If returning to work or school in September and shorter, colder days seem like a gloomy prospect, you’re not alone. Autumn can worsen anxiety and depression, experts say, so why does it affect us and can we beat the blues?
“Every year I tell myself this is the last winter I can do in the UK,” says Cal Strode, 25, who lives in London and has seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a condition that can bring on low moods and even depression during autumn and winter.
“It’s already starting to look darker and colder, which is when I tend to feel low and lack energy.”
SAD is thought to affect about one in 15 people in the UK between the months of September and April, according to the NHS.
For more serious sufferers, it can prevent people from functioning normally during the autumn and winter months and is thought to be caused by lack of light, as well as other factors such as colder temperatures and the return to normal routines.
Anxiety UK, a mental health charity, also says it expects to receive more calls to its helpline in September – saying far fewer people contact the charity about anxiety and depression when the sun is shining.
‘My mood dropped’
Cal, who works for the Mental Health Foundation charity, was diagnosed with SAD six years ago when he was studying abroad in the US.
“I was in San Diego and went home for Christmas, when suddenly my mood dropped and it felt like I had no energy to do anything,” he says.
“It was supposed to be a happy time with my family and celebrations but I was staying in bed until the late afternoon.”
With SAD, the lack of light is thought to affect the part of the brain that rules sleep and energy levels.
As September looms, Cal plans to spend 45 minutes a day next to a light box to alleviate his symptoms, but admits finding the time can be a “struggle”.
“Even on the way to work this week I thought this is such a beautiful day and my mood was so uplifted by it,” he says.
Back to school
Even for people without the disorder, September can be a difficult time as school starts and workplaces get busier.
Added to this, the weather worsens, days get shorter, and it is a long wait until the next bank holiday over Christmas.
“We see it every year; summer really does impact people’s moods,” says Nicky Lidbetter, chief executive of Anxiety UK.
“People feel more resilient and able to cope when the sun is shining,” says Ms Lidbetter. “Summer is a time when it’s a more relaxed atmosphere in general, there is less traffic on the roads, it’s not as structured.”
Autumn can leave us “pining that summer is gone”, she says, especially if any grand plans failed to materialise.
“Even if we left school a long time ago, September feels like a time to be more serious and that can instil a sense of anxiety,” she says.
But it is not all bad – psychologists say we thrive on routine since it brings structure and offers us a chance to be around people.
“After a period of relaxation there’s the stress of a new academic year, or work getting busy, but also healthy routines and habits,” says Dr Sherylin Thompson, a counselling psychologist.
“It can be worse if you’re feeling stuck in the routine, and haven’t got a choice, but it can be a chance to change things.”
She suggests preparing for September by picking a new challenge or vowing not to give up on a hobby or activity you did during summer.
“Keep up the health habits, keep up the socialising that would usually revive you,” she says.
Clinical psychologist Dr Camilla Rosan adds: “Over the summer people go on lots of holidays and they aren’t always around, now’s an opportunity to see friends.”
She recommends planning days in advance, including going to the gym and seeing people.
“When the days are shorter, it is important to make a clear routine about when we’re going to fit in exercise, get to the gym, see our friends,” she says.
“The weather and light might be stopping us from going outdoors, but turn being stuck at home when it’s dark and dismal into an opportunity.”
Cal makes an effort to eat well and avoid comfort food during the autumn and winter months.
“Some days I don’t feel like I have the energy to cook, and you can crave fast foods high in fat and carbohydrates,” he says.
“I’ll try to spend time over the weekends making something like a big bean stew that’ll last throughout the week – it’s not sunshine but it helps.”