The Emotional Calendar

How emotional life is profoundly shaped by the seasons–and how to recognize your personal seasonal patterns.

Springtime and Spring Fever

Dealing with what Spring Fever is, really!

 

Ok good news, spring revelers: spring is here. At least that’s what the calendar says — meteorologically, spring may still be a few weeks away.

 

Spring! Just the word makes us feel jittery, full of the famous restive energy that abounds this time of year. Most of the time, we look forward to cheering up after we adjust to the end of daylight savings time, after it gets light again in the early morning and stays sunny right through the late afternoon. We start feeling the urge to get a-moving, to want to mix it up, get some excitement thrown in, refresh, renew, recharge, get lively, shake it up, recommit, take it up a notch, make it happen, get fired up, get jazzed, kick it in gear, and have at it. Hopefully, the restive energy we feel can be harnessed for the good.

 

But the realities of spring fever, as we call it, are often much more complex. This is the time of year when internal biologic systems do indeed rev up and we feel the results.  Neurotransmitter levels, transmembrane protein receptor densities, hormonal balance, and basal metabolic rate all make their seasonal shifts. There’s an increase in energy that cannot and should not be ignored. That’s why I recommend you tune in early to what is coming up inside and try to take control.

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Otherwise, the energy of springtime may just take control of you. Although we often anticipate happiness in spring, it’s not the only possible outcome. The energy that rises inside of us when the snow starts to melt can often be more confusing than motivating. Let down your guard, and you may wind up feeling pushed around in many different directions, distractingly, perhaps contradictorily, and maybe even incoherently: certainly not purposefully. Perhaps you feel on the verge. On the verge of what exactly? This you may not know.

 

Emotional discomfort and even despair can also increase during springtime. A little-known fact is that suicides are at a peak in April. Counterintuitive for sure, but let me try to explain. Sometimes, the palpable energy of the season becomes a stressor that can become too much for some of us who have been struggling for too long to get by. In the case of those suffering from a major depression, thiscan be just plain too much. The extra energy and increased expectations of the season can be the last straw, pushing us right to the edge, or in some cases, tragically, over the edge. Whereas unhappiness and misery increased during holiday times, psychiatric admissions peak in January and again in spring.

 

The lesson to take away is that “spring fever” needs to be taken seriously and honestly, whether spring’s restive energy brings you motivation, ennui, or deeper feelings of disappointment and despair. By being aware of your Emotional Calendar, you can see all this coming, learn to understand its sources, and make good plans for your own sake. Ask yourself, how has the spring been typically? Year after year, what have the patterns been in your life? What can you learn from experience? Even if you don’t immediately see the pattern, look back and ask yourself, how do I usually feel as March rolls in. How about April? How about May?

 

Sometimes a little awareness is all you need to get through the transition into spring smoothly and happily. But if this transition is a hotspot on your calendar — if it’s a time when you tend to experience anxiety or turmoil — take a step back and make a personal plan for how you will take especially good care of yourself this time of year. Maybe you tend to get overenthusiastic and hurt yourself by exercising too much as soon as the sun comes out. Plan to manage your exercise routine so it’s healthy, instead of doing too much, too fast.

 

Or maybe you find yourself indulging in other ways in springtime. One of my patients is a professional athlete who retired prematurely from the game he loved due to a medical problem, — an addiction — that made him step off the mound one March. “I never thought of it before, Doc”, he told me recently, “but since then, March has nearly always been a problem for me. Instead of getting psyched up for the beginning of the season, I fall pray to bad temptations.” Four of his relapses have happened in March. This year however, in light of this realization, he decided to institute a different pattern. He sought out extra help in advance of spring to help make sure that he didn’t lose control in this difficult time of year. Getting more support for yourself is indeed a strong step. Like the Buddha said, “Seeking support when you know you need it is a sign of strength not weakness.”

 

Like my patient, you can institute your spring plan before the season actually hits. It’s not too late (it was 20 degrees this week!) to evaluate how you feel about spring and plan for the coming months. Remember that you can write your own emotional calendar by boldly proceeding with what you determine to be in your best interest. You do not have to be the victim of circumstance, doomed to relive past associations – events in your past triggering emotions that dominate your attitude and feelings. When you calm yourself, recognize the pattern, and understand why you tend to feeling a certain way, you gain power over this recurrence and claim the opportunity to make a change for the better in your life going forward.

 

I like the spring. I like this time of year, early on when it’s still a little too cool and not yet definitively lovely. The sunlight is much stronger than before. Even if it snows, I know it won’t last long. The cold can’t hurt me now. Soon the leaves will be bursting forth and I am not in a hurry. Actually, I like having all that blooming in my forecast; the best is yet to come. Sometimes I feel uncomfortably restive and have to urge to make a big change, get going with something new. Sometimes, I can get a whopping amount of stuff done all at once. And sometimes, despite myself, I want to set a million things done and can’t seem to engage successfully with anything. Argh. Smile. Its springtime. 

 

John Sharp, M.D., is a psychiatrist and neuropsychiatrist specializing in the treatment of attention deficit, mood, and anxiety disorders in adolescents and adults.

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