of. When an inability to focus on a task affects your ability to function at work, at home, or in your relationships, it is time to seek help. Even if seasonal anxiety is something you’ve always had, it is something that is treatable.
Self-compassion Goes a Long Way
Summer often feels like a time of optimism — months on end where the sun is shining, the weather is warm, and there’s always ample amounts of ice cream — but it’s important to remember that it’s OK to feel the autumn anxiety.
Treating yourself kindly during this strange and stressful time will likely go a long way towards helping you feel a bit better.