Dr. Mike, I’ve noticed that I tend to get down this time of year, and I also tend to eat more and need more sleep during the late Fall and Winter months. My husband has joked for years that I’m like a bear in hibernation from November through March. Our kids are now 3 and 6, and I don’t want them to see their mom as being depressed during the holiday season. My brother in-law is a physician, and he thinks I have Seasonal Affective Disorder but that condition just seems absurd to me. What do you think? – I in Loudoun County
I, Many of my clients suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and often they just expect it is a part of the season that will pass, but there are treatments that can alleviate or lessen the symptoms. While your brother in-law may be correct in his informal diagnosis of SAD for you, I think you should contact your own physician or a mental health professional to more formally determine diagnosis and treatment. Keeping an accurate log of your mood, energy, eating and sleeping habits over time will be helpful for determining whether any changes are in fact seasonal.
SAD, while it may seem absurd to you, is indeed a legitimate mood disorder associated with depression and related to seasonal variations of light. SAD has been linked to melatonin, a sleep-related hormone secreted by the brain’s pineal gland. This hormone, which can cause symptoms of depression, is produced at increased levels in the dark. So, as the days become shorter, these effects are felt by an estimated six percent of Americans. Eighty percent of those who suffer from SAD are estimated to be women, though the reasons for increased depression in women are not yet understood.
According to the National Institute for Mental Health, SAD symptoms include: regularly occurring symptoms of depression (e.g., excessive eating and sleeping and weight gain) during the fall or winter months; full remission from depression occur in the spring and summer months as well as a craving for sugary and/or starchy foods. Just as sunlight affects the seasonal activities of animals, such as reproductive cycles and hibernation, SAD may be an effect of seasonal light variations in humans. As seasons change, there is a shift in our “internal clocks” or circadian rhythm, due partly to these changes in sunlight patterns. This can cause our biological clocks to be out of step with our daily schedules. The most difficult months for SAD sufferers are January and February.
Phototherapy or bright light therapy is a treatment that has been shown to suppress the brain’s secretion of melatonin. Although, there have been no research findings to definitively link this therapy with an antidepressant effect, many people with SAD respond to the treatment. The device most often used today is a bank of white fluorescent lights on a metal reflector and a shield with a plastic screen. For mild symptoms, spending time outdoors or arranging homes and workplaces during the day to receive more sunlight may be helpful. One study found that an hour’s walk in winter sunlight was as effective as two and a half hours under bright light. If phototherapy doesn’t work, an antidepressant medication may prove effective in reducing or eliminating SAD symptoms, but there may be unwanted side effects to consider with medication. Short-term cognitive-behavior therapy can also prove helpful in teaching you strategies and coping skills to manage your mood.
Remember that small things like a walk on a fall or winter day can be a boost both physical and mentally. And spring is only a few months away!
Dr. Mike, our son wants to apply to Penn State next year, but after the child sexual abuse scandal there we’ve decided against it. Our son remains adamant that he still wants to attend Penn State and this has caused quite a bit of upset in our home. How can we trust entrust the care of our adolescent son to an institution that not only employes pedophiles, but also turns a blind eye and does nothing when abuse child sexual abuse occurs? We’ve tried to explain our very valid points to our son but with no success. Help! – O in Loudoun County
O, I certainly understand your strong, negative feelings on the topic, however, I would encourage you to think through things a little more before forbidding your son to apply to Penn State. It’s true that Mr. Jerry Sandusky, Penn State’s celebrated assistant Coach, was indicted on 40 counts of sex crimes against young boys. It’s also true that while the accusations and charges are very upsetting, Mr. Sandusky remains an innocent man until proven guilty. Aside from Mr. Sandusky’s guilt or innocence, Penn State is currently not the same university or campus it was prior to the scandal and indictments. In addition to the indictments, the recent news has led to the firings of the university’s legendary head coach and president. And, the administration, the students and alumni, as well as the nation as a whole, are still reeling from the horrific recent news. With enough time though, I imagine that things will improve and get back to normal at Penn State, but with more alleged victims coming forward, forthcoming trials and the outcomes of those trials, it’s hard to say when that will be. I think Virginia Tech is a good example for you to consider when contemplating how best to proceed with your son. You likely recall the 2007 shooting massacre that occurred at Tech that took the lives of 32 individuals and wounded 25 others. And, then there was the beheading of a student by another student at Tech in 2009. While it took some time, today, Virginia Tech seems to be back to normal with very strong applications and enrollment. Would you then hesitate to send your son to Tech at this point if that were his desired school for next year? I think you should allow your son to apply to Penn State next year along with his other selected schools. You can always make a decision later as parents and as a family. It doesn’t make sense to me to say no to your son now to something so far off, especially with something that means so much to him.
Dr. Mike, my husband was laid-off from his job earlier this year, and we have since struggled financially. It’s been difficult for our teenage boys to understand exactly how tight things are. In fact, rather then understanding our situation (which we’ve explained in full several times now), they have both become more demanding and even entitled with their requests of us. The problem is that our boys have always gotten whatever they’ve wanted and so have all of their friends. Northern Virginia is an environment of privilege and over indulgence, and we just can’t seem to keep up with the Jones’s right now. Any advice on how to handle Christmas gifts with them this year? My husband and I can only give them a portion of what they are wanting. We feel badly since their friends will have so much more than them this year. – A in Loudoun County
A, I agree that Loudoun County as a whole is a unique financial environment to raise children. With the reported mean household income over $140,000, the County is indeed a place of privilege. I don’t, however, agree with your assumption that over indulgence is occurring as a result of their being higher personal resources. We, as parents, are responsible for instilling proper values and morals in our children and for shaping their behaviors – regardless of where we live. You write that your boys have always gotten whatever they’ve wanted and that you and your husband are now having trouble keeping up with the Jones’s. If these sentiments are accurate, then it’s no surprise to me that your boys are reacting to you with such strong negativity. Hey, if I always got my way and then one day all of the sudden I didn’t, I too would react negatively. I’d like you to think of the current financial strain in your lives as an opportunity for your boys to become more accountable and responsible. While it very likely won’t be easy for them, they need to first accept your current financial situation as involved family members and then begin to redefine their relationship with money and material possessions. I think you should agree on small gifts this year with a focus on teaching your boys that the meaning of Christmas (and life for that matter) isn’t about acquiring material things. Maybe you could agree on creating some new holiday traditions as a family for starters – cutting down a tree by hand, going snowboarding or sledding for the day, ringing the bell for the Salvation Army, or serving a meal at a homeless shelter. When buying gifts for your boys, you could teach them the value of a dollar by encouraging them to shop for deals; get them involved in researching their own gifts by finding the best prices and compromising if needed. You might even watch a couple of Christmas movies as a family that reinforce the true message and spirit of the holiday. To quote Calvin Coolidge, “Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas.”
Dr. Mike, What sort of tips do you have on managing stress during the holidays? I know I have a month to prepare, but I am already feeling overwhelmed and even a little down – managing my work schedule with my families personal needs is already becoming a problem. HELP! J in Loudoun County
J, A time of festivity, parties, shopping, entertaining and family gatherings, the holiday season can be full of excitement and fun. For many people, however, this time of year is inevitably accompanied by stress, as we find ourselves overscheduled and pressured to create a holiday that meet others’ expectations. Often, we may also experience depression, as feelings of sadness and anger are intensified when contrasted with the expected joy of the season.
One key to minimizing holiday stress and depression is being cognizant to the fact that the holidays can trigger stress and depression. Personal relationships, finances and time constraints can lead to these feelings. Understanding these three potentially stressful aspects of your life can help you to take steps to prepare for and to prevent the associated negative feelings.
Personal relationships can cause stress at any time, but tensions are often heightened during the holidays. Family togetherness – especially for a length of time – can lead to conflict as arguments arise, personalities clash and planned agendas eliminate personal choice. On the other hand, if you are alone on the holidays and are dealing with the recent loss of a loved one or a break-up, the holidays can bring up many feelings of loneliness.
To cope with these feelings, remember that your family and friends are under the same pressures as you, and try to set aside grievances for a more appropriate time. If you are dealing with a loss of a loved one, understand that your feelings are normal and let yourself grieve. Adjusting your typical holiday routine may help to distract you from memories associated with your loved one and to create new memories. If you are going through a divorce or a break-up, the holidays can seem particularly lonely. Surround yourself by friends and loved ones who can offer you support and help you through the difficult time.
Like relationships, your financial situation can cause stress at any time of the year, but the demands of the holidays usually exacerbate that stress. Overspending on gifts, travel and entertainment may help to make your season bright, but will lead to months of stress as you struggle to pay the credit card bills and to make ends meet. In the short term, it may stress you out during the festivities of the holiday, as you anticipate the bills that will be coming.
To help manage your spending, resolve to make a budget and stick with it in advance of shopping. Additionally, try not to fall victim to your children’s request for the “it” present; remind them that getting isn’t what the holidays are about. Be creative with your gifts to help you manage your spending- make your own gifts, bake, use the internet to try to find the best value to stretch your dollar further- you can show someone you love them by giving them something personal and special, not necessarily expensive.
Time is one of the leading stressors of the holiday season as we are faced with so many demands – shopping, baking, parties, wrapping – and very limited time to fit it all in. Because we have so many additional demands on our time, sleep and exercise are usually the first to suffer as we try to squeeze more into our day. Add to this the fact that you will be exposed to more sweets and alcohol due to holiday parties and it is clear that your health can certainly suffer this time of year. Unfortunately, alcohol consumption can also increase symptoms of depression, while lack of sleep and an unhealthy diet can add to your stress.
To manage your schedule, plan ahead and do not be afraid to say no to invitations. Everyone is busy this time of year and people understand when you cannot attend an event. Prioritize what you need to do and do not be afraid to take shortcuts if needed. Home baked cookies are nice, but store-bought will be just as appreciated. Try not to let the holidays impact your normal routine of diet, sleep and exercise. Adjusting these habits can leave you feeling run down and more susceptible to illness, which will certainly add to your stress.
Try to simplify your holiday experience, manage your expectations and know your limits. Life isn’t always like the movies and things don’t always have to be picture-perfect. Roll with the punches and plan ahead to make the most of the season while taking active steps to avoid undue stress and pressure. If you are unable to shake the “holiday blues,” do not be afraid to ask for help and consider consulting a mental health professional.
Michael Oberschneider “Dr. Mike” is the Founder and Director of Ashburn Psychological Services (APS), a private mental health clinic comprised of 12 MD and PhD level mental health clinicians. He and his team are here to serve our Loudoun children, teens and adults. To learn more about Dr. Mike and the APS team, visit: www.ashburnpsych.com or call (703) 723-2999.