Autumn Anxiety Is Real, And Treatable

Many of my friends who battle anxiety say the first few weeks of autumn are especially difficult for them.
Dorling Kindersley via Getty Images

It happens every year. As I watch the first golden leaves fall from the oak tree outside our house and listen to the sound of the cicadas ushering in autumn, my anxiety spikes. I used to think I was relapsing into depression, but having been through this year after year (and documenting it in my mood journal), I now know I’m just going through my annual bout of autumn anxiety: a nervous feeling in my gut that begins the last week of August and continues through the first weeks of September.

I’m hardly alone. Many of my friends who battle anxiety — and even those that don’t have a mood disorder — say the first few weeks of autumn are especially difficult for them. Ginny Scully, a therapist in Wales, sees so many clients with feelings of anticipation and nervousness during the last week of August through the first weeks of September that she coined the term “autumn anxiety.” Highly sensitive persons (HSPs), as defined by Elaine Aron, PhD, in The Highly Sensitive Person, are especially prone to anxiety during the fall because any kind of shift can throw off their fragile neurological systems — and the seasonal changes of autumn and anxiety are most dramatic. 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. Here are a few techniques I’m using this year to keep my anxiety in check during the season. May yours be as calm as possible, too!

1. Reign In Your Inner Marsha

Remember that Brady Bunch episode where Marsha signs up for every activity possible, from scuba diving to cheerleading? Every autumn, many of us fight an inner Marsha who wants to volunteer our time to anyone who asks — or doesn’t. Something about the season screams: “Sign up! Sign up! This is your LAST chance to do something worthwhile with your life!” Next thing we know, we’re the assistant coach for two rec leagues, spearheading fundraisers across town, and running ourselves ragged. I know my temptation in this regard. Last September, I designed seven programs I wanted to implement as part of a new foundation I was forming to raise awareness for treatment-resistant depression. I caught “fall fever” in a bad way and forget about my limitations as a person who struggles with chronic illness herself. This year, I’m doing the opposite: I’m eliminating every possible stressor or responsibility from my calendar that I can. As I recently wrote in another post, I’ve embraced my second-half self and am not feeling the need to prove myself like I have in the past with stuff that ultimately isn’t that important.

2. Choose a Stress-less Challenge

Don’t get me wrong, trying new things IS good for your brain. A little novelty builds new synapses in our brains and makes us smarter and happier, apparently. But Marsha-prone people like me need to be reminded that you can choose to challenge your brain with activities that decrease stress versus increase stress. Instead of committing to write another article a week for a new website, or collaborate on a book with someone, or organize some hectic fundraiser this season, I’ve decided to use my extra time to go do a Bikram (hot) yoga 30-day challenge and to learn how to cook meals full of nutrients that will help my depression and anxiety. Just a few years ago, I didn’t even know how to boil water, so this should be plenty challenging — but not in a stressful way.

3. Be Mindful of Allergies

Autumn, much like spring, is filled with allergies for many people, which can definitely contribute to anxiety and depression. Just knowing this, I think, can help calm you down, because you can tell your spouse there is a biological explanation for your freak-outs. Your immune system is under attack, and cytokines — proteins that signal inflammation to our cells — are pumped into our blood stream. According to a 2009 study in the Journal of Affective Disorders, the process when a person is fighting off an infection looks the same as when he or she is depressed or manic. Studies have shown that changes in allergy symptoms during low- and high-pollen seasons have corresponded to increases in depression and anxiety scores. Some experts say this could even explain the spike in suicides during spring every year.

4. Remember to Breathe

This is the easiest technique, and the one I use the most in September: right before “back to school night,” at any kind of orientation (the word “orientation” even provokes anxiety), and on my way to my kids’ sports events (when did everything get so competitive?). I’m usually driving, so all I do is inhale to a count of five, hold my breath for five, exhale to a count of five, and hold my breath for five. Practicing yoga on a more regular basis has definitely made me more conscious of my breathing and how often I’m panting from my chest — using rapid, shallow breaths — which primes my sympathetic nervous system to send a blast communication to my organs, including my brain, that all is not right and we should prepare for danger. When I can shift to my diaphragm with some long, deep breaths, I engage the parasympathetic nervous system to send the next message: “never mind.” Other techniques to calm down are found in my post 10 Instant Ways to Calm Down.

5. Load Up on Vitamin D and Magnesium

Early September is a good time to load up on vitamin D, as your exposure to sunlight gradually diminishes after June 21 — already two and half months ago! “Every tissue in the body has vitamin D receptors, including the brain, heart, muscles, and immune system, which means vitamin D is needed at every level for the body to function,” writes James M. Greenblatt, MD, an integrative psychiatrist, in his Psychology Today blog. Many studies link vitamin D deficiencies to depression and anxiety, so that’s always the first vitamin (it’s actually a hormone) I restock when I get panicky.

Magnesium is also a great calming mineral that sustains and nurtures the central nervous system, helping to reduce anxiety, panic, and nervousness. A study published inNeuropharmacology found that magnesium deficiency induces anxiety and interferes with the functions of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis), which is critical to mood and stress regulation. Dark, leafy greens like spinach, kale, and chard are excellent sources of magnesium. I drink a kale and pineapple smoothie in the morning. Nuts and seeds are also high in magnesium — especially sesame seeds, Brazil nuts, almonds, and cashews — as well as beans and lentils. And dark chocolate has a ton of magnesium, but watch out for the sugar.

Autumn Anxiety Is Real, And Treatable was originally published on Everyday Health.

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