By Anne-Marie Botek, AgingCare.com Editor
Fall is officially upon us.
The days are getting shorter, the leaves are beginning to turn, and coffee shops have begun to churn out their much-anticipated pumpkin-flavored drinks by the bucketful.
But there’s more to this seasonal shift than the traditions of children returning to school and the start of football season.
Underneath the surface of datebooks filled with holiday schedules and appointments, runs a deeper current of meaning and emotion that’s unique to each individual person.
It is this nearly-imperceptible undercurrent that’s responsible for giving a young child fits of excitement when they walk outside and smell snow in the air, or for pricking your eyes with tears as you attempt to emulate your grandmother’s legendary stuffing recipe on the first Thanksgiving after her passing.
Psychiatrist John Sharp, M.D., Harvard medical professor and author of “The Emotional Calendar: Understanding Seasonal Influences and Milestones to Become Happier, More Fulfilled and in Control of Your Life,” has a name for this connection between season and sentiment—the “emotional calendar.”
Exploring the bond between emotions and events
Everyone has their own emotional calendar that influences how they feel about and approach certain times of the year.
How a person anticipates and interprets seasons and the important events they contain is based on how their life experiences sync up with important events. Sharp says how a person feels depends on their individual experiences with a particular season or date.
For example, if your child was born on a snowy night, then you may look forward to the first snowfall of the season with the same feelings of happiness that you felt when you welcomed your son or daughter into the world. Conversely, if your holidays are typically packed with stress-filled family gatherings, you may feel the urge to run for the hills as soon as the first few bars of “Jingle Bells,” begin to play in the stores.
The idea that there’s a connection between certain times of the year and a person’s emotional state may seem like a no-brainer. The power of the emotional calendar concept lies in its ability to draw awareness to these often overlooked connections.
The concept of the emotional calendar shouldn’t be confused with seasonal affective disorder (SAD)—a form of depression that typically strikes people during the winter months.
According to the National Institutes of Health, people suffering from this disorder typically find that certain times of the year provoke symptoms of fatigue, social withdrawal, loss of happiness and hopelessness.
Harnessing your emotional agenda
Understanding how you’re emotions are affected by the seasons can help you take full advantage of everything a particular time of year has to offer.
“Reminiscing and reflecting on past experiences can be very valuable,” says Sharp. “You can more easily call upon the memory of an experience you enjoyed, or the spirit of someone who is no longer with you or —it’s a way of making more out of the season.”
How can you channel the power of your emotional calendar to make the most out of each season?
Sharp offers some tips to help:
Discover what matters to you: Identify those particular time periods that have a powerful influence on your thoughts and feelings. Pick several upcoming events, or even an entire season, and examine how your thoughts and feelings are impacted by these occasions. What makes these events so important to you? What kinds of emotions do they bring up for you?
Make a plan: Decide how you want to feel during certain time of the year. Come up with an action plan to make those feelings happen—no matter what a particular event or season currently means for you. What can you do to improve your (insert season or event) experience this year? If the stress of preparing the “perfect” Christmas get-together for your family typically makes you feel overwhelmed and anxious, don’t be afraid to ask for help from family and friends. Or, ask a relative if they wouldn’t mind hosting this year. Sharp says that making simple modifications in how you approach a negative event on your emotional calendar can have a huge impact on your mood. Make enough modifications and you might find that you eventually look forward to that particular time of year.
Respect your calendar: Sharp says it’s vital to defer to your emotional calendar and its unique trigger points. “Other people will tell you that you’re supposed to feel a certain way,” he says. “But you have to stay true to yourself and the hot spots on your emotional calendar.”