“Why are you walking so slow?”
“Don’t you want to see all of your friends?”
The voice that floated up to my bedroom window was sugary and a bit sing-song-like, but not in a good way. The words sounded tight and clipped, as if they were spoken through clenched teeth — kind of like when you are trying to be really, really nice to someone you really, really don’t like.
I was on the third floor of my house, coaxing my puppy and his slimy rawhide bone off of my bed. He had been perched on the edge of the mattress for about an hour with the dingy bone hanging out of one side of his mouth like a limp cigar, as he curiously looked out the window at the steady stream of fresh-faced children and their parents making their way to the elementary school just down the street for the first day back at school.
The voice seemed to startle him a bit — he leapt off of the bed and pressed his wet nose on the glass trying to look down to see where the sound was coming from. Below us on the sidewalk was a woman who looked to be in her thirties sitting on the curb, her head back as she emptied whatever was left in a large Starbucks cup into her mouth. Her blonde hair was in a messy ponytail that sat a little to the right of centre, at her feet was a stuffed pink sparkly backpack in the shape of a unicorn. The fuzzy horn that stuck out from the top had flopped over, weighed down by the two blue face masks that were tied around it.
Behind her, in my garden, a boy with curly blond hair — maybe six years old — was squatting beside a small plastic black cat garden ornament that was buried under a yellow rose bush — a forgotten remnant of last year’s Halloween. He had picked it up to show her, but her back was to him as she rested her chin on her hands, watching other parents pass by across the street.
“Hey Kathy, you given up already?” A tall shiny bald guy wearing tight black bike shorts and a green mesh t-shirt had stopped across the street. He had a white wireless earbud between his teeth as he smiled. He was holding the hands of twin girls who were dressed identically in red jeans and yellow jackets with tiny blue stars — one of them had reached up to fiddle with the cell phone that was strapped onto his muscly arm.
The woman stood up, throwing the stuffed unicorn over her shoulder as she pulled her baggy jeans up by the belt straps. “Me? Giving up?” she said, in the same sugary voice. “What would give you that idea?” He laughed — she didn’t — as they both resumed walking. The boy had abandoned the black cat to run ahead to the crossing guard — a round elderly man wearing a white mask on his chin — who was giving kids turns at holding his stop sign. The woman took a deep breath — her shoulders and chest rising for just a moment — while the man chattered happily through his earbud about his cottage and road trips and home renos, not letting go of the girls’ hands as he gestured enthusiastically. When he paused to ask how her summer was, she looked away.
“Oh you know, not bad,” she said. “We managed.”
As he bounced away, she turned to take the little boy’s hand and half-smiled at the crossing guard.
“This is going to be a strange year,” he called out to no one in particular.
Similar scenes have played out on my street for as long as I have lived here — the mass exodus from homes, lines of children making their way to school, the air filled with the excitement of a new season. In fact, every year in September I’m flooded with my own memories of taking first-day-of-school pictures on the front porch and walking my nervous kids across the park until they spotted a friend and hurriedly kissed my cheek before running off. And then there was always the meet-up of the moms — sometimes a dad, or two — after kid drop-off to share a collective sigh of relief that once again the house would be quiet.
But there were other emotions too — the sense of a summer lost, feelings of regret that there weren’t enough adventures taken and the overall malaise that comes from the realization that time is indeed passing. It’s the pain of transition as we move from a relaxed summer vibe back to the strict routines of lunch-making, homework and earlier bedtimes. Even if you aren’t a parent, you feel it too — the palatable sense of change as the sun sets sooner, along with a renewed craving for hot tea, soups and the exquisite coziness of a great sweater.
For some, the fall also tends to bring with it a low level sense of worry that hums incessantly in the back of their mind, right along with the thrill of pumpkin spice lattes. The “impending doom feeling” is what an old colleague used to call it: the nauseating sense of foreboding that filled his being every time he thought about the months ahead that would be full of stressful family obligations and long, dark days of mostly unpleasant weather.
It turns out this roller coaster of emotions that is fall actually has a name: Autumn anxiety.
Autumn anxiety refers to the increase in worry, fear and other negative emotions related to the changing seasons. Dr. Therese Mascardo, a clinical psychologist, describes it to The Chill Times as “feeling overwhelmed, tense, or worried, while possibly feeling physical symptoms such as muscle tension, headaches, stomach aches, and trouble sleeping.”
These symptoms, according to Kimberly Asner-Self, a licensed professional counsellor, program director, and associate professor in clinical mental health counselling at Touro College’s School of Health Sciences in New York, are the result of a combination of physical changes that affect brain chemicals, as well as environmental changes, like increased darkness.
“There is some evidence that in the Northern hemisphere during fall, as the Earth tilts away from the sun, our moods are affected. Less daylight leads to lower levels of serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine, the neurotransmitters that control our emotions,” she told The Healthy. “As these neurotransmitters drop, the body responds by increasing levels of cortisol, the ‘stress hormone’ released in situations where we perceive threat. When there is more cortisol released than needed, then we can become anxious.”
In addition to anxiety, these chemical changes can also set off other physical symptoms such as depression and sleep disturbances.
The changing environment also has an impact on negative emotions. While being increasingly in the dark has a lot to do with this, the fall also brings with it “anticipatory anxiety,” Carrie Landin, a psychologist with UCHealth Integrative Medicine Center and a clinical instructor at the University of Colorado told The Healthy.
“When we know there is the potential for stress ahead, we tend to anticipate the problems, feeling anxious before they even happen,” she says. “It’s very common for people to feel this during autumn because they are anticipating the variety of stressors that come with colder weather and the end of the calendar year,” such as yet another year of navigating holiday get-togethers amid the continued threat of COVID-19.
But just because all of these complicated emotions are common, and for the most part, completely rational, it doesn’t mean that feeling a bit edgy and downright spicy as soon as the leaves start changing colour is something you just have to live with. In fact, Mascado, who frequently coaches clients struggling with autumn anxiety, has some strategies to help get a grip on negative emotions and stop the fall from bringing you down. Spoiler alert, though: her tips hold neither surprise, nor intrigue… sigh. She recommends getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, meditating, getting some sun (vitamin D is good for mood) and taking a moment each day to make a list of what you are grateful for.
So basically, the key to easing autumn anxiety is taking care of yourself.
By day three of the first week of school, the puppy still hadn’t tired of sitting at the window, kid-watching. But I did spot the unicorn backpack again: the blond boy was dragging it on the ground with one hand as he held the crossing guard’s stop sign with the other. Close by was the woman, I assume his mother — head back, emptying a large Starbucks cup into her mouth, but this time, she also juggled a yoga mat and a water bottle.
Here’s to a new season of shorter days filled with better news, resilience and recovery.
The story originally appeared in the Healthing Weekender. Subscribe here.