Autumn Anxiety Makes The End Of The Year Difficult For Highly Sensitive People

Glad Doggett
Photo by Roberto Nickson on UnsplashRoberto Nickson

Shorter days and cooler nights, trees starting to showing off their bright orange and gold leaves, pumpkin-spice dominating every menu, and the smell of cinnamon and apple cider wafting in the air all mean that Autumn is here.

This time of year is when we anticipate the hustle and hurry that starts in the final months of the year.

For most people, the shift in the season signals the time to eat, drink, and be merry. But for Highly Sensitive People, Autumn’s transition triggers anxieties.

The end of the year ushers in changes to routines and schedules, as well as extra "social duties." It starts with the switch to Daylight Saving time, which screws up sleep schedules. Next, there’s Halloween with its scary movies, costume parties, and kids ringing your doorbell for candy. And let’s not forget the rush to do the end-of-year-catch-up dance, which causes most people to cram too much onto their to-do lists. Then there’s the social responsibility that comes with the festivities of the holiday season. Planning and pulling off the perfect Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations in the time of Covid without losing your cool at least once is a feat to celebrate in itself. Finally, there’s the pressure of finding a way to ring in New Year’s Eve like a celebrity, while social distancing and wearing a mask.

It all can feel like too much to navigate

The cultural story we are force-fed is that most people enjoy the shift to the end-of-year brouhaha. But, they people behave nowadays makes me think otherwise. I think the reality is that the season change stirs up an undercurrent of unease in most people. The change from summer to fall may seem mundane to people who are not HSPs, but it triggers those people who have neurological systems that are constantly on high alert.

Does the beginning of Autumn give you a feeling of unease?

  • Do shorter days, cooler nights, and the onset of fall always make you feel anxious?
  • Do you avoid the violent movies or scary TV shows aired around Halloween because they feel too intense and leave you feeling unsettled?
  • Are you easily startled and “jump out of your skin” at the slightest unexpected “Boo!”
  • Do you feel overwhelmed by sensory stimuli like noisy parties, family gatherings, uncomfortable costumes, or loud, unexpected sounds?
  • Do you turn off the lights and hide inside your house to avoid trick-or-treaters?
  • Does the very thought of Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings with the family fill you with dread?
  • Does thinking about holiday shopping, crowds, and social obligations make you want to skip town and hide away on a beach with an icy cocktail?

If you answered yes to these questions, then you are likely a Highly Sensitive Person. HSPs feel their emotions deeply and the result is a depletive effect on their state of mind and physical body. In addition, most HSPs are highly empathic and “absorb” the emotions of people around them. In other words, they are emotional sponges and can’t help but soak up the vibe wherever they are.

“As a highly sensitive person myself, I can sense another person’s mood from a mile away. Don’t try to hide it. You’re not fooling me.”
― Tracy M. Kusmierz

Psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron coined the term Highly Sensitive Person when she began researching the topic. Her book, The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, identified characteristics of HSPs, and explained to the rest of the world why HSPs seem “overly sensitive” or always “on edge.”

Aron’s work has normalized the traits of highly sensitive people. She estimates that approximately 20 percent of the general population can be considered an HSP.

“Making good boundaries your goal. They are your right, your responsibility, your greatest source of dignity.”
― Elaine N. Aron

It’s not so much the seasonal change itself that causes the stress, but the crushing expectations from others that come with it. Knowing that they will be expected to show up and “be present;” that they only have a few months left to meet their goals, wrap up projects, and meet deadlines; that a new year is quickly approaching and they will be expected to set new goals and strive to be better, stronger, and more engaged. The constant overthinking, over-extending and over performing are exhausting.

Thought Field Therapist Gillian Scully coined the term “autumn anxiety” to describe the “anticipation and anxiety” that people “who are quite sensitive to their surroundings” feel.

Scully noticed that she saw an uptick in the number of clients with feelings of anticipation and nervousness during the last week of August through September.

“This is much more than a coincidence and beyond the usual feelings that people have when the seasons change,” she said.

Adapting to Autumn Anxiety

Below are several coping strategies to mitigate the stress and unease that autumn anxiety triggers:

Set firm boundaries to protect your energy. Learn to say no when you’ve reached your over-saturation point. You don’t have to volunteer to help at every new school committee, and you aren’t required to say yes to every invitation. You have the right to stay home, put on your headphones, and hide away in a safe space if that’s what you need to feel calm in the moment. HSPs need extra quiet time to find balance and stability.

Stand in the sunlight and get as much time outside in the sunlight as you can before winter arrives. Go outside, take walks, and enjoy the autumn sunlight. If lack of sun exposure causes you to have symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, consider using a light therapy box that emits special light that mimics natural outdoor light. It really helps.

Know your limits and honor your need for space. Don’t succumb to the social pressure if it makes you anxious. Of course, it’s almost impossible to avoid all the end-of-year holiday parties and social events, but you can be selective and choose low-key activities. Make the events that matter most to you a priority.

Manage expectations. You are not a social butterfly so don’t pretend to be. You have the right to go home early from parties, family functions, or work activities. Call it radical self-care and release the guilt. Manage your friends’ and family’s expectations by reminding them your need for quiet time to reset.

Create a protective antidote for unexpected situations you can’t avoid. Unless you become a hermit, there’s no way to totally avoid all the transitions and festivities that follow the fall season. But the truth is, most HSPs don’t want to hide away. They simply want time to mentally prepare for the stimuli to come. Creating a calming exercise for times when preparation isn’t possible makes a world of difference. When you are confronted with an unanticipated situation, take a deep, calming breath, exhale slowly, and say a silent mantra to yourself to remind yourself that the shock you feel is temporary and will soon pass.

Remember, if you are an HSP who freaks out a little in the fall, it’s ok. You are not weird and you don’t need to be fixed. You simply need more time and space to prepare yourself for the transitions that are coming. Nothing is wrong with you. And when you begin sharing your struggle with people you trust, they start to understand why you seem a little ill at ease.

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Glad Doggett is a freelance writer from Louisville, Kentucky.

Louisville, KY

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