Autumn can be a great time of year, full of fun events and activities. But for some people, it’s a time of additional stress and anxiety.
Anxiety is a normal human emotion that everyone has at times, said Dr. Bryant Virden, psychiatrist with Mercy Clinic Behavioral Health – Fort Smith. For adults, increased work demands as the year comes to an end, more frequent social gatherings for the holidays and a disruption to normal routines are just a few of the seasonal stressors that can cause anxiety. For children, settling into a new school year is a common stressor this time of year.
While some people are familiar with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), fall anxiety is not recognized as a formal mental health disorder. Dr. Venkata Dalai, psychiatrist with Mercy Clinic Behavioral Health – Fort Smith, said stress that begins in the fall can feed into SAD, which is more commonly seen during the colder winter months. Some of those symptoms can include:
· Sleepiness, lethargy and fatigue.
· Loss of interest in normal activities.
· Overall low mood.
If you’re more stressed or anxious in the fall, more than one trigger may cause those feelings, Dr. Dalai said. Summer tends to be more carefree for many people, and as that season ends, significant changes in routine can cause anxiety. Autumn brings shorter and colder days, which can affect the amount of sunlight people are exposed to. Some may experience financial stress as the holidays approach, while others may face medical problems such as seasonal allergies or chronic pain that gets worse this time of year.
It's important to recognize a pattern in mood changes in order to differentiate between a seasonal anxiety and a true anxiety disorder, Dr. Dalai said. While an anxiety disorder can be crippling for many people, the same is not true with a seasonal disorder. Most people behave normally despite an increase in their anxiety at certain times of the year.
“We should see a significant pattern, in that there is no anxiety during the rest of the year,” he said. “Mostly, people struggle with some uneasiness and feel stressed, but that may not impact them to the point that they cannot function anymore. They are still able to enjoy life and be more productive during the rest of the year.”
What can people do to address seasonal anxiety? Dr. Dalai offered these suggestions:
1. Maintain a consistent routine that includes regular exercise, a healthy diet and adequate sleep.
2. Join support groups and express feelings of anxiety to others.
3. Use mindfulness and relaxation techniques – meditation, progressive muscle relaxation and deep breathing.
4. Consider light therapy for SAD.
5. Consult a therapist or counselor if needed.
Dr. Dalai pointed out that many people actually feel happiest in the fall.
“This could be due to a variety of things that people enjoy – beautiful color changes, weather cooling from the hot summer, best time to go hiking to watch nature, fresh start of the academic year after a summer break and getting ready for multiple celebrations and family gatherings during the holidays,” he said.
Seasonal anxiety in children
The transition to a new school year can be a significant stressor for children, Dr. Virden said.
“Many children love school and look forward to going back so they can see their friends and meet their new teachers and, of course, learn fun facts about dinosaurs and decimals,” he said. “Other children, though, may have a more difficult time due to social or separation anxiety, low academic performance, behavioral difficulties, or, sadly, bullying.”
As a child psychiatrist, Dr. Virden tends to be busiest in October, after children have been in school for several weeks. The first step in caring for a child with anxiety is to reach out to the child’s primary care doctor to see if the anxiety is something serious that needs further evaluation and possible treatment.
“Kids need to let parents and teachers know if they’re having difficulties,” Dr. Virden said. “Sometimes it is obvious when they are, but sometimes it isn’t if children are trying to hide their struggles. It’s not easy for most people, including children, to admit that they need help.”
Parents can also help by checking in regularly with their children about how they’re feeling about school. They need to ask about friends and potential bullying while also checking in with teachers at regular intervals, not just at parent-teacher conferences, Dr. Virden added.
“Taking a genuine interest and asking questions can build trust so that kids are more willing to come to their parents with problems,” he said. “Just listening and validating their feelings may be all that is needed, something every parent is capable of doing.”