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Kathy Whelan

Posted on September 06, 2022

Many New Englanders call summer their favorite season, so it’s no surprise when September brings a sense of loss. While Labor Day doesn’t usher in a sudden shift in temperature or an end to Daylight Savings Time, it slaps a bookend on the summer season. Despite some miserably hot August days, saying goodbye to summer places, rituals, foods and friends can be downright painful. Lingering pandemic concerns may join with and magnify our end-of-summer blues.

These feelings can be especially hard on those most sensitive to changes in heat and light, but they occur in others as well. This is due in part to the brain’s “negativity bias,” a built-in survival tool that makes us more apt to notice the bad aspects of a situation than the good ones. Whether it serves us well or not, the negativity bias makes it easier to focus on what we are losing than what we may gain. But while our sad feelings arise naturally, they are not inevitable.

If we are among those who go into a funk at summer’s end, it can help to anticipate these feelings and have a plan for dealing with them. Here are some things such a plan might include:

1) Celebrate summer. Think about the happiest moments of summer and savor them, even celebrate with others who shared them. Being grateful for summer experiences and dwelling on that gratitude can help us get through a time of year that’s not our favorite. Keeping a gratitude journal may enhance this effect. Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson says that staying with positive emotions in this way can, over time, make the brain more receptive to positive thoughts.

2) Look ahead. Though it may be more challenging, we can try to remember what we like most about fall and winter. Finding things to look forward to – the holidays, a TV show that’s starting up again, a favorite cool weather food or something else – can help us reframe negative feelings into more positive ones. Planning a trip and anticipating it can add to our happiness.

3) Get outdoors. Soaking up the sun does good things for our state of mind, so spending time outdoors should be a year-round habit. Sunlight helps regulate serotonin – the “happiness hormone” – which can drop in fall and winter when the days are shorter. The combination of exercise and sunlight is particularly powerful. Wearing the right clothing can make the experience more comfortable. Being in a pleasant place and including a friend can make it more enjoyable.

4) Jump-start New Year’s resolutions. Why should we defer our good intentions until December or January? In fact, some people feel re-energized by cooler weather to focus on their goals. We can start now to consider what we would most like to achieve in the coming year and begin planning. The mere acts of creating a plan and setting a schedule to support it can help us get out of our heads when they are filled with negative thoughts. And when we approach this project in a series of well-designed steps, we lay the groundwork for feeling a sense of accomplishment that will do a lot to raise our spirits.

5) Stay connected. Social interaction is a biological requirement just like eating, sleeping and hydrating. Those who feel more connected to family, friends and community have been shown to be happier, physically healthier, mentally sharper and longer-lived than people who feel less connected. This doesn’t depend on being with others physically; when that’s not possible, staying connected virtually or by phone is next best. So let’s not say goodbye to summer friends but make them into year-round friends by staying in touch.

6) Eat and sleep well. Our food and mood are very closely related, so we should be sure to stick with a healthy diet as seasons change. Poor sleep can intensify the negativity bias, as well as adversely affect our eating, so it’s also important to get enough good quality sleep.

If, despite all your efforts, you can’t shake off your end-of-summer blues, it’s possible you have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a form of depression that arises most often in fall and winter. If you suspect you have SAD, consult your doctor, who may recommend light therapy, medication or cognitive behavior therapy, among other possible treatments.

Finally, try to greet each day as having the potential for something good to happen. Taking this view, we’re bound to find something to be glad about, even if it’s only that we’re one day closer to next summer.

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