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 for caregivers, there's more to this seasonal shift than cooler weather and impending holidays.
The same schedule that organizes a loved one's doctor's appointments and medication reminders contains a deeper meaning that's unique to each individual person. These emotional patterns are responsible for eliciting excitement and anticipation when you first hear holiday carols being piped through the grocery store and pricking your eyes with tears on a late loved one’s birthday each year.
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.
Emotions and Events Are Intertwined
Everyone has their own emotional calendar that influences how they feel about and approach certain times of the year. How you anticipate and interpret seasons is based on how your family stories coincide with seasonal milestones, according to Sharp.
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 last year’s holiday season included a harrowing trip to the hospital with your Dad, you may feel the urge to run for the hills as soon as you see Santa figurines springing up on store shelves.
The idea that there’s a connection between certain times of the year and a person's emotional state may seem obvious, but the emotional calendar concept gives us the ability to draw awareness to these overlooked connections. “In the moment when you experience a seasonal trigger, you re-live the original event,” says Sharp. He also points out that aging enhances the effect of these connections because it means a person has more memories to draw from.
However, 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.
Harnessing Your Emotional Calendar
Understanding how your moods are affected by the seasons can help you take full advantage of everything a particular time of year has to offer. Increased self-awareness can allow you to break negative emotional patterns and develop and promote positive ones. Sharp offers some tips to help with this process.
- 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 closely examine how your thoughts and feelings are impacted by these occasions. What makes these events important to you?
- Acknowledge your emotions and triggers. What kinds of emotions surface around these times? Is there a particular tradition, event or sensory experience (smell, sound or taste) that elicits these feelings? Sometimes negative experiences can overshadow happy ones that occurred around the same event or time of year. It’s important to take inventory of all emotional influences associated with a particular time period to help you shift your focus to the positive.
- Make a plan. Decide how you want to feel during certain times of the year and come up with a plan to make those feelings happen. What can you do to have a more relaxing summer or a joyous Thanksgiving experience this year? For example, if the stress of caring for an aging loved one while preparing the “perfect” Christmas for your family typically makes you feel overwhelmed and anxious, don’t be afraid to ask for help from family and friends. Better yet, ask an obliging relative if they wouldn’t mind hosting the festivities this year.
Sharp says that making simple modifications in how you approach a sensitive event on your emotional calendar can have a huge impact on your mood. This could include devising a new tradition or adapting a long-running one. Modifying your behavior and expectations can have powerful effects, especially if you are consistent. You might find that you eventually look forward to that particular time of year or at least do not approach it with the apprehension you once did.
- Respect your calendar. Sharp says it’s vital to defer to your unique trigger points. “Other people will tell you that you’re supposed to act or feel a certain way,” he says, “but you have to stay true to yourself and the hot spots on your emotional calendar.” The pressure of societal expectations can be overwhelming, but forcing yourself to ignore or suppress your feelings is counterproductive.
Being a caregiver during the holiday season can be a bittersweet experience. You may find yourself thinking longingly of past celebrations where your family was together and everyone was healthy. Sharp encourages family caregivers to acknowledge and tap into these memories and feelings, even if they’re somewhat painful. “Reminiscing and reflecting on the past can be very valuable,” he says. “You can call upon the spirit of people and situations that are no longer with you—it's a natural way of making more out of a treasured memory.”