Your emotions have a calendar, too, and getting to know it can help you feel better all year long. (GIF: Priscilla De Castro for Yahoo Health)
For me, it’s always been August.
The end of summer makes me anxious — not because summer’s winding to a close or because fall’s creeping up, but because of that feeling: of packing up and moving away from home. To camp. To school. To college. To New York City for a career in magazines. Without fail, I feel the pit in my stomach, the uneasiness, and the angst return year after year. The thing is: I’m not going anywhere. I’m not off to college. I’m not moving. There’s nothing to be anxious about.
As it turns out, I’m not alone — many people attach a particular emotion to a certain time of the year. Renowned Harvard psychiatrist John Sharp, MD, would call this our “emotional calendar,” a term he describes in his book titled — what else — The Emotional Calendar.
“Everybody has an emotional calendar,” Sharp tells Yahoo Health. “We all fall prey to patterns of expectations without even knowing it — we are conditioned by life experiences.”
What Shapes Your Emotional Calendar?
There are three main influencers of our emotional calendar, according to Sharp:
The physical realm: Factors like light and temperature fall into this section. As the weather changes, so, too, can our emotions. (An extreme example of this would be people affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder, a type of depression that is usually deeply connected to the seasons and daylight.)
The realm of cultural expectation: What we’re “supposed” to be feeling at a certain time of the year. For instance, the media and the world around us teach us to mourn summer’s end and prepare for colder temps and time indoors.
The realm of personal past experience: What has happened to you at that time of the year. Maybe your family made a massive move in August, and that’s why you tend to get worked up come summer’s close.
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The back-to-school season tends to be a particularly notable time in the emotional calendar, since we’re all trained to be aware of the huge transition between summer and fall, Sharp says. In August, the days get shorter, the cool breeze kicks up, and you remember all those years of packing up backpacks. All of that can bring up a lot of feelings and emotions.
Even though August in particular tends to be an emotional time for people, there are different times of the year that can also dredge up different feelings — not all of them negative. “Fall tends to be something people are divided on. Some people think it’s the best time of year — it’s crisp, it’s cool, you can get organized, it’s a new season filled with arts and culture and fashion,” notes Sharp. “But other people feel like it’s the beginning of winter — they think of barren trees and snow piles.”
During the winter holiday season, some people are the happiest they are all year — they have great memories full of affection, fires, and family meals. Meanwhile, to others, December is practically synonymous with stress, traveling, and endless days of cold weather.
Spring? While it’s a time when most people expect to feel better and renewed — it is the season of renewal, after all — some people feel at their worst, says Sharp. “Suicide peaks in April,” he says. While the reason for this trend continues to puzzle researchers, some hypotheses include changes in temperature and sun exposure, as well as increased social interactions (which can prove stressful and difficult for emotionally fragile people).
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Handling Your Emotional Calendar
The best way to handle your emotional calendar is to not be surprised by it, says Sharp. “I was struck by how significant any one given person’s emotional calendar is in determining how they are likely to feel,” he says. But this is not rocket science: “You can step back and see what’s important for you, make more of what works, and handle the stressors in a healthier way,” he says.
One of the best things to do: Create new experiences, which will modify the emotional calendar going forward. “You’re not doomed by the past,” Sharp says. “New experiences will inform the present and the future.” For example, if August has always been tough on you, remind yourself that you don’t have to have that back-to-school dread. Instead, make a point to create a new and positive memory — even if it’s as simple as walking through a city park to soak in the last bits of summer. “Re-wiring the calendar may take a couple of years, but you can feel good in that moment, and next year, remind yourself to do it again.” If it’s actually the physical end of the season that you mourn, plan a warm-weather trip the first weekend in the fall or do more of what you love doing in the summer — whether that’s beach days or lobster rolls, suggests Sharp. Focus on the good instead of mourning the loss.
The other solution: Handle your stressors in a way that sets you up for success. For example: If impending colder weather bums you out, don’t think negatively about it. Instead, amp up your outdoor runs to take advantage of the cooler, more comfortable temps, suggests Sharp.
Simply being aware of your own emotions is the biggie here. “Not being aware is like [being] an actor on a dark stage with a small spotlight on you,” says Sharp. “Being aware broadens the beam, helping you to see more of what’s influencing you so that you can make things better.”
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