Why Do We Still Get that Back to School Feeling As Adults?
Even as adults, we might get that back-to-school feeling, keen to embrace new routines and a fresh start
This time of year also sees an increase in people seeking therapy and counselling – Alice McGurran spoke to some of our members to find out more
If you are keen to find a therapist this September, start here
As summer draws to a close, we might – even as adults – get that creeping back-to-school feeling. September can often signal a time of change and new beginnings.
So, a fresh start, or something to be dreaded? Of course, this differs for everyone. Our welldoing.org therapists and counsellors agree that September can be a difficult, or at least complex, time of year. "The closing of summer and the opening of autumn can bring mixed feelings," says therapist Simon Holland-Brown. "For some, memories of returning to school might trigger feelings of excitement, others might feel lost or abandoned."
Counsellor Miriam Christie agrees: "This back-to-school kind of feeling is not a positive energy for everyone. The air starts to bite, the days become darker and the night sets in earlier and earlier. For some, at best, it is a return to the mundane after the escape of summer holidays. At worst, it is tied up with age-old feelings of apprehension, low mood, anxiety and fear."
Why do we still get that back to school feeling?
A phenomenon called the Anniversary Effect or Anniversary Reaction describes when a person might experience similar thoughts, feelings or sensations on the anniversary of a significant event, or in the days or weeks leading up to it. Usually spoken about in terms of unpleasant or traumatic events, the fact that we can experience similar somatic experiences at the same time of year tells us something about how we store memories in our brains and bodies.
Secondly, our brains enjoy routine: the more routines we have, the fewer decisions we have to make on a day-to-day basis, the less energy we use on mundane decisions and thus more of our brain is freed up to make other, potentially more important or more taxing decisions. This might also explain why we might leap on the opportunity to establish, or re-establish, daily routines at this particular time of year. Who doesn't love a fresh notebook or new stationery...?
Naturally, the more we repeat an experience, the more it will shape our expectations. So even though it might be years since you last attended a school assembly, you might still associate this time of year with new beginnings and starting afresh. Having spent our formative years tied to the academic calendar, it's easy to understand why we might have a certain feeling about when the year really begins and ends, despite our traditional calendar.
The promise of a new start can be intoxicating, and September might be a much more reasonable month to make lifestyle changes or to finally take the plunge to take better care of your mental health. New Year resolutions in January often fail, and with dark and cold weather and a sudden lack of any celebrations to look forward to, is that any surprise?
London-based Jewish therapist Rachel Farhi explained that in her culture, the New Year is celebrated in September: "Rosh Hashana, which means Head of the Year, is celebrated this year on the 6th September. Traditionally, it's considered the Birthday of the World, the day that God created the universe. In addition to celebrating the joy of that with special prayers, a festive meal and customs like dipping apples in honey for a sweet new year, Rosh Hashana is the beginning of the ten days of reflection or repentance, before we fast on Yom Kippur. So, this makes it a good time for some soul-searching, for making amends for any mistakes in the previous year, and most importantly, seeking forgiveness from those we've wronged before we seek forgiveness from God."
"On a personal level, it gives me a chance to think about my relationships with others, whether in my everyday circle, or those some way off but nonetheless connected to me. And I try to reach out to reconnect with those who I may have temporarily lost touch with in the busyness of the everyday. It's a way of starting a fresh page in the book of life - indeed we encourage one another with the exhortation, 'May you be Inscribed in the Book of Life for the coming year.' It's a hopeful time but reflective and if we use it wisely, we can improve ourselves a little."
Of course September signals the actual return to school for children and teens, triggering a transition period for parents too. Counsellor Natasha Wellfare sees more parents in therapy come September: "Once the children are back in school, parents have more time to focus on their own needs. Parents come to therapy in September in order to press the reset button. We can often be found exploring themes such as self-care, boundaries, perfectionism and work-life balance."
Is it time for a September reset?
Parents aren't the only ones considering trying something new in the form of counselling or psychotherapy. For others, niggling mental health challenges or more general concerns may have been put aside in a bid to enjoy summer, with people waiting to 'sort out XYZ' in the autumn. With the typically better weather, more light, potential breaks from work and fewer responsibilities, the summertime can often lift moods. But existing problems are unlikely to disappear completely, and what if summer didn't have the curative effect you were hoping for? This is reflected in growing numbers of people seeking therapy in September.
"I often experience a rise in enquiries about psychotherapy in September. We associate this time of year with new challenges, knuckling down and taking things more seriously," says London psychotherapist Wendy Bristow. "The other time of year I get more enquiries about starting psychotherapy is January and largely because many people haven’t had the lovely time they’re ‘meant’ to have had at Christmas and want to explore why that is. The summer can have the same effect. If you’re struggling to recover from a loss or a break-up or if you’re experiencing anxious or depressive feeling states, then the contrast between the great time you’re supposed to be having and how it’s actually been for you can feel very painful and isolating. And it can prompt people to get help in understanding what’s going on and exploring what they can do about it with a therapist."
If you're feeling restless, down or just like you don't know where to start, help is available. If you throw yourself into September and embrace new routines only to find in a month or two that things aren't actually looking up, we will still be here to help. As therapist Michael Armstrong reflects: "It's a time for trying something different, new, never done before. The excitement at the start will settle down to routine as we head into autumn, with glorious changes and colours, falling leaves. This might set you a pondering: what will this new season bring for you? Laughter, sadness, melancholy – it might all be there, but I can feel you thinking 'could things change?' and I hear you wondering, what might help in this mammoth task? Welldoing.org is here... you only have to ask."