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), now I 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 in The Highly Sensitive Person are especially prone to anxiety during the fall, because any kind of shift—and the seasonal changes of autumn and anxiety are most dramatic—can throw off their fragile neurological systems. 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, as well!
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 are 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 have 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. However, 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 have 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. Only a few years ago, I didn’t 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, and this 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 study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, the process of when a person is fighting off an infection looks the same as when he or she is depressed or manic. Studies have shown 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 is gradually diminished after June 21, two and half months ago! “Every tissue in the body has vitamin D receptors,” writes James M. Greenblatt, M.D., an integrative psychiatrist, in his Psychology Today blog, “including the brain, heart, muscles, and immune system, which means vitamin D is needed at every level for the body to function.” 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 in Neuropharmacology found that magnesium deficiency induces anxiety and interferes with the functions of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis), 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, but watch out for the sugar.
Continue the conversation on ProjectBeyondBlue.com, the new depression community.
Originally published on Sanity Break.
Photo credit: David Epperson/Corbis
What a great post. No wonder I’m really messed up each end of August and all of September. Besides the anniversary of my major trauma breakdown being in September, I probably have been dealing with this.
When I was younger and going to school, each new school year I’d be sick in the bathroom for at least the first month. Now that I’m older, I dread the dark, cold winter.
Funny, I love the Fall Season with the crisp cool air (great for hot flashes), fall foliage, but now I better understand the increased anxiety and mini-“breakdowns” I have during this time. Dang!
P.S. With my hot flashes I’d probably be dead in a hot yoga class. I wonder if there’s a Polar Yoga class, LOL. In any case, enjoy. : )
Thanks, Dawn Marie. Courage to you this fall and winter!! 🙂
I came across an post on my Facebook page on how to leave a simple life. Well once I started to read I became more interested. I’m 49 yrs old and I’ve been going through depression and anxiety for many years. I sought help from my dr. Only to become addicted to anxiety meds. After years of taking anti anxiety meds and felt I needed to find another way. A natural way. A spiritual way. I’ve been off prescription medication for 11 months now and life is happening. It’s been happening I was just numb and now I’m feeling which is good but my anxiety levels are out of control at times. I need information on natural healing. Could you refer some good books ?-
Thank you very much for taking the time to reach out and tell your story. It’s helps to know I’m not alone and that depression and anxiety are real.
Hope to hear from you soon.
Hi Theresa, I’m sorry you are going through some anxiety. Since you are 49, a good book might be Sara Gottfried’s HORMONE CURE since she talks a lot about the anxiety we women get in our 40s as a result of perimenopause/menopause. She lists a lot of very good natural protocols that help with anxiety and hormones. The book that started me down a different road was Dr. Mark Hyman’s ULTRAMIND SOLUTION. I find his advice to be very sound and it seems to have worked for me. Dr. James Gordon offers a more spiritual perspective in UNSTUCK. I hated the book when it first came out, but am rereading it and appreciate some of the self-care treatments he gives. Hopefully those will be good to start with. Good luck. And much peace, Therese
Thanks so much for this timely post. I’d like to increase my magnesium but I’m worried about an embarrassing and bothersome side effect: diarrhea. I’ve taken magnesium citrate supplements in the past and it definitely helped keep my anxiety to slow setting but it sent me to the bathroom. Any suggestions out there?
One of the best sources of magnesium is dark chocolate or cocoa powder. I eat four squares of Lindt 90% dark chocolate a day (a serving) and it seems to calm me down. Putting cocoa powder in a smoothie or a drink is another way of getting it. Taking a bath with epson salt is another way of getting magnesium in a way that probably won’t upset your stomach. Good luck! Therese
Here’s an article with more foods with magnesium: http://www.healthaliciousness.com/articles/foods-high-in-magnesium.php
Therese, that was a very helpful list on Magnesium. Thanks.
I’m going to alternate my use of Magnesium Oil with the foods. I currently use the Ancient Minerals brand and find it helpful, but sometimes forget to put it on.