The autumn season is bookended by the carefree warmth of summer and the looming stress of the holiday season. The fall colors, cooler temps, and pumpkin-spice everything are hallmarks of this transition that many people look forward to with anticipation. But for others, this shift in the seasons can also trigger stress and anxiety. This is called ‘autumn anxiety’.

We traditionally think of January and February for the onset of the ‘winter blues’, but it can begin as early as autumn. The reasons for higher levels of anxiety and a low or depressed mood aren’t always obvious, which can make it more challenging to identify and treat.

As the days get shorter, you may feel a little down, but you’re not sure why. Are you eating when you’re not hungry, and want to go to bed at 8pm (because it’s dark and it feels like midnight)? If this sounds familiar, there is an explanation for how you are feeling.

Shorter days, less sunlight, lower serotonin

As the hours of daily sunlight exposure decline, so does the serotonin in our bodies, which is a hormone directly tied to regulating mood and emotions. When sunlight enters our eyes, it stimulates the retina that then cues the brain to produce serotonin.  Without enough sunlight, our brains don’t receive the signals needed to produce enough serotonin, which affects how we feel throughout the day.

Serotonin also impacts our appetite by regulating our cravings and desire to eat. Higher serotonin means we feel more satisfied and are less likely to snack. So the darker days and lower serotonin means we may eat, snack, and crave food even when we aren’t hungry.

Longer nights, darker days, increased melatonin

Melatonin is a hormone related to sleep. How and when our brain releases this hormone is connected to the time of day. When it’s dark out, your brain thinks it’s time to go to sleep, which is why we feel sleepier earlier in the cooler months than when the sun is up longer. It’s more challenging to get out of bed in the winter when it’s still dark outside because your body’s circadian rhythm of secreting melatonin has shifted.

Vitamin D deficiency

Similar to serotonin, Vitamin D is acquired through direct sunlight, so less sunlight means less of another component important in regulating mood and reducing the risk of depression. Vitamin D isn’t found in many foods, so it’s even more challenging to get the necessary amount. In addition to fatigue and forgetfulness, Vitamin D deficiencies can cause feelings of sadness or hopelessness.

Transitional season stress

Many people feel anxious or stressed anytime there is a large transition in their life. Shifting from summer to fall can be overwhelming for various reasons. Summer is ending, and if you had a terrific summer you may be feeling some sadness that it’s over. If you didn’t accomplish summer goals you set for yourself or fit in all the trips you wanted to take, you could be feeling some regret. These are both valid reasons for elevated anxiety.

Anxiety is also common this time of year for children and adults who are starting a new school year or returning to a more traditional work schedule. Getting comfortable with a new routine can be stressful and it may take time to get used to it.

Are you ready for the holidays yet?

It seems the holiday season starts earlier every year. We all feel the pressure to purchase gifts, host and attend social gatherings, decorate, bake cookies, send holiday cards... the list is endless! Once the season shifts, we begin to think about the holidays and all the stress that can come with it, hence another reason autumn anxiety can set in.

How to alleviate autumn anxiety

Spend as much time in the sunlight as you can. Yes, this is challenging given the shortened daylight, but it will make a big difference. Lamps that simulate sunlight are available and can replicate some of what we miss this time of year.

Make time for exercise. It’s no secret that exercise and movement go a long way to relieving stress and anxiety. Take advantage of the cooler temperatures to exercise outdoors (you’ll also get more sunlight!), then move your workout indoors when it gets too cold.

Clean up your diet. Autumn is a great time to re-evaluate what you are eating. There is a plethora of delicious fall produce available that provides the vitamins and nutrients your body and mind need to feel and function at optimal levels. Plus, who doesn’t love the opportunity to break out the crockpot for some yummy soup?

Talk to your doctor. You should always speak with your healthcare provider if you are feeling overly anxious, stressed, or just out of sorts. They will be able to determine if any kind of medical intervention is necessary.

Haley Scellick is a board-certified Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioner at Empowered Health Institute, a precision medicine clinic located in the Parkway in Richland. She has a wide berth of nursing experience that includes neurosurgery and orthopedics. She completed her Master’s of Science in Nursing at Gonzaga University and also has a Bachelor’s of Arts in Biology from Central Washington University.

Haley is passionate about treating each patient holistically and has pursued health and wellness in her own personal life. She is an avid outdoor enthusiast and has completed two marathons and the Seattle to Portland (STP) Bike Ride. Her hobbies also include spending time with her family, crafts and reading.