Marking your Emotional Calendar
Ever notice how people seem a little depressed in the winter? Or what about the anxiety you may feel as you recognize the summer is coming to a close and all the responsibilities of work and school lay ahead in the fall?
BIDMC psychiatrist John Sharp not only has patients that have exhibited these feelings, but he too has felt his mood change as the seasons pass.
"One summer, my cousin Sally came out to Nantucket to visit my family and I the last two weeks of August instead of the first two weeks," Sharp says. "Instead of thinking the chill in the air was relaxing, as she did, I thought it meant fall was on the way and I began thinking of all my responsibilities at Harvard Medical School and BIDMC. I didn't want to be on the beach; I wanted to be planning my fall schedule. I really was a big grump her entire trip."
Once he realized how differently he reacted to his cousin coming for a visit at the end of August instead of at the beginning of the month, Sharp started to notice how his patients were reacting to the change in seasons. This got him thinking about how each person is responding to his or her own emotional calendar. Sharp believes the emotional calendar is made up of the seasons, the holidays and personal experiences. Recognizing what is setting you off will help you come to better terms with your emotional calendar and allow you to make a plan for the times of year when you know you will be impacted.
The seasons bring with them many factors that affect people such as light and darkness, temperature and wind, Sharp says. He remembers a girlfriend in college breaking up with him and then he walked outside on what was a very windy day. He said the chaos of the wind whipping things around him matched the chaos he felt having just lost a meaningful relationship.
In addition to seasons, a person's emotional calendar is shaped by holidays or what Sharp calls manmade seasonal factors like Christmas and Valentine's Day. For example, many times people who are single feel bad about being alone on Valentine's Day. Sharp said singles who know they will be saddened by being alone each February can make a plan in advance with other single friends to celebrate the holiday with a group dinner or some fun activity that helps prevent those negative thoughts associated with this manmade seasonal factor.
The third factor that makes up the emotional calendar is your experience. If you were promoted to the position of president of your company in the spring, you may unconsciously look upon the spring fondly because it conjures up good memories.
Sometimes a person is impacted at once by all three aspects of their emotional calendar. For example, Sharp has a patient named Emma who dreads the winter. She describes encountering the bare branches of trees and instantly wishing for spring. But she also has high familial expectations during the holidays and her boyfriend of several years broke up with her one year on Christmas. For Emma, hating the winter season, the stress of family during the holidays and the past experience of a horrible breakup on Christmas have all led to her emotional calendar influencing her depression in December.
"This is more than just 'I hate the winter,'" Sharp says. "We are getting cues from our five senses and they shift our outlook. In Emma's case, all three were happening simultaneously. But awareness is key. Once you notice the moment in which you don't feel 100 percent, you can ask yourself what is affecting you and do something about it. It's like wrapping a psychological arm around yourself."
In Sharp's case, he has responded to the anxiety he felt those last two weeks of August during this cousin's visit using problem- and emotional-focused coping. Through problem-focused coping, he has learned not to have Sally come the final two weeks of August. Through emotional-focused coping, Sharp now knows he needs to spend those last two weeks on Nantucket splitting his day into a few hours of fun and a few hours of work to prepare for the fall ahead.
He outlines his experience with his own calendar and that of his patients in his first book The Emotional Calendar published by Henry Holt and Company this month. Sharp was also featured on NPR's On Point program discussing his book on Jan. 24. Click here to listen to the podcast. For further information about Sharp and his book, visit http://www.johnsharpmd.com/.
"I hope people understand the concept of the emotional calendar and that they find it helpful," Sharp says. "I hope they will be more seasonally in tuned and healthier."