Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Healthy coping during holiday stress

The holiday season can be a stressful time. With the combined stressors of holiday shopping, financial strain, difficult relatives, travel stress and a busy schedule of demands, many people find themselves more stressed than usual. Women, who often shoulder the bulk of the added holiday burden as far as baking, shopping, coordinating, party-throwing and planning are concerned, are often particularly stressed during this time.

This added stress can come out in many different ways. Some people respond to stress emotionally, either feeling anxiety, depression or anger and frustration. Others respond with a weakened immune system, getting sick more frequently (which is more of a danger during this season anyway, as people crowd indoors and swap germs in airports and malls). Others just power through and find themselves battling burnout by the end of the year.

As people try to cope with all these stressors, relatively few people take the time to learn new stress management practices; most just use their regular coping tactics, but to a greater degree. This is fine for people who normally cope with stress in a healthy way. For many people--people who do use some healthy coping techniques--also cope with stress in unhealthy ways, either with 'comfort food', a glass of wine, a shopping trip or something similar. These behaviors aren't the healthiest coping techniques to begin with, but they aren't generally as harmful as when they're taken to an extreme. Under increased pressure, mildly unhealthy coping becomes emotional overeating, excessive drinking, chain smoking, compulsive buying, and the like. And these responses to stress generally add more stress.

How does one deal?

By replacing unhealthy coping with healthy stress management techniques.

First, finding some healthier ways to reduce stress can make quite a difference here because, when there is less stress to react to, unhealthy responses can diminish. Also, when healthy coping skills are substituted for unhealthy ones, it's easier to let go of unhealthy habits. Finally, after working harder at healthy stress management (which can include ideas mentioned in the resources below), if you still find yourself feeling overwhelmed with stress or coping in a way that causes problems in other areas of your life, it might be a good idea to talk to someone and find resources to help.

Holiday stress can be a bit daunting, but it can also be just the thing you need to cause you to reexamine your lifestyle and your reactions to stress, and create healthier habits for the coming year, and for your future. Here are some resources to help.

Handling Family Conflict
Going to see your family (or your partner's) can be wonderful and stressful, all at once! While it might be really special and fun seeing everyone (or not--some of you know what I mean!), it can also be stressful for a number of reasons. There might be a relative that you love, but can only take in small doses. You may find yourself or your partner acting differently around your families of origin, and not know how to adjust. You may stress about gifts, alliances, roles, events or any number of things. Or you may get homesick because things are just so darn fun when you see your family! Whatever the stress you may face, I think I have a resource or two here that can help you diffuse stress from the situation. Check out the articles below.

Research shows that supportive relationships are good for our mental and physical health. However, dealing with difficult people and maintaining ongoing negative relationships is actually detrimental to our health. It’s a good idea to diminish or eliminate relationships that are filled with conflict. But what do you do if the person in question is a family member, co-worker, or someone you otherwise can’t easily eliminate from your life?

The following are tips for dealing with difficult people who are in your life, for better or for worse:
Difficulty: Average
Time Required: Ongoing

Here's How:Avoid discussing divisive and personal issues, like religion and politics, or other issues that tend to cause conflict. If the other person tries to engage you in a discussion that will probably become an argument, change the subject or leave the room.

In dealing with difficult people, don’t try to change the other person; you will only get into a power struggle, cause defensiveness, invite criticism, or otherwise make things worse. It also makes you a more difficult person to deal with.

Change your response to the other person; this is all you have the power to change. For example, don’t feel you need to accept abusive behavior. You can use assertive communication to draw boundaries when the other person chooses to treat you in an unacceptable way.

Remember that most relationship difficulties are due to a dynamic between two people rather than one person being unilaterally "bad." Here’s a list of things to avoid in dealing with conflict.

Do you do any of them?Try to look for the positive aspects of others, especially when dealing with family, and focus on them. The other person will feel more appreciated, and you will likely enjoy your time together more.

However, don’t pretend the other person’s negative traits don’t exist. Don’t tell your secrets to a gossip, rely on a flake, or look for affection from someone who isn’t able to give it. This is part of accepting them for who they are.

Get your needs met from others who are able to meet your needs. Tell your secrets to a trustworthy friend who's a good listener, or process your feelings through journaling, for example. Rely on people who have proven themselves to be trustworthy and supportive. This will help you and the other person by taking pressure off the relationship and removing a source of conflict.

Know when it’s time to distance yourself, and do so. If the other person can’t be around you without antagonizing you, minimizing contact may be key. If they’re continually abusive, it's best to cut ties and let them know why. Explain what needs to happen if there ever is to be a relationship, and let it go. (If the offending party is a boss or co-worker, you may consider switching jobs.)

Tips:Try not to place blame on yourself or the other person for the negative interactions. It may just be a case of your two personalities fitting poorly.

Remember that you don't have to be close with everyone; just being polite goes a long way toward getting along and appropriately dealing with difficult people.

Work to maintain a sense of humor -- difficulties will roll off your back much more easily. Shows like "The Office" and books like David Sedaris' Naked can help you see the humor in dealing with difficult people.

Be sure to cultivate other more positive relationships in your life to offset the negativity of dealing with difficult people.

Combating holiday overeating
The holiday season is a notoriously bad time for the waistline. In fact, just thinking about December makes some people swear they've put on a pound or two! While this tends to be a time of year that people want to look their best--most people see family and friends galore at holiday parties and gatherings and want to look nice dressed up, or be remembered as looking their best--it's also a time when staying svelte is most difficult. Think about it; in addition to the regular causes of stress-related weight gain, we have these other factors to contend with:
More food. Better Food.Yes, with all the holiday parties and nice dinners with family, people are often presented with more opportunities to gorge themselves with really delicious (and often more fattening) food. More food is served socially this time of year, and there are also generally more sweets being passed around. This makes for more times when we have to 'be good', and we're bound to slip up a little extra.

More Emotional Stress.
The holidays can bring social and emotional stress as we face family gatherings where there might be some unresolved conflict, or attend office functions with people we might not choose to hang out with socially. There's also the stress of buying gifts (often on a tight budget), fitting in all the activities of the season, and other stressors that occur during the holiday season. (Read more about those stressors in this article on holiday stress.) Because stressed people tend to eat more, and gain more weight, this can take a toll.

More Excuses
People who are celebrating often indulge more than they would in their regular lives. When celebrating the holidays, there are several occasions where people might relax their dietary standards a little, in the name of celebration. These celebrations, however, can be rather plentiful during the holiday season, and the indulgences ("Oh, look--the neighbors made us fudge!" "Hey, it's a party! Why not have another piece of pie?" etc.) can add up.

So what's a body-conscious person to do? Obviously, you can't cancel the holidays!

The first step is to be aware of these triggers, and notice them before they catch you off guard again this month. Have a plan for parties (you can eat a little--not a lot--and try to throw in some extra exercise, for example), and watch your holiday stress levels. And follow regular guidelines for combatting emotional eating, of course.

Tools and Guidelines for Combatting Emotional Eating:

Take The Stress and Weight Gain TestStress can contribute to weight gain in several ways. If you're having trouble with your weight and wonder what role stress may be playing, or if you just want information and resources for healthy change, this is the quiz for you! The following 10 questions are each designed to help you assess a different aspect of your lifestyle to determine if you may benefit from some simple changes that can help you keep your weight under control when you're stressed. At the end of the quiz, you'll find resources that pertain to your specific situation.

What Causes Emotional Eating?Even if we know what we're supposed to be eating, there are additional factors that influence how much and what type of food we consume. One of these factors is stress, which is linked to increased emotional eating. Emotional eating has many causes. Learn about the main reasons--besides hunger--that stressed people eat, and find resources to stop emotional eating.

How To Stop Emotional EatingAs anyone who's watching their weight will tell you, hunger is just one of many reasons that people eat. If you're an emotional eater, you may find yourself eating to deal with uncomfortable emotions, using food as a reward when you're happy, and craving sweets or unhealthy snacks when stressed. This article can help you to cut down emotional eating and develop healthier eating habits--even when stressed!

By Elizabeth Scott, M.S., Guide to Stress Management

Our motto: One step ahead, everyday.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Safeguarding your sight:5 common eye myths dispelled

Although aging puts people at greater risk for serious eye disease and other eye problems, loss of sight need not go hand in hand with growing older. Practical, preventive measures can help protect against devastating impairment. An estimated 40% to 50% of all blindness can be avoided or treated, mainly through regular visits to a vision specialist.

Regular eye exams are the cornerstone of visual health as people age. Individuals who have a family history of eye disease or other risk factors should have more frequent exams. Don’t wait until your vision deteriorates to have an eye exam. One eye can often compensate for the other while an eye condition progresses. Frequently, only an exam can detect eye disease in its earliest stages.
What steps can you take?
You can take other steps on your own. First, if you smoke, stop. Smoking increases the risk of several eye disorders, including age-related macular degeneration. Next, take a look at your diet. Maintaining a nutritious diet, with lots of fruits and vegetables and minimal saturated fats and hydrogenated oils, promotes sound health and may boost your resistance to eye disease. Wearing sunglasses and hats is important for people of any age. Taking the time to learn about the aging eye and recognizing risks and symptoms can alert you to the warning signs of vision problems.

Although eyestrain, spending many hours in front of a television or computer screen, or working in poor light do not cause harmful medical conditions, they can tire the eyes and, ultimately, their owner (see below). The eyes are priceless and deserve to be treated with care and respect — and that is as true for the adult of 80 as it is for the teenager of 18.

5 common eye myths dispelled

Myth 1 : Doing eye exercises will delay the need for glasses.Fact: Eye exercises will not improve or preserve vision or reduce the need for glasses. Your vision depends on many factors, including the shape of your eye and the health of the eye tissues, none of which can be significantly altered with eye exercises.

Myth 2: Reading in dim light will worsen your vision.Fact: Although dim lighting will not adversely affect your eyesight, it will tire your eyes out more quickly. The best way to position a reading light is to have it shine directly onto the page, not over your shoulder. A desk lamp with an opaque shade pointing directly at the reading material is the best possible arrangement. A light that shines over your shoulder will cause a glare, making it more difficult to see the reading material.

Myth 3: Eating carrots is good for the eyes.Fact: There is some truth in this one. Carrots, which contain vitamin A, are one of several vegetables that are good for the eyes. But fresh fruits and dark green leafy vegetables, which contain more antioxidant vitamins such as C and E, are even better. Antioxidant vitamins may help protect the eyes against cataract and age-related macular degeneration. But eating any vegetables or supplements containing these vitamins or substances will not prevent or correct basic vision problems such as nearsightedness or farsightedness.

Myth 4: It’s best not to wear glasses all the time. Taking a break from glasses or contact lenses allows your eyes to rest.Fact: If you need glasses for distance or reading, use them. Attempting to read without reading glasses will simply strain your eyes and tire them out. Using your glasses won’t worsen your vision or lead to any eye disease.

Myth 5: Staring at a computer screen all day is bad for the eyes.Fact: Although using a computer will not harm your eyes, staring at a computer screen all day will contribute to eyestrain or tired eyes. Adjust lighting so that it does not create a glare or harsh reflection on the screen. Also, when you’re working on a computer or doing other close work such as reading or needlepoint, it’s a good idea to rest your eyes briefly every hour or so to lessen eye fatigue. Finally, people who stare at a computer screen for long periods tend not to blink as often as usual, which can cause the eyes to feel dry and uncomfortable. Make a conscious effort to blink regularly so that the eyes stay well lubricated and do not dry out.

Our motto: One step ahead, everyday.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Positive Psychology

Tough economic times are the perfect setting to begin using positive psychology to your advantage, says a new report from Harvard Medical School. Positive Psychology: Harnessing the power of happiness, personal strength, and mindfulness is a guide to the concepts that have made "Positive Psychology" the most popular course at Harvard University, and teaches how to put positive emotion to work in your life.

Positive emotions have been linked with better health, longer life, and greater well being in numerous scientific studies. On the other hand, chronic anger, worry, and hostility increase the risk of developing heart disease, as people react to these feelings with raised blood pressure and stiffening blood vessels. A Harvard School of Public Health study found that people who are generally hopeful were less likely to develop hypertension, diabetes, or respiratory tract infection than those who were less hopeful.

Using positive psychology can help you in the following aspects:
Using the positivity in your life as a moral strength
Finding and using your inner character strengths
Achieving the “flow” experience
Putting mindfulness to use toward well being
Developing gratitude
Savoring pleasure
Finding the meaningful live

Positive emotions and the brain

Is there a biological dimension to happiness? Why does your heart seem to “jump for joy” or your eyes “light up” when you feel happy? Researchers now agree that there is a biomolecular aspect to happiness and that the brain is command central for the chemical and physiological changes that occur in the body with positive emotions. While many researchers have studied positive emotions by observing human and animal behavior, others are trying to discover what is happening inside the brain at the structural and molecular levels.

Since the middle of the 20th century, neuroscientists have investigated the mechanisms of positive emotion in the brain and body. Before that time, positive emotions were regarded as too subjective for rigorous scientific study. But a better understanding of the brain chemicals known as neurotransmitters and increased ability to use technology to create images of the living brain opened new opportunities for study.

In the 1950s, psychologists identified a “pleasure center or reward area” in an area of the brain known as the nucleus accumbens. They found that laboratory animals would press a lever to deliver an electrical stimulus to their own brain’spleasure center repeatedly until they were exhausted—undeterred by hunger, thirst, or pain. When researchers stimulate the nucleus accumbens of people, they smile, laugh, and report feeling pleasure, happiness, or euphoria. Later, by mapping connected areas, the researchers identified a reward circuit in the brain that involves the prefrontal cortex (the thinking part of the brain) and several underlying areas, including the nucleus accumbens and the amygdala ( the center for emotion, so said).

The chemical basis of these pleasurable sensations also came under investigation. While the interactions are extremely complex and variable, some patterns have been described. Researchers found that the neurotransmitter dopamine activates the reward system and is associated with positive emotions, exuberance, and desire. On the downside, the dopamine reward system may also be associated with addictions, in which people develop uncontrollable urges to repeatedly engage in pleasurable but harmful behaviors, ranging from taking drugs to gambling excessively. Children and adult with more reward neurotransmitter, as endorphin, don't involve in social interactions and to a layman this condition is called Autism.

Another group of chemicals, the internally produced opiate-like chemicals called endorphins, are also associated with pleasurable feelings, such as those created by eating chocolate or a runner’s high. Endorphins released in the brain also increase the release of dopamine.

When people feel happy, they often feel physical sensations—a rush of passion, a flutter of joy—that correspond to brain signals to nerves of the heart, circulatory system, skin, and muscles. These physical sensations are accompanied by chemical changes in the brain and are interpreted as pleasurable.

Scientists have used modern brain imaging methods to help determine exactly which areas of the brain correspond to sensations of pleasure. This approach has revealed distinct patterns in both the cortex and underlying structures when people feel negative and positive emotions. In the 1990s, researchers used positron emission tomography (PET) scans to produce three-dimensional images of people’s working brains. They observed that positive and negative emotions activated different parts of the brain, and that areas activated by happiness were deactivated by sadness and vice versa.

Another technique, electroencephalography, revealed striking, emotionally-based asymmetries in the activity of the prefrontal cortex. In these studies, the brains of generally happy people showed greater activity in the left prefrontal cortex, and this area became more active when people were exposed to amusing video clips. The right side, on the other hand, became more active when people experienced negative emotions.

The development of a new brain imaging technology, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), spurred a large increase in the number of brain studies, contributing to some confusion about which areas of the brain were associated with happiness and sadness. Results of these many studies suggest that the brain may be even more complex than once imagined by earlier researchers. Nonetheless, many studies support the notion that the left side of the brain is generally associated with positive emotions and the right side with negative emotions. They have also identified the anterior cingulate cortex as active in emotional regulation, and that part of the brain is often called the “affective division” of the cingulate cortex.

Why do humans have these pleasure centers in the brain? Experts theorize that because human survival depends on achieving basic goals such as finding food and procreating, a rush of pleasurable sensations associated with eating or having sex would positively reinforce these behaviors, leading us to repeat them and hence increase the chances that we will survive and reproduce.

Source: Harvard Medical School
Our motto: One step ahead, everyday.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Cognitive Therapy for Depression

Are your thoughts dragging you down?

Almost everyone has dark thoughts when his or her mood is bad. With depression, though, the thoughts can be extremely negative. They can also take over and distort your view of reality.
Cognitive therapy can be an effective way to defuse those thoughts. When used for depression, cognitive therapy provides a mental tool kit that can be used to challenge negative thoughts. Over the long term, cognitive therapy for depression can change the way a depressed person sees the world.

Studies have shown that cognitive therapy works at least as well as antidepressants in helping people with mild to moderate depression. Treatment with medication and/or psychotherapy can shorten depression's course and can help reduce symptoms such as fatigue and poor self-esteem that accompany depression. Read on to see how cognitive therapy or talk therapy might help you start thinking and feeling better if you are depressed.

Cognitive Therapy for Depression: A Thinking Problem

Cognitive therapy was developed in the 1960s as an alternative way to treat depression, says Judith S. Beck, PhD. Beck is director of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy and Research located just outside Philadelphia. She tells WebMD that the principle underlying cognitive therapy is "thoughts influence moods."

According to cognitive therapists, depression is maintained by constant negative thoughts. These thoughts are known as automatic thoughts. That means they occur without a conscious effort. For example, a depressed person might have automatic thoughts like these:

· "I always fail at everything."
· "I'm the world's worst mother."
· "I am doomed to be unhappy."

Beck says automatic thoughts "may have a grain of truth. But," she adds, "the depressed person distorts or exaggerates the reality of the situation." This negative distortion helps fuel the depression.

With cognitive therapy, a person learns to recognize and correct negative automatic thoughts. Over time, the depressed person will be able to discover and correct deeply held but false beliefs that contribute to the depression.

"It's not the power of positive thinking," Beck says. "It's the power of realistic thinking. People find that when they think more realistically, they usually feel better."

Cognitive Therapy for Depression: How It Works

Cognitive therapy posits that most problems have several parts. Those parts include:

· the problem as the person sees it
· the person's thoughts about the problem
· the person's emotions surrounding the problem
· the person's physical feelings at the time
· the person's actions before, during, and after the problem occurs

The way cognitive therapy works is a patient learns to "disassemble" problems into these various parts. Once a person does that, problems that seemed overwhelming become manageable.

During regular cognitive therapy sessions, a trained therapist teaches the tools of cognitive therapy. Then between sessions, the patient often does homework. That homework helps the person learn how to apply the tools to solve specific life problems.

"They make small changes in their thinking and behavior every day," Beck says. "Then over time, these small changes lead to lasting improvement in mood and outlook."

Cognitive Therapy for Depression: Evidence It's Effective

How well does cognitive therapy for depression work? And how well does it stack up when compared to other treatments for depression?

Robert DeRubeis, PhD, is professor of psychology and associate dean for the social sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. He tells WebMD, "The evidence is consistent and convincing that cognitive therapy is an effective treatment for depression. And," he adds, "[that means] not just the milder forms of depression."

Large, well-designed studies that include hundreds of subjects have shown the following:

1. Cognitive therapy works as well as antidepressant medicines alone to improve mild to moderate depression.

"When conducted well, cognitive therapy works as quickly and as thoroughly as antidepressant medications," says DeRubeis, who has led several large studies of cognitive therapy for depression. "Used consistently, cognitive therapy may work better than antidepressants in the long run," he adds.

2. Cognitive therapy works as well as antidepressant medicines at preventing depression relapses.

DeRubeis tells WebMD that when a person continues using the skills he learned with cognitive therapy, those skills help prevent relapses, a common problem with depression. "Cognitive therapy appears to prevent the return of symptoms as well as taking medication," he says. "And it does it without medication."

3. Cognitive therapy reduces residual symptoms of depression.

After a "successful" treatment for depression, many people continue to have mild depressive symptoms. Adding cognitive therapy to the treatment plan helps reduce these residual symptoms.

Cognitive Therapy for Depression: With or Without Antidepressants?

Cognitive therapy has become the standard "talk therapy" used to treat depression. In addition to its high rate of success, it is also cost-effective. The benefits from cognitive therapy often come in weeks rather than months or years, as may be the case with other treatments.
But can cognitive therapy replace antidepressant medications? For some people, says DeRubeis, the answer is yes.

"The data show that, when conducted well, cognitive therapy is a reasonable alternative to medications even for more severe forms of depression," DeRubeis says. This assumes a patient is able to participate in a cognitive therapy program.

But it doesn't have to be an "either-or" decision. In some studies, cognitive therapy for depression worked even better when combined with antidepressants.

Because everyone's situation is unique, the decision about how to use cognitive therapy should always be made by the patient and the mental health provider together.

Cognitive Therapy for Depression: Think Well, Feel Better

Depression demonstrates how closely linked the mind and body are. People who are depressed, frequently feel bad physically, not just sad or "down." Besides helping to improve a person's mood, cognitive therapy can also improve the physical symptoms of depression. It does this by:

· improving a person's overall energy level
· increasing the quality and duration of sleep
· improving appetite and restoring the pleasure of eating
· heightening a person's sex drive

Cognitive therapy can also relieve chronic pain. Many people with chronic pain also have depression. According to Beverly E. Thorn, PhD, cognitive therapy treats both at once." Thorn is professor of psychology at the University of Alabama and author of Cognitive Therapy for Chronic Pain. She says that after a course of cognitive therapy for chronic pain, "patients' symptoms related to depression are reduced as well."

The effects of cognitive therapy are often longer lasting than pain medicines. "Pain medications have all kinds of side effects and can actually add to depression," Thorn says. With cognitive therapy, patients learn coping skills and how to apply them. When they do, there is less need for pain medications.

Cognitive Therapy for Depression: How to Start

If you feel you might be depressed, the first thing to do is call your primary care physician (or email at He or she can probably refer you to a professional therapist or psychiatrist who is knowledgeable about cognitive therapy.

If not, you can find a cognitive therapist in your area by contacting one of the following professional organizations:

Academy of Cognitive Therapy

Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies

The Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy and Research

Klub Psychology: For Psychosocial Services

Cognitive Therapy for Depression: 5 Questions to Ask Your Provider

Here are questions to ask your provider if you are considering cognitive therapy for depression:

1. Should I take antidepressants if I'm trying cognitive therapy?
2. How do I find a therapist who practices cognitive therapy?
3. Will my health insurance cover cognitive therapy?
4. When can I expect to start feeling better?
5. How will I know cognitive therapy is working for me?
By Matthew Hoffman, MD
Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD
Our motto: One step ahead, everyday.