Read an Excerpt
The Emotional Calendar
Understanding Seasonal Influences and Milestones to Become Happier, More Fulfilled, and in Control of Your Life
By John R. Sharp
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2011 John R. Sharp. M.D.
All rights reserved.
The Emotional Calendar
Spring passes and one remembers one's innocence. Summer passes and one remembers one's exuberance. Autumn passes and one remembers one's reverence. Winter passes and one remembers one's perseverance.
Yoko Ono, "Season of Glass"
To understand your emotional calendar you probably have to start thinking differently about your life than you do now — not as a steady drumbeat of days, weeks, months, and years, but as a succession of periods of time of varying lengths, each one with a different combination of influences coming into play. Our emotional calendars are far less structured than our daily planners are — sometimes more subtle in their effect and sometimes more dramatic, but often far less predictable. They're harder to manage and can cause us trouble, but they are also rich in emotion and meaning.
We have become accustomed to thinking of the year as a regular cycle of days and seasons, because we have to do this to keep ourselves organized and functioning and to help us make sense of the world and our lives. So, for example, in the United States and most Western countries, we agree that the year "begins" on January 1. Over the millennia, we have designated a number of religious holidays that punctuate the year — with Christmas a prominent exclamation mark in many societies — and secular ones as well. We live by such social conventions as birthdays and anniversaries. We follow the habit of thinking of the four seasons as if they were well defined, beginning and ending promptly on the appointed calendar date.
These dates and times and milestones tick by each year, giving us structure and a sense of stability. Believe me, I live by my Outlook, my pocket planner, and my BlackBerry. I have patients who expect to find me in my office when they show up for a session. I have two daughters who just may want to spend time with me during their school breaks. I teach a class at Harvard that lasts for fourteen weeks in the fall. We usually try to spend part of the holidays with my wife's family. Our wedding anniversary is an important date. And on and on. So I am as driven as anyone is by the "paper" calendar.
But I also know that the paper calendar doesn't come close to capturing all of the events that I will be living through in the weeks ahead, nor does it have any way to mark the important milestones that will have an effect on me. This is true for most of us, as I have learned from my patients. For example, many people consider the real start of the year to be the first day of school, not January 1, and their lives revolve around that day. We also know that each season varies quite substantially from year to year and, what's more, there can be many seasons within each season. In the Northeast, we may get lucky enough to have a fall that starts in September with crisp air and sparkling light and marches resolutely toward a first December snowfall. The snow may accumulate steadily to a high point in February and then begin to melt away until the first crocus appears. But the seasons rarely proceed in such a predictable fashion. Summer may drift for weeks into September, and we've had heavy snowstorms in May. Each season may feel like a year unto itself.
But these fluctuations and vicissitudes often pale in comparison to the intensity of occasions filled with tremendous personal meaning and rich associations. These can relate to extended periods of your life, such as a time spent living in a certain place or a period marked by an important relationship with a lover, perhaps, or a mentor. They may also be more distinct days or even moments, such as the day you received great news or, as one of the people in this book relates, the minutes spent watching in horror as the World Trade Center was attacked.
There is so much coming at us as we travel along our paths!
How do you come to understand your emotional calendar? How do you recognize the hotspots and difficult times? How do you ameliorate their effects? How do you learn to live with the anxious times with more ease and grace?
In order to make a start on the answers to these questions, let me introduce you to Emma, a wonderfully intelligent and funny young woman, who has been my patient for six years. To meet her, you might not suspect how much she struggles with her emotional calendar. The seasons, especially fall and winter, are particularly tough for her. Her story demonstrates how complex and unique our emotional calendars are; it also shows how the elements of everyone's calendar are very much the same.
Emma: Going Through the Motions
Emma is twenty-one years old and a junior at a prestigious New England liberal arts college where she majors in psychology. She first came to see me when she was fifteen and having a very bad year. She had been attending a prep school outside of Boston, well known for its stringent academics and pressure-cooker environment.
"I think I've had depression since about fourth grade," Emma recalls. "But it got really bad in the middle of my ninth-grade year, and then it just went totally downhill." Emma became seriously depressed and could not continue at the school. She took some time off, did a stint in the hospital, and then transferred to another school that was better able to help with her emotional and psychological issues.
What was going on? It took some time for us to work through the many issues involved, and we're still doing so. To begin with, Emma has always had problems with school. "I can't really remember when I was little very well," she says, "but I've never liked school that much. It's always been very stressful for me. School is always something I just dreaded. I could never really manage it — I was so stressed all the time. Even in preschool, I only went about two days a week. In kindergarten the only reason I made it through was because they bribed me with stickers. I had a very nice collection by the end!"
Emma began to associate her difficulties with school with the change of the season from summer to fall. "It starts around September or late August when I know that it's starting to change into fall," she says. "I notice it's starting to get darker. It's not necessarily a feeling of hopelessness, but more like an absolute dread that I know that this time of year is approaching and I'm not going to feel as happy. My mood is going to go down."
Emma's dread of the school season seems to be magnified by the environmental conditions around her. "I know it sounds kind of weird, but I don't like it when there aren't leaves on the trees," she says. "The angles of the light, the trees are bare, and everything looks so ugly and dead. You can see all the skeletons of the trees. And there's something about it that's just incredibly depressing. It just looks like death. You know, it's horrible."
Emma is exquisitely sensitive to her surroundings and starts to withdraw in the early part of the fall. "Sometimes I wish I could just hibernate through the winter. Actually, that's almost what I do. So on a typical day I'll wake up, I'll get ready for school, I'll go to school, I'll say hi to people. It's like I go through the motions. Maybe it snows and I say, 'Oh hey! I'll have a hot chocolate.' But compared to the summer it's totally different. It's like I'm not really living."
The grimness of the fall is made all the more difficult for Emma to deal with because she loves spring and summer so much. "Spring is a great time of year," she says. "I love it when the green leaves are out and you can see the light filtering through them. I don't like direct sunlight. I find that harsh light to be hard to deal with. But when it's filtered through the leaves, it's very pleasant and that makes me feel good." Summer, too, is a beautiful time for Emma. "During the summer I actually live," she says. "And it feels so good to be alive. You can just exist in summer and you don't even have to do anything necessarily to really enjoy it. The weather invites you to take part in life."
Sensitivity to light, particularly the despondency that sets in during the darker days of fall and winter, is one of the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Emma was diagnosed with the condition some years before we met, and she had already begun using a sunlamp to help alleviate those effects. Indeed, one of the main reasons that Emma first came to see me was that she was convinced that her SAD was at the root of most of her problems, and she was concerned that the sunlamp wasn't enough to keep her depression and morbid thoughts at bay. It took a while for the two of us to unpack all of the deeper issues contributing to her emotional state.
Emma's dislike of winter and love of spring and summer go back a long way. She remembers a favorite book from her childhood called The Journey Home. "It's about these two kids," she says. "They go to different places in the world. They go through a hole in their sandbox and visit different mystical creatures. They eat different foods and stay in different beds. I like that book a lot. But, you know, it takes place in the spring. They visit Santa Claus in the winter, but I kind of skip over that part."
So Emma's troubles with fall and winter stem partly from her school problems and partly from her physical responses to the light and look of things, and they have been present since childhood. But there are other issues she contends with as well. She has a particular difficulty with Christmas, not because of the usual holiday issues but because of an emotionally devastating event that took place on that day.
"I was in an abusive relationship with a boyfriend," Emma says. "I didn't really realize it was abusive at the time, but it was. And he broke up with me on Christmas Day. He said that he had been using me for the past three years — that he had never loved me and he was just using me for sex." Emma believes she has gotten over that guy, and she now has a new boyfriend in her life. But the way she talks about the experience suggests that her feelings during winter months are still affected by that painful breakup.
Emma's emotional calendar may sound like a particularly complicated one, and she has certainly had her share of serious emotional difficulties. However, her situation is not uncommon. The fact is that most people — between 70 and 90 percent of us — experience at least one significant trauma during our lifetimes, and there's a good chance that it will have an effect on our emotional calendars. What's more, about 26 percent of people in the United States suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder of some kind. So Emma's emotional calendar is probably more complex than yours or mine, but she is far from alone in her travails. Keep in mind, however, that the emotional calendar is not fundamentally about mental illness or severe depression. Rather, Emma's story illustrates how intensely the seasons and their associations can affect all of us.
These days, Emma is more aware than most of us about the cyclical repercussions of a personal emotional calendar. Most of us focus more on factors that seem to affect us immediately or powerfully while underestimating or ignoring the subtler underlying issues: the events in our past that continue to haunt us years later; the common weather occurrences that don't seem to bother anyone else; the calendar events that we try to enjoy because it seems like we should.
As was the case for Emma, it can take a good deal of introspection and work to recognize the multifaceted and overlapping nature of the dates on your emotional calendar, and even more to understand the way these interact to affect you both physically and emotionally.
So let's pull apart the emotional calendar a little bit. There are two main aspects that compose it: our need for homeostasis, or physical stability, and the emotional hotspots that are individual to each one of us.
Homeostasis: The Need for Physical Stability and the Factors That Disrupt It
Homeostasis is a scientific term that refers to the tendency of a system — usually, a living system — to regulate its internal environment in order to maintain a stable, constant condition. The need for physical stability is the most fundamental of human requirements. The term comes from scientific articles published by Walter Bradford Cannon during the 1920s, and scientists have been refining it ever since. Today, it is understood that factors ranging from temperature and insulin to emotional distress can all impact homeostasis.
The term "dynamic equilibrium" is also often used to describe the body when it achieves balance. I like this phrase because it suggests both balance and constant motion, like the currents beneath an apparently calm lake. Because the world around us is constantly changing as we eat and work and sleep, our bodies are always making dozens of minute changes in our system to keep us in balance.
A good deal of our energy is expended each day just trying to keep ourselves at or near a condition of homeostasis. Maintaining homeostasis is the never-ending task of a regulatory system that is managed by the brain. This remarkable and essential system is not unlike a home thermostat, although a great deal more complicated. When the temperature inside your house gets uncomfortably low, the thermostat communicates the information to your heating system. It is activated and warms the house in response. Once the desired temperature has been reached, the thermostat communicates with the heating system to turn off. In the case of human beings, the thermostat is the brain. More specifically, it is the section of the brain called the hypothalamus, which sits just inside the two tracts of the optic nerve and just above the pituitary gland — that is, behind our eyes.
Achieving and maintaining homeostasis is no easy thing, because it is constantly being disrupted by environmental factors around us. Depending on where we live and our own unique biology, these powerful "physical destabilizers" can threaten our body's homeostasis. They include factors such as sunlight, temperature, and humidity; the presence of pollen and other allergens; barometric pressure; and, some suggest, even the cycle of the moon.
Physical destabilizers impact our health, our comfort, and our sense of balance and well-being. Seasonal affective disorder is one of the most well-known manifestations of the destabilizing influence of the environment, but it is a comparatively rare condition. All of us, however, experience a range of physical and emotional responses to even the most everyday conditions. Shifts in weather and climate affect all of our physical systems, including our pulmonary, gastrointestinal, and reproductive systems, our immune functions, hormone secretion, and more. People exhibit recurring variations in blood pressure, sexual activity, and menstrual cycles depending on the time of year. Births, deaths, suicides — all tend to fall into cyclical or seasonal patterns.
For our purposes, the most important of the destabilizers to homeostasis are light and dark, hot and cold, wind and storms. These are often associated with particular seasons, but they are not completely defined by or contained within any one, and these specific factors can affect us more than the generality of any one season. Although we're all aware of the shifts in the seasons and changes in environmental conditions, most of us are far less cognizant of how those physical shifts affect our emotions and behaviors.
Surprisingly, psychiatrists and scientists have not thoroughly explored the hard links between physical factors and the emotional reactions they cause. As Louis J. Battan, a former professor of atmospheric science at the University of Arizona, writes in his book Weather in Your Life, "The psychological effects of the atmosphere are even more difficult to understand than are the physiological ones. The correlation of temperature, pressure, and humidity with certain physical ailments can be examined in controlled laboratory experiments. But the role of the weather in influencing human behavior requires observations of how people respond to preceding or coincident environmental events."
Although this is not a book about weather, per se, weather is certainly an important factor in our emotional calendars. Weather conditions can influence our behaviors, just as the onset of winter affects Emma physically and emotionally.
Emotional Hotspots: Times of Intensity and Anxiety
Emotional hotspots are those times and events that we accumulate as memories over the years and that become associated with particular physical conditions or with specific periods or seasons on the paper calendar.
Excerpted from The Emotional Calendar by John R. Sharp. Copyright © 2011 John R. Sharp. M.D.. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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