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Pumpkin spice with a side of anxiety? How autumn affects mental health
Although many people enjoy fall's spirit of change, others have a harder time with the season. Here's how families can beat the autumn blues. - photo by Kelsey Dallas
Therese Borchard welcomes autumn with a sense of dread.

"I think it's partly the changing of the seasons, but fall is also filled with so much scheduling and newness," said Borchard, founder of Project Beyond Blue, an online community for people affected anxiety and depression.

Borchard is not the only American stressed out by this season. While some people welcome pumpkin spice lattes, football games and changing leaves with open arms, others dread the annual anxiety-level increase that comes with busier schedules and shorter days.

"Keeping up with everything gives me a lot of anxiety," she said, listing obligations like parent-teacher conferences and needing to adjust to earlier sunsets.

However, people who feel their moods drop along with temperatures don't have to settle for unhappy hibernation, mental health experts said. Strategies like trying fall-themed recipes, taking a family trip to an apple orchard or scheduling a warm weekend getaway can help everyone anticipate and enjoy changing seasons.

"There's a lot to be said for preparing yourself," said Michelle Coomes, a family therapist in Davidson, North Carolina. "Don't let (seasonal depression) sneak up on you."

Challenging changes

The autumn blues happen for a variety of reasons, including the stress of a new school year, worries about the coming winter and general resistance to change, Coomes said.

"Fall is a time when people start getting busier," she said. "They're not meeting up with friends as often, and the loneliness starts to build up."

These emotional shifts heighten the distress some people experience as a result of environmental changes, like decreased access to sunlight and new allergens in the air, said Dr. Steve Schlozman, the associate director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital.

In its most serious form, this distress is referred to as seasonal affective disorder, which is a variety of depression. Around half a million Americans suffer from SAD, and an additional 10 to 20 percent of the population may face "a more mild form of winter blues," the Cleveland Clinic reports.

Seasonal depression is caused, at least in part, by disrupted brain patterns, a situation that results from decreased sunlight, Schlozman noted. Some people's brains respond in negative ways to changes in ambient light, leading them to experience fatigue and sadness, among other emotional issues.

Although SAD is associated with winter, the symptoms often begin in fall, as days gradually shorten in the lead-up to the winter solstice Dec. 22, Coomes said, noting that anybody who worries about their emotional health in fall and winter should be proactive about identifying coping mechanisms that will work for them.

"If people can recognize their mood changes earlier, they will be easier to manage throughout," she said.

Embracing autumn

Struggling with autumn anxiety since childhood, Borchard has learned to enter the season with a game plan.

She makes a point to schedule trips with her two children to apple orchards and fall festivals, as well as to fill her pantry with seasonal treats like stews and caramel apples. In this way, Borchard shifts her focus from dreading winter to anticipating the aspects of autumn she looks forward to all year long.

"If you can appreciate the good parts of fall, you'll have some fun with it," she said.

Food blogger Darya Rose echoed Borchard, noting people should try to think of changing weather as an opportunity to mix-up their wellness routine.

As a result of shorter days and dropping temperatures, "it's easy to get discouraged" about going for a run or even walking your dog, she said. "(But) I use fall weather as an excuse to workout inside while watching my favorite TV show. It almost feels like my workout has become a guilty pleasure."

Rose also enjoys finding ways to include the season's produce in her daily meals, and delicata squash has become one of her favorite foods.

The goal of embracing fall in these ways is to supplement the many anxiety-inducing parts of the season with exciting things, Schlozman said, noting that people should get their whole family in on the act because seasonal mood swings can affect children, too.

"Kids who are doing well socially (in the summer) but then stop hanging out with their friends because life gets busy have a hard time," he said.

Schlozman suggested parents make a point to give their kids "unstructured free time," in the fall, meaning time in which young people can do whatever their heart calls them to do, including taking a walk, reading for fun or hanging out with friends.

Not every family member will appreciate a trip to a pumpkin patch, but everyone will benefit from welcoming the fall and winter months with the intention to find bright spots in a challenging season of change, he said.