The Psychology of September

If you're feeling so many feelings right now, you're not alone — but on the upside, this month is a chance to start over.

The Psychology of September

Stocksy, Unsplash

Don’t you remember, as a kid, the entire month of September almost vibrating? There were school supplies to get, outfits to select, and the salacious curiosity of what happened over the summer. We felt anxious and excited, and probably a little sad that summer had ended. But, most of all, it felt like a fresh start. But somewhere along the way — with work schedules that really have no summer break and kids’ schedules that take precedence — our September fresh start fell by the wayside. Sure, we might have fall sweaters and pumpkin spice lattes, but otherwise it's just another month, leaving January 1 as our only annual clean slate. That is simply not enough.

As Riana Elyse Anderson, Ph.D, L.C.P., assistant professor in the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health told InStyle, “[September] is about transition — whether that means going back to school, or the leaves transitioning for the fall.” And, I couldn’t agree more. It’s time to reclaim September as a time for change.

In my job as a psychiatrist, I hear a lot of cynicism around this time of year. Often, when patients realize it’s September (Because seriously, what day is it anyway?), they’re pretty bummed. Perhaps summer came and went, and they didn’t take a break or find time for a reset as planned. I know the feeling — I recently caught myself feeling jealous of my nieces and nephews who were getting ready to start a new school year. Trust me, we need September.

According to research, we are much more likely to take action toward our goals right after a specific occasion or key date has passed. This could be the New Year, but it could also be the start of a new week, month, or a birthday. In fact, in one comprehensive study, people on the edge of a new decade in their lives (29, 39, 49) were more likely to try to improve themselves, like running a marathon for the first time (48%). This concept is called the “fresh start effect” and by claiming September as one of those occasions again, we can use it to our advantage.

When September rolls around, school and work seem to just keep ramping up in intensity as the days get shorter and darker and the holidays loom. — Neha Chaudhary, M.D.

Having a temporal landmark for “starting over” allows us to pull back from the day-to-day monotony and reflect on the big picture. How do we make use of a reset? Consider first stopping to pause and reflect. Try asking yourself: What am I excited about or grateful for? What do I want to do more of? And, what do I still want to (or hope to) achieve in the future that I haven’t yet? These questions are just a start, but this exercise allows us to acknowledge both the good and the bad of our recent past, and not just move on right to the new. Reflecting helps us learn from our past to inform our goals for the future. It also helps us come up with goals that align with our own meaning and purpose.

Instead of looking at September as a complete reset, look at it as an opportunity for incremental change. Start by focusing on smaller accomplishments and reward yourself for them. For example, on Twitter, I saw someone post about an ice cream rewards chart for “saying no to things.” It was modeled after charts used for potty training toddlers. If she said no to 10 requests, she got an ice cream. This method works and if it works for one of the hardest milestones in parenting, it can absolutely work for trying to improve your time spent on social media or organizing your inbox. I’ve used it for patients who procrastinate and even myself when studying for a standardized test. But you shouldn’t have to wait until 10 “nos” to celebrate. Each time you put up a boundary is worth a reward. Whether you reward yourself with ice cream, a day off, or cashing in your Sephora points for a new lip gloss, be sure to actually acknowledge the little wins along the way. And, try to reflect: What was hard about it and why? How am I feeling now?

Not everyone loves September. Many people feel the weight of new beginnings and the pressure of what is to come in the next few months, including the holidays and winter weather. According to Neha Chaudhary, M.D., psychiatrist and chief medical officer at BeMe, a teen mental health platform, those feelings are completely normal.

“Because [for some] September used to be full of social anxiety or feelings of dread at the growing mountain of schoolwork during those childhood years, it can be normal for those feelings to still come up many years later in association with the month,” she says. “Especially when we see reminders of back-to-school sales or have kiddos of our own who are going through the process.”

Plus, while September is no freezing-cold January, Dr. Chaudhary points out that it can feel like the beginning of a long slog. She acknowledges that her patients can feel, “when September rolls around, school and work seem to just keep ramping up in intensity as the days get shorter and darker and the holidays loom ahead.”

It can be easy to look at all that is to come and feel overwhelmed or dread, or my personal favorite, avoidance. That is why it is important we acknowledge any and all of our feelings without judgment. Keep in mind it can also be hard for us to differentiate between our feelings, especially anxiety and excitement. Jonathan Stea, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and adjunct assistant professor in the department of psychology at the University of Calgary, highlights how the feelings are psychologically similar. They can both cause similar physical reactions (like a racing heart and sweaty palms) and lead to frequent thoughts about the future.

As a result, we should just not assume everyone is doing great with the transition. As Dr. Chaudhary recommends, we need to check in on each other, and September is a great time to prioritize this. Stea adds, “It’s also important to check in with yourself and not be shy about seeking professional help if it feels like the anxiety or stress is unmanageable.”

So, while September can bring up mixed feelings, taking the time to focus on ourselves and check in with each other is never a bad thing. After a few months of a broken foot, and getting behind on everything, I know I need a fresh start. And, listening to my friends, colleagues, and patients, I know that I’m by no means alone. We may not know we missed it, but it’s about damn time we take back September.

Related Articles