Whether you like it or not, fall is here. Soon the weather will get colder, the leaves will die and the nights will stretch longer than the days. Outdoor pools have closed and the holidays are coming. Another year is dying; that’s just how it goes.
At least, that’s the way autumn often is cast — as a time of aging and decay. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley compared autumn’s falling leaves to corpses in the grave. William Shakespeare called it “Death’s second self,” when youth burns to ashes. More recently, it’s become a time to acknowledge our existential dread.
For many of those who struggle with seasonal depression in the winter months, the fall is the beginning of their symptoms. A few small studies even suggest that if you are “ruminative,” or deeply preoccupied with your thoughts, in the autumn, you may be at more risk for depression in the winter. Changing the clocks in the fall is associated with depressive episodes (changing them back in the spring is not). It’s no wonder the season has so many celebrations to attempt to keep our spirits up.
Psychologists say that the feelings that often crop up in autumn stem from our discomfort with change, and an anxiety and uncertainty about what that change will bring. The melancholy we feel is a form of grief, mourning the lost sunlight, the ease of summertime, and the greenery that abounds in the warm weather.
But it’s not all bad. Fall also brings with it bright, brisk days, pumpkin patches and cozy sweaters. Somewhere in the crunching leaves, crackling fires and chilly air, you might locate a feeling of possibility, even electricity.
And all of these things — the anxiety, the promise and even the rumination — make it the ideal season to build resilience and practice mindfulness.
A Season of Resilience
For Jelena Kecmanovic, the founder of Arlington/DC Behavior Therapy Institute, the fall is reminiscent of exploring the mountains near her home in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, where she spent the first 20 years of her life, during one of that country’s most prosperous eras. But in the 1990s, she was forced to flee during a bloody four-year siege of her city.
Today, she is an expert in resilience, a concept centering on the capacity to adapt to challenging life experiences. Dr. Kecmanovic described autumn as the season when we can work on our acceptance of uncertainty — embracing that unsettled feeling we may have as we move out of our warm-weather routines.
Psychologists have found that the thought of change, the ending of one thing, the beginning of another and, yes, perhaps our own mortality, underlies a great deal of anxiety. Some of us struggle with “intolerance of uncertainty,” as experts call it, more than others. This tendency was first named in the 1990s by a team of Canadian psychologists and has since been identified as a risk factor for poor mental health.