Among those with a casual interest in astrology, “Mercury retrograde” is about a buzzy a phrase as it gets. I find myself in a lot of discussions with folks who seem to be a little unclear about what it means, but are pretty sure that whatever Mercury retrograde is, it’s bad.
I’m hoping this article will help clear some things up, so you can relax about Mercury retrograde, and also deepen your understanding of astrology a bit.
What Mercury retrograde actually is, in the physical world
No, obviously the planets don’t literally turn around mid-orbit and start moving in the opposite direction. They just appear to sometimes, due to differences in how long their orbits are compared to the Earth’s. You can read more about this astronomical phenomenon here. I’m gonna focus on the astrology part in this article and leave the science-ing to scientists. (Thanks for science-ing, scientists! We appreciate it!)
Mercury is retrograde about three times a year. Each retrograde period lasts about three weeks.
Stations and the shadow period
As Mercury (or any planet) is about to turn retrograde, it appears to slow down, then stop. It then starts moving in the “backward” direction, and gradually picks up speed. When it’s about return to direct motion (i.e. not retrograde), it again slows down, stops, then gradually picks up speed in the “forward” direction.
When it stops, that’s called stationing. So if someone says Mercury will be retrograde March 23-April 15, that means that Mercury stations retrograde on the 23rd and stations direct on the 15th. But Mercury will be moving slower than usual for a few days before and after those dates too. In astrology this is called the retrograde shadow, and it’s important. I’ll talk about this more in a minute.
Mercury in astrology, and what happens when it’s retrograde
In astrology, we look to Mercury for information about:
- how we think
- how we communicate
- short trips we go on (commuting)
- how smoothly our systems and routines are running
When Mercury–named after a trickster god!–is retrograde, you may notice any or all of these things going a bit haywire. For example:
- Suddenly your phone won’t turn on–until you take it for repair, that is. As soon as the technician touches it, suddenly it works just fine.
- Your waiter brings the wrong food, so you send it back. Then she brings the right food–but the kitchen forgot to warm it up.
- You show up 15 minutes early to your doctor’s appointment, only to find that the receptionist accidentally scheduled you for tomorrow instead. (Or maybe it was you who got confused! Nah, couldn’t have been.)
Depending on where Mercury is right now in relationship to your chart–and how Mercury functions in your chart in general–you may find yourself noticeably spacier than usual. Did you leave the milk out on the counter? Better go back and check. Wait, when you went back to the kitchen to check, did you actually check that the milk was put away? Or did you get distracted and do the dishes instead? Better go back and check again. Around and around you go.
Mercury retrograde is also traditionally considered a bad time to sign contracts (including getting married), since the parties involved may not have all the information needed to know what they can and should commit to.
The shadow period
Remember how Mercury appears to be moving slower in the days just before and after it’s retrograde? The slower Mercury is moving, the more you will notice the above effects. That means you’ll probably start noticing the wonkiness a day or three before it stations retrograde, and keep feeling it for a few days after it stations direct. Typically I notice more weirdness a couple of days before the retrograde station–even though Mercury is not retrograde yet–than I do in the middle of the retrograde period, when Mercury’s trucking along at full speed in its “backward” direction.
This point is commonly missed in popular discussions about Mercury retrograde. I cringe when I hear that someone is putting off something for the day after Mercury turns direct. Just give it a couple more days! Or if you can’t wait that long, do it in the middle of the retrograde period, instead of right when Mercury stations direct!
Or: just chill out about the whole Mercury retrograde thing altogether and see what happens.
Mercury retrograde as a scapegoat
Among some spiritual seeker types, it’s popular to blame Mercury retrograde for pretty much anything and everything that bums them out. People being dramatic, crappy political events, general low moods–it’s all fair game for poor Mercury the whipping boy. Many will take to social media to post warnings along the lines of “Mercury is retrograde for the next three weeks! Prepare for everything to suck!”
If you can see yourself in this description at all, let me ask:
- Does it make you feel better?
- Are you keeping track of the amount of emotional, stressful and depressing events that happen during Mercury retrograde periods, versus the rest of the year? What patterns do you notice (or not notice)? In other words: is it true?
- How deeply have you studied astrology?
If complaining about Mercury retrograde doesn’t make you feel better, it’s not serving you.
But maybe you find that it does make you feel better. It’s cathartic, perhaps. Or it gives you something outside yourself to pin responsibility onto, so you don’t feel as bad about yourself. OK, then the strategy makes sense emotionally–but are your claims accurate?
If you keep a journal, flip back through and see what was going on during past Mercury retrograde periods. (See dates at the end of this post.) Do you see a significant difference between the types of events you’ve experienced during those months, vs. the rest of the year?
If you don’t keep a journal, I encourage you to start now–even just a few bullet points per day–and see what you notice.
My guess is that in most cases your overall levels of depression, anxiety, social drama, life upheaval, etc. won’t be radically different than the months on either side of the Mercury retrograde periods. It’ll be more the minor communication and tech annoyances of the type I listed above.
If that’s the case, I encourage you to consider what would happen if you reclaimed the more intense events as aspects of your overall life experience, rather than something imposed upon you three times a year by some silly little sky orb. It may mean asking yourself a few uncomfortable questions. But in the end, the truth is always more empowering than scapegoating.
Your mileage may vary, of course. I always encourage everyone to conduct their own experiments before deciding whether things are or are not true–whether it’s an astrologer, a scientist, or someone else telling you it’s true.
It’s also worth noting that some of the top experts in the astrology field don’t believe that individuals feel Mercury retrograde on a personal level at all. I am not in agreement with them. Mercury dominates the F out of my chart (Gemini sun/Mars, Mercury in Gemini rising, Virgo moon) and I feel the retrograde very noticeably, every single time. I rely so much on Mercurial processes that when they go wonky, I go wonky too.
But I understand where my skeptical colleagues might be coming from on this one. Compared to heavy-hitting astrological markers like Pluto transits–which most people have never heard of–Mercury retrograde is just not. that. big. of a deal. Who is Mercury retrograde’s PR agent? Can I hire her too?
If big, gross stuff does happen during Mercury retrograde (your partner leaves, you lose your job, someone passes away)… well first off, that really sucks. I’m so sorry you’re dealing with that. Bringing it back to astrology, though: I’m confident that you’ll find some other combination of astrological factors in your personal chart that speak to the experience you’re having. It likely has nothing to do with Mercury at all.
Knowing that doesn’t make it hurt less, of course. But it does mean you don’t have to live in fear every time Mercury’s retrograde period rolls around again.
(Of course, if you would like support in figuring out what those larger themes are in your chart, and how to work with them intentionally, I can help you with that.)
Good Mercury retrograde habits
Here’s what I try to do during Mercury retrograde, especially on the first and last day and during the shadow periods. You might find these strategies help you, too:
- Back up your computer and other important gadgets at least four or five days before the Rx period, if you have a chance.
- Wait till a week or two after the Rx period to accept that dang iPhone update. For some reason Apple seems to release them like clockwork to coincide with Mercury’s retrograde periods! And I don’t know about you, but half the time if I accept them right away, they break my phone. (Of course, the reason waiting to accept them works better is probably because the engineers have had a chance to fix them, not because some rock in the sky started moving differently. I do tend to assume astrology describes what happens, rather than causing events.)
- Double-confirm agreements, plane tickets, etc. For example, as a touring musician, I would never skip a “see you on Thursday!” email to a music venue for a gig during Mercury retrograde, even if we confirmed the show months beforehand and it seems redundant.
- Double-proofread emails and texts before you send them. (This includes double-checking whom you’re sending them to!)
- Give yourself an extra margin of time when you’re commuting–enough to accommodate extra snarly traffic, or a bus that arrives weirdly late, or a bike rack that is suddenly overcrowded even though usually no one parks there. If none of these things happen, you’ll have that much more time to collect your thoughts when you arrive at your destination.
- Set an extra alarm clock in case the first one mysteriously shuts itself off in the night. (See also: bullet point #2.)
- As mentioned earlier, avoid signing contracts or making major commitments, especially when Mercury is stationing or in a shadow period.
Productive uses of this time
Everything in astrology comes with both challenges and gifts, and Mercury retrograde is no exception. It’s an excellent time to:
- Edit something–your thesis, your website, or your portfolio, for example.
- Declutter your possessions, so your home or office functions better, and contributes to mental clarity.
- Evaluate and improve your systems. Does your bookkeeping strategy make tax time easy? Does your morning routine get you out the door on time and feeling relaxed? Is your car overdue for maintenance?
- Reflect on how things are going in your life in general, and whether there are any adjustments you need to make to get back into alignment with your goals and values.
- Reflect on your relationships. Are there any friends or family you’ve been neglecting? What feels good to do to reconnect?
- Writing in general is favored during this time, with all this slowing down and reflecting going on.
From the above list, you can also start to understand why being born with Mercury retrograde in your chart can be an awesome thing, too. Sometimes my clients freak out when I first tell them it appears in their charts. But then I point out that it’s common in the charts of prolific writers, as well as self-reflective people in general. (Not that you have to have Mercury retrograde in your chart to be thoughtful or a writer; just saying it’s something astrologers see often.)
Remember to look for the spiritual lessons
- Slow down, pay attention, and be mindful. Many Mercury retrograde annoyances happen because we’re all rushing around too fast to think through things. If we build in extra cushions of time, and actually use them to breathe, walk slower, and double check things, our lives will feel smoother.
- Don’t take yourself too seriously. (Remember, Mercury is a trickster god!) Be willing to laugh at your mistakes and those of others. Locked your keys in the car? Ah, well; now you have time to listen to that audiobook while you wait for the locksmith. Maybe you need a break, and that’s what you subconsciously wanted all along! In any case, laughing about it feels better than shaming yourself about it.
- Build redundancy into your systems. If you really rely on something, you need a backup plan in case it breaks. Mercury retrograde periods have a habit of pointing this out, by showing us what it’s like not to be able to rely on our gadgets. If you feel helpless when your hard drive crashes and you lose a bunch of data, you can be mad about it… or you can choose to be grateful for the opportunity to put backup plans in place so you’re never in this position again. (Or both. You’re human, after all.)
Astrology at its best is a matter of extrapolating from correlation, not a science of determining causation. In other words, Mercury retrograde as a concept will be more useful to you if, when something stupid happens, you can say to yourself, “oh yeah, this sort of thing often happens when Mercury is retrograde. So I can recognize that pattern, laugh, look for the lesson in it, and move on.”
I think you’ll find that that feels a lot better–and more empowering–than “gahh omg Mercury is retrograde so I am doomed to have terrible three weeks!!!!!!1!!!”
Hope this helps.
Mercury retrograde dates: 2016-2018
(Remember, these are the station retrograde & station direct dates.
(Remember, these are the station retrograde & station direct dates.
The shadow period lasts 2-3 days on either side)
January 5 – January 25, 2016
April 28 – May 22, 2016
August 30 – September 22, 2016
Dec 19 2016 – Jan 8, 2017
April 9 – May 3, 2017
August 12 – Sept 5, 2017
December 3 – December 22, 2017
March 22 – April 15, 2018
July 26 – August 18, 2018
November 16 – December 6, 2018