Avoid a Fall in the Fall2023-08-24

The changes we dread most may contain our salvation.

Barbara Kingsolver

After being a psychiatrist for 25 years, I have observed every Fall how a many of my patients become more moody and depressed. This occurs not just in individuals with mental health issues, but in everybody, to varying degrees. Research from my group published earlier this year, identified September as the peak suicide month, and implicated circadian clock genes, which are known to be involved in how light regulates our levels of activity, the sleep-wake cycle, and seasonal affective disorders.

The decrease in daylight (and probably temperature to a lesser extent) affects mood, which is a correlate of how active an organism is. Organisms prepare for hibernation, as the environment becomes unfavorable to foraging and expansion. There is a decrease in dopamine. In my patients, they become less hopeful for the future. The stock market does poorly, etc.

In addition to these biological drivers, there are sociological and psychological ones. Fall is back to work or school, after summer vacations. That can be stressful if there is not a good fit with those activities and settings. Psychologically, modern consumeristic society rolls out earlier and earlier marketing messages and artificial expectations that buying things will cheer you up, transforming rituals like Thanksgiving and Christmas into external-driven stressors as opposed to internally driven moments of reconnection with families and traditions.

What is the solution? What I tell my patients is to use this challenge as an opportunity to develop and rely on better habits, that will see them through the Fall, and for the rest of the year, and really, of their lives. Biologically, early to bed/early to rise, meditation, exercise, exposure in the morning to natural light or light therapy boxes, good nutrition, can all boost dopamine. Avoiding alcohol (and illegal drugs) help. Sociologically, finding the good in what you do professionally or scholastically, and/or changing to settings that are a better fit, will help. Psychologically, doing things with family and friends in lieu of buying things, turning off and/or ignoring the flow of ads on various devices, will help as well. Awareness is key, and that can be done by self-reflection, journaling with paper and pen, or using an app (such as the Life x Mind App my team has developed).

Live. Happier. Longer.