Fall, depression, grief, and abundance

Fall can be a rough time for people. There are lots of interesting studies and anecdotal evidence about winter being a time when people deal with Season Affective Disorder (a term used as a fancy name for seasonal depression, usually). I think Fall sometimes gets under-considered compared to winter in New England. Of course, what season can compete with winter in New England? But I've been talking to a lot of people struggling with their mood this fall, so I wanted to discuss it.

It's late fall now.

In the hills where I live, it's frosted a few times, the time change has happened, and the leaves are all gone. I think of Fall as having two distinct phases: early fall, when the leaves are changing and it's windy and crisp--there's the sense of things coming--things happening.

And then late fall, when it's certain that winter is on it's way, the leaves are gone (or at least thoroughly brown) and the air, though still crisp with the sense of coming winter, isn't charged in quite the same way. One can, I think, feel that the energy of life is retreating, moving away from the exposed natural world deeper into the ground, into our bodies, and into our houses.

Traditionally in Chinese Medicine, fall is associated with grief. I think grief is an interesting idea to contemplate. One way of thinking about grief is in terms of what's happened over the course of the year: Summer is the time for play, opportunity, and possibility.

When fall really gets into swing, and the energy of life starts moving inward, this can trigger a sense of grief for what's being lost, and also for what's been missed: the opportunities not taken, the possibilities not explored.

A basic rule of psychology is association:

One feeling of grief or regret can remind you of another--griefs and regrets forgotten can resurface again because of the grief of the season.  The very blowing of the wind through the brown leaves can trigger this feeling. But it can also be more subtle. Even if you're not watching the turn of the season, there's something about the quality of the air that can bring up all sorts of grief and regret. An acupuncturist friend of mine says he can see fall in how people hunch their shoulders. Even if they aren't aware of it, he says, he can see the inward movement in their postures.

In my office, I see fall as trouble sleeping, thinking about things from the past, people evaluating their lives, and people experiencing strong grief or regret about the paths they've taken and not taken. Sometimes this arises in small ways: the vacations they took or not or the summer. Sometimes in large ways: how they've lived their lives or the choices they make 15 or 30 years ago that still affect them now. This is the energy of fall.

If you have many regrets, or are simply sensitive to the nature of things, this can take a lot out of you.

Many people I talk to have trouble keeping up the fast pace of their lives with this sort of inward movement of retreat and grief going on. Usually, I suggest people give themselves a break if they can: the fast pace of our lives these days is not so great for us in any case. So if you can slow down a little (not stop entirely, mind you, but slow down) and feel the pangs of the loss of the warmth in the world, or the loss of some aspect of your life you never lived, do so.

Like all feelings and seasons, the grief will pass. Actually, depression this time of year is the result of trying to clamp things down--trying not to feel the grief and regret, or trying to avoid it at all costs. Chinese medicine would say that this does much harm to our systems--tensing your systems when they should be naturally preparing for what comes next, winter.

Other specific recommendations from my experience and from Chinese medicine are as follows:

  • Move your sleep cycle earlier
    Use the fall time change (fall back!) as an opportunity to go to bed earlier and then get up a bit earlier. The autumn mind is often clearer in the morning, and fall morning air is supposed to be good this time of year to prepare the immune system. Likewise, if you have any tendency toward being a "morning person", you'll be able to use the little extra time in the morning to slow down a bit and prepare--pull out your scarves and hats from the closet--or to at least treat yourself kindly by eating a good breakfast and thinking about your day.
  • Consider not just the regrets and grief but also the joys
    Our minds have a fascinating tendency to look at what's gone wrong. That's alright. But while you're thinking about regrets, consider also what has gone well. If you can't think of anything, look a little deeper. There's no story without at least moments of spring.
  • Welcome the “return of the dead” (a real Halloween)
    Sometimes I think that Halloween was a wonderful idea crafted by smart people who wanted to give people a way to acknowledge the way the past resurges as late fall arrives. Metaphorically, the dead return. Same idea I've been talking about, right? Our modern Halloween is not so contemplative and usually involves dressing up and gorging on sweets (or beer) instead.
    If you can, take a few moments (whether at the end of October or some other time this fall) and acknowledge the dead, so to speak. I often will use the kitsch of Halloween to remind me: I'll look at the costumes and the lawn decor and I'll say to myself something like, "Fall is really here" and let the what comes up come up.
  • Celebrate abundance, the other aspect of fall
    Just like Halloween seems like it could have been invented by brilliant people, Thanksgiving seems like it could be a great opportunity to make the transition into early winter: you've reconciled with regrets and now you're looking at the abundance of what the season has left you: food, friends, family. If you can sort through your feelings and you have the outward circumstances to have such a meaningful thanksgiving, great! More often than not, in my experience, this is not a typical thanksgiving experience. Instead, thanksgiving can highlight the opposite: what's gone wrong, crazy families, regrets, lack. Typically we deal with some performance of family and then retreat into the consumerism and glitz of the holiday season. Sometimes, when I know someone is about to embark on terrible holiday season, I encourage them to make predictions and lists of everything that will come up and go wrong: all the family antics, all the problems and petty arguments or dynamics that will come up. You can try this too: write down everything bad you expect to happen. After doing this, people sometimes also notice the good things (or at least find the humor in the bad things). If you have friends in the same boat, you can also make a game out of it by seeing how accurate the list is: as the holidays happen, check things off. You can see who got the most "points." Then you can have a real thanksgiving (or Christmas or whatever) in which you celebrate your friendship.

Being aware of abundance in this way is great preparation for the winter. Winter, according to Chinese medicine, can give people feelings of anxiety and lacking. Western psychology considers this to be where the real seasonal mood issues set in. You'll do best if you can come into winter with eyes open, focusing on what you've got.