What To Do When the Seasons Change and You Feel Blah: 3 Tips To Help With Seasonal Transitions
For some people the fall season is a welcome reprieve from the heat of summer and the start of football, sweater weather, leaves changing and all things pumpkin spice. For others though, the changing of the seasons can bring on changes in mood, energy levels, and sleeping or eating patterns.
When the sun starts to set earlier and there is less daylight after long days of work, feelings of depression, loneliness and isolation can creep in. Here are some helpful tips on how to navigate the transition into the fall season so it is less likely to negatively impact your overall mental health and wellbeing.
Create Routines and Rituals
Having routines and rituals is something I talk about almost daily with my clients. The great part is that you probably already have several rituals and routines built into your schedule and don’t even know it. Think about your mornings – are you one that follows the rule ‘coffee before talkie’? – do you head to the gym to start your day? – or do you listen to the news or jam out to your favorite music while you get ready? Mornings are filled with routines that help us get moving, start the day off right, or get us out of the door.
When we have routines and rituals in place, our brains and bodies know what to expect. When we know what to expect, we are more likely to be using our prefrontal cortex (the smart part of the brain), so we feel less anxious, jittery or unsure of ourselves or our environment. So, even when the alarm goes off in the morning and we feel groggy or blah, our brain knows it’s time for coffee, then to get ready, and then it can start to tackle the day ahead.
Most of us have had those mornings where things didn’t go quite as planned. You realize you don’t have any coffee in the house, you sleep through your alarm so you don’t get a shower, or you have to get gas before driving to work so your commute timing is all off. These small changes in routine and the lack of normal rituals cause shifts in our thinking and our moods and can create a negative cascading effect on the day.
Having awareness of the impact routines and rituals can have on your mental health can help mitigate the effects when things go awry. If you have one of those ‘off’ mornings, or you notice feeling more sad or down as the days become shorter, take a moment to reflect on the big picture and give yourself some grace.
When we are out of a routine we become off balance. Our brain can interpret this as a ‘threat’ and will try and figure out the ‘problem’. Oftentimes what happens when our sympathetic nervous system (responsible for the fight or flight response) is activated, we get caught up in distorted thought patterns. This part of our brain is literally trained for life or death decisions, so our thoughts become very black and white, even though the majority of the time it is not that serious or extreme.
So what started off as a rough morning ends up with thoughts like ‘I can NEVER do things right’, ‘People are ALWAYS questioning my ideas’, or ‘I’ll NEVER succeed because I’m ALWAYS screwing up’. The thought patterns I hear during the fall and winter months become ‘I’m ALWAYS going to be alone, so what’s the point?’, ‘There’s NOTHING to do after work when it is already dark outside’, or ‘I’ll NEVER be happy like EVERYONE else’. If you can catch yourself in these all-or-nothing thought patterns, know that it is your mind playing tricks on you and you have the ability to change your thoughts at any moment.
By having a solid routine or rituals in place, you have the ability to reground yourself when you get off balance. Working with parents, I often talk about bedtime routines and rituals and how helpful they can be for children. Even when schedules get busy, something out of the ordinary happens during the day, or a child isn’t feeling well, a bedtime routine can make all of the difference. If the child has the routine of taking a bath, reading a book and going to bed, their brain knows that this is what to expect even after a chaotic or tough day. This allows the child to feel safe, secure and grounded so they can more easily regulate difficult emotions.
Looking ahead to the fall and winter months, I encourage you to notice what routines and rituals you already have in place. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel or find brand new routines; this is not likely to be sustainable when your system becomes stressed or overwhelmed. Pick things that you enjoy doing and that create a sense of warmth and comfort.
You may have guessed that I’m one of those coffee people and that is one of my favorite morning rituals. But when the weather changes, the gray skies roll in, and the coffee isn’t quite enough, I give myself grace and notice that I need a little more. On days like these I adjust the ritual and treat myself to a hot chai and this brings me comfort and restores my balance.
This one can be a lot easier said than done. When the temperatures drop and the sun goes down before we finish the work day, it can be difficult to find the motivation to move our bodies. Life tends to slow down during the fall and winter months. We become less busy with vacations and social events and find ourselves spending more time indoors.
Physical movement has a huge impact on mental health and can boost our mood and give us more energy. When we engage in physical exercise our prefrontal cortex (that smart part of the brain) is stimulated, which strengthens our ability to access that part during times of stress.
Finding ways to increase movement, or exercising, can help regulate difficult emotions that may arise during times of transition. Exercise and physical activity release the feel-good endorphins that can help you feel better overall. Just like working out our muscles helps us feel stronger, when we move our bodies and stimulate our brains we feel more calm and confident. The lows don’t feel so low and we tend to feel better about ourselves because we have trained our brains to challenge the fight or flight / black or white / life or death thought distortions.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a method that focuses on the connections between thoughts, feelings and behaviors. We learn how changing our behaviors can change our thoughts and eventually our feelings.
Imagine that you wake up and it is cloudy, cold and dreary for the umpteenth day in a row. You feel blah, unmotivated, sad or depressed. You have thoughts like, “What’s the point of getting out of bed?”, “I’m so tired.”, or “Today is going to be another blah day.” With these feelings and thoughts, you will likely behave in a way that reinforces them. You are more likely to mope around the house, continue to isolate yourself, sleep or eat more than normal, and be less physically active. The blah behaviors maintain the blah feelings and the blah thoughts and it goes around and around. Unless…you DO something different!
In the same scenario (same blah thoughts and feelings), if you were to go outside for even a 5 minute walk, or if you did 25 jumping jacks, or if you called a friend or family member, this would likely shift the thoughts and feelings to at least less blah. Even if for only a moment, feeling less blah is better and can be expanded upon. Just because we think or feel a certain way, doesn’t mean we have to behave that way and physical activity is a great way to trick our brain into feeling better.
Like with routines and rituals, it is helpful to start with what you know and feel comfortable with doing. If you already go to the gym or take walks during the week, awesome! Keep doing that and maybe add some social connection and have a friend join you. If increasing your physical activity seems like a big ask, start small, like really small. Do 5 minutes of stretching. When you get up to use the bathroom during the day, take an extra lap around the office. Take the stairs whenever possible. You don’t need to start training for a marathon – you just need to start moving.
During the first winter of the pandemic when isolation was at its peak a lot of us did a lot of walking. For me, I would go up and down the stairs in my house just to get a little variety from the neighborhood walks when it was too cold to go outside. It isn’t an instant fix, but it helps keep the negative thoughts at bay and the benefits are cumulative, meaning each day you feel a little bit better.
Get or Stay Connected
With temperatures dropping and the days becoming shorter, we often see a decrease in opportunities for social connection. It becomes easy to just stay home, curl up with a book, or sit in front of the TV and binge watch things you don’t even like. Having down-time and space for yourself can be beneficial; however social isolation can creep in over time, so it is important to pay attention to your activity level and the impact this has on your mood.
A common misconception is that social media is social connection. Social media has been linked to increased levels of depression, isolation and low self-esteem. In my blog about self-esteem, I discuss the negative impacts social media can have on our thoughts and feelings about ourselves. When we are engaging with social media, it is one sided and we are only seeing what people want us to see. Most of the posts we see are of people smiling and looking as though they are having a great time, and this may not be the case in reality.
Social connection is the feeling that you belong, that you matter, and that you generally feel close to other people. There are numerous physical and mental health benefits from feeling connected to others, including lower blood pressure, increased happiness, and decreased levels of anxiety and depression.
If you struggle with social connections throughout the year, it can seem daunting to start seeking connections during the colder months when less people are generally outdoors. The same advice rings true here and it is helpful to start small and start with what you know. Try reconnecting with friends and family over the phone or by sending an old fashioned letter. If you have a hobby or interest, try joining a group that focuses on that. You don’t need to find a best friend or a partner in this endeavor, you just need to get out and interact with other people.
For those that have a good amount of social connections, pay attention to your need for down time and practice taking the space for yourself if you are feeling overwhelmed or overcommitted. It can be helpful to set up regular recurring activities with friends or family so you can stay connected.
During times of transition, it is common to feel more lonely and isolated. We often wonder if we are the only ones that feel this way and tend to imagine that everyone else is having a much better time than we are. Connecting with others allows us to see that it isn’t just us and that we aren’t alone in how we feel.
Long Story Short
The change of seasons from summer to fall can have an impact on our mood and overall well being. With some intentional planning though, you can learn to manage and regulate the difficult feelings that might come up. If you identify routines and rituals that help keep you grounded, you will be able to bounce back from rough spots more quickly. By increasing your physical activity, you will help train your brain so it will become easier to challenge the negative thought distortions. And when you stay socially connected, you are showing yourself that you do matter and you do belong.
A final note, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a real thing. If you believe you are struggling with this or anything else, please reach out, help is available and you deserve to feel well.