Understanding Your Emotional Calendar and the Seasons

With the build up to Christmas over, all that remains are the days until the New Year makes its entrance.  This time can be equally stressful.  During the final leg of the holiday season, many people self-medicate their anxieties with alcohol, food, or drugs.  The idea of taking stock of the previous twelve months can send people into psychological overdrive.

It doesn’t have to be that way.  Dr. John R. Sharp, a psychiatrist on the faculty at Harvard Medical School, has delved into how the overlap between seasonal, cultural, and personal factors can impact us emotionally.  He presents these instructive insights in his new book The Emotional Calendar.

The period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s fits into what Sharp describes as a staple of the American “cultural calendar.” When I spoke with him by telephone specifically about this stretch, he addressed how such a holiday “hot spot” can be the catalyst for “emotional disruption.”  These “hot spots” often overlap with an individual’s personal “emotional calendar,” which is comprised of birthdays, anniversaries, deaths, and remembrances of high and low points.  For adults, memories—both positive and negative— become “triggers,” something that causes “feelings from the past to emerge.”  In tandem with the external hoopla of this “celebratory” period, our moods are affected.

Sharp suggests that people should expect things to be different during the holidays.  Grown-ups have experienced losses and disappointments, and therefore have a repository of associative memories to reflect upon. Many of these are rich in the “triggers’ that can set us off.  Recognizing and understanding these reactions can lead to increased self-awareness.

During the Christmas to New Year’s juncture, the challenge is to switch the “light beam” from looking backward to forward, with the purpose of bringing into focus hopes and aspirations for the upcoming year.  Sharp qualifies the beginning of January as the perfect time to nurture, rest, and determine new goals.  He advises undertaking a positive but realistic outlook, while being careful not to set oneself up for disappointment.

Weather, light, and humidity are variables that cannot be dismissed as having an impact on the emotions.  Acknowledgment of seasonal mood disorders goes back 2,000 years to the writings of Greek philosopher Posidonius.  Most cultures and religions recognize the apprehension that accompanies the cold, dark season, and have created festivals that are intertwined with light.

The first mention of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) in medical literature was in 1984. The current stats show that 4 to 10 percent of the general population is affected by this condition, with women being more susceptible than men.  A decrease in sunlight during the winter months can increase melatonin production, making people feel lethargic or depressed.  Daylight Savings Time often adds to disorientation.

It is important to look at your personal experiences, and examine how they have conditioned your emotional responses. One person’s beautiful blanket of pristine snow can prompt another individual to remember a broken arm suffered in the aftermath of a treacherous blizzard.  Sharp explains, “The mindset doesn’t have to be set in stone.”  We shape our brain connections through experiences that become “neurally encoded.”  If the holiday season or the onset of winter has been a time of anticipatory negativity, Sharp proposes that you can reformulate the personal expectation you are conditioned to—and break the “victim of circumstance” format.  During these months he recommends creating new traditions, self-nurturing, and connecting with “warm, wintery tastes and textures.”  This can included enjoying soups, stews, scented candles, and layering up in clothing that keeps you warm.  (A room set to 72°F is the optimal temperature for a good mood!)  Finding some ritual that is authentic for you can be a process for connecting with the season-at-hand.

Why do seasons carry emotional baggage?  The problem comes when we feel out of sync.  For Sharp, the most dependable key to coping is “self-awareness.”  He points out that “any pattern that plays out over a period of 12 to 15 years—especially early in life—is bound to leave an imprint.” His definition of a birthday is “an emotionally charged marker on how we track time.”

Sharp outlines that our emotional calendars are closely associated with the way our memories function, clarifying, “Our brain encodes, catalogues, and cross-references events.”  However, a person can change their response to those memories, as “our brains don’t have to remain static.” People are distressed when they feel “dissonance,” which emanates from an experience when their “emotions are different from the way they expect to feel.”  However, as Sharp states, “It is possible to create a new experience, innovate a tradition, take a personal inventory, and concentrate on self-aware behaviors.”

“Adaptive control,” which is maintaining an emotional balance in the face of destabilizing factors (whether seasonal, cultural, or emotional) is a strategy for taking a deliberate step to change or manage the situation.  Sharp terms that action as “turning off the auto-pilot.”  He counsels sorting through feelings, finding the sources of our emotions, and recognizing the positive and negative patterns in our lives.  With an increase in self-observation, one can gain perspective and identify elements that point to a recurring problem— and then steer themselves in a different direction.

New beginnings of any sort can be challenging.  Sharp lets readers know they are not isolated in their perceptions, while giving them a set of tools for mindfulness, understanding, and being pro-active about their emotional health.

This article originally appeared on the women’s health site Empowher.

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