Linda Wasmer Andrews

Minding the Body

Three Ways Autumn Promotes a Happier Frame of Mind

Rake in the mental health benefits of the season.

Posted Sep 23, 2019

Martinan/iStock
Source: Martinan/iStock

Apples, pumpkins, and sweater weather. Autumn is a great time of year to get healthier. The season brings a bounty of nutritious vegetables and fruits, and cooler temperatures are ideal for many outdoor physical activities. What may be less apparent — but just as important — are the ways in which autumn promotes a frame of mind that’s conducive to mental well-being.

Embracing Change

Change is one of the defining characteristics of the season. Temperatures drop, leaves change color, and the days gradually grow shorter. That makes fall a natural time to rethink your attitude toward changes in your daily life and relationships, says Melissa Gratias, Ph.D., a productivity coach, author, and speaker with a doctorate in industrial and organizational psychology.

“Some people respond to change in a way that’s similar to how they respond to a significant loss — with grief,” says Gratias. “Their feelings are normal and understandable, but to be resilient and happy, these individuals need to move through grief toward acceptance.”

Fall is an annual reminder that change has pros as well as cons. “Sure, the leaves die and fall off the trees, but they also become mulch for new growth,” says Gratias. “In the same vein, sure, your teenaged kids may be acting moody and irritable lately, but they are also laying a foundation for independence.”

Fostering Mindfulness

Depending on where you live, fall may offer a welcome respite from the summer swelter. Fall days are often not too hot, not too cold, but just right for spending time out in nature.

Research suggests that it may be easier to tap into mindfulness amid natural surroundings. The authors of a review article published this month in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health looked at 25 relevant studies. They found that mindfulness interventions in natural settings were moderately more effective than those in manmade settings.

“Nature is an amazing guide to grounding in the present moment,” says Julianne Schroeder, M.S., LPC, RYT, a licensed professional counselor, registered yoga teacher, and speaker. “That’s important because a lot of emotional and mental distress comes from either rehashing past events or worrying about the future. Practicing mindfulness retrains your brain to be in the here and now.”

To help you get started, Schroeder shares this mindfulness exercise to try on a fine fall day:

  1. Go outside.
  2. Notice what you can see around you; for example, you might note and name the varied, vibrant colors of the leaves.
  3. Observe what you can physically feel in the moment; for example, your breath moving in and out, the firmness of the ground beneath your feet, the coolness of a breeze.
  4. Listen to what you can hear around you; for example, the rustling of leaves, the sound of squirrels scurrying about.
  5. Stay as long as needed.
  6. Return to your day feeling calmer and more centered.

Renewing Connections

“Fall is a wonderful time for traditions that bring people together,” says Annie Hsueh, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Southern California who specializes in couples therapy. And it’s not just about Thanksgiving, she notes. Every fall, a family might visit the same pumpkin patch or a group of friends might get together for a tailgating party.

“Social connectedness is great for emotional health,” Hsueh says. Traditions that include others help strengthen social bonds, create shared memories, and provide a sense of continuity. In the days leading up to the event, they also give you something to look forward to — and Hsueh says the anticipation alone may help you get through a hard day.

One caveat: “It’s important to be flexible and know that traditions can evolve over time,” Hsueh says. Some might even fade away entirely, but that’s fine because traditions are a renewable psychological resource. You can always make this the first year for a brand-new fall tradition.

References

Djernis, D., Lerstrup, I., Poulsen, D., Stigsdotter, U., Dahlgaard, J., & O’Toole, M. (2019). A systematic review and meta-analysis of nature-based mindfulness: Effects of moving mindfulness training into an outdoor natural setting. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16(17), 3202. doi: 10.3390/ijerph16173202