Mercury is in retrograde — but don't panic. Believing bad things will happen is a 'self-fulfilling prophecy,' experts say.

Woman in green turtleneck against maroon background holds up hands and has an expression of dread or confusion.
Mercury in retrograde is associated with chaos and confusion. Here's what experts say about the psychology behind it. (Getty Images)

Sanam Hafeez considers herself “the most scientific of the psychologists out there.” The New York City-based neuropsychologist tells Yahoo Life, “My entire world is statistical data standardized testing. I believe in cognitive behavioral therapy — and I also absolutely love astrology.”

Hafeez says she loves to guess other people’s zodiac signs when she meets them and even refuses to date anyone whose sign is considered incompatible with hers. So when the astrological occurrence of Mercury retrograde occurs, Hafeez takes note. (“[But] I’m very compartmentalized,” she adds. “So it doesn’t affect me or the way I do my work.”)

For others, however, it does. Astrologist Constance Stellas tells Yahoo Life that “Mercury is in retrograde” has become a “catch-all phrase for dysfunction and confusion.” It’s a period associated with chaos and bad luck, with people — even some nonbelievers who otherwise aren’t known to read their horoscopes — blaming their issues on it. TV’s suddenly not working? Had your first fight with a boyfriend? Lost a file at work? Mercury in retrograde.

The first complete retrograde of 2024 hits at a particularly interesting time: this Monday, which is also April Fools’ Day. Should you be worried? Here’s what to know about Mercury in retrograde and why psychologists think so many people believe in it.

What is Mercury in retrograde?

Although you’ve likely heard about it in the context of astrology, the idea of Mercury retrograde is based in astronomy. It refers to the apparent backward movement of the planet as it moves across the sky. As noted by National Geographic, scientists say it’s an optical illusion caused by the relative positions and speed of other planets as they orbit the sun.

But the idea that Mercury controls communication, information, travel and technology — and that its being in retrograde can wreak havoc on those parts of our lives — has become popularized alongside interest in astrology. Pop culture references, like memes and even the site Is Mercury in Retrograde?, where you can check to see if Mercury is in fact retrograding on a particularly bad day, have fed its reputation for inviting misfortune.

When is it?

The astrological phenomenon takes place three or four times a year, lasting a few weeks each time. The last retrograde of 2023 ended on Jan. 1, 2024. “This year, Mercury will retrograde three times, from April 1 to April 25, Aug. 4 until Aug. 28, and Nov. 25 until Dec. 15,” says Stellas.

Each retrograde is said to take place in a specific zodiac sign, which means that the impact of the event is a bit different, based on the qualities associated with that sign. “The upcoming retrograde is in Aries, an action-oriented fire sign,” says Stellas, explaining that this could result in “feelings of anger and impatience,” as well as “events that stir up peoples’ aggression.”

As an astrologist, Stellas recommends taking a number of precautions. “Don’t buy a new computer or other device systems, try to check and recheck travel arrangements, carefully scrutinize contracts to see that there aren’t any loopholes,” she says, “and if you can’t cope, just sit down and cool out.”

What mental health experts say

Not everyone believes that the Mercury-in-retrograde effect is real. For a lot of people, like Hafeez, it’s a harmless diversion. “I think it’s tremendously fun,” she says, adding that she can get caught up in an astrologer’s work when the things they say “make sense” to her. “But at the end of the day, I’m not wired to believe in it to the point where I’ll ever change my life around because of it. I won’t cancel a trip because they say [Mercury’s in retrograde].”

But there are those who take it much more seriously. Dr. Carole Lieberman, a Beverly Hills-based forensic psychiatrist, tells Yahoo Life that the perceived threat of Mercury retrograde could have a negative impact on someone’s mental health.

“The anticipation of it and the period of Mercury in retrograde itself causes people to expect disaster, so they may feel anxious, depressed, have cloudy thinking, misinterpret people’s words and attitude towards them, refrain from starting projects because they expect them to be stalled and postpone important events because they’re afraid something will go wrong on that day,” she says. “Simply put, when you expect bad things to happen, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Experts also have theories as to why Mercury in retrograde has so many people in its grips. According to Simon Rego, chief of psychology at Montefiore Medical Center and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, humans are naturally inclined to identify causes for changes in emotions or challenges in their lives. He tells Yahoo Life that it’s a part of our evolutionary history, although threats to our existence have changed.

“The primitive part of our brain is still wired to scan for any potential cause for a change in our emotions so that we can try to adapt to it in order to cope. As such, when we are presented with new potential causes for an unwanted change in our emotions [like the news or an astrological phenomenon] for some people, it feels reassuring — whether or not it is actually true,” he says.

Hafeez, meanwhile, points out that for some, Mercury in retrograde might just be a handy scapegoat to blame when things go wrong. People are programmed to either accept responsibility or pass it onto something external, she notes.

“There’s an effect in psychology called locus of control,” Hafeez says, which refers to the level of control a person perceives to have over events in their life. “The people who are going to have the external locus of control just tend to externalize blame and shift blame instead of looking inward. And so I suspect that a lot of people who might use astrology as an out — meaning they blame any misfortune on astrological events — might have an external locus of control.”

That doesn’t mean that a person can’t have fun with it, as Hafeez does herself. “I enjoy astrology, like I said, but I’m not making life decisions based on it.”