Monday, August 22, 2011

Hot Summer Days Got You Down?

 We are in the midst of another heat wave in Houston as we are braving another hot summer.  For many, being outside during this time can be torture – not just physical, but also mental.  The common expectation is to be happy and outdoorsy in the summer, attending barbeques and other outdoor events.  However, you may find yourself feeling actually more depressed and irritable these days.

You may have heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a form of depression that affects people in colder climates during winter months when days get shorter and colder.  It is connected with less exposure to sunlight.  What few people know is that there is a summer version of SAD. It is actually more common in the Southern United States and in countries near the equator. Like winter SAD, summer SAD affects primarily women in their 20s to 40s.

Summer SAD is thought to be related to increases in temperature and light, along with decreases in the brain’s production of melatonin, a hormone associated with sleep. Other hypothetical causes include fluctuations in barometric pressure and physical difficulty with regulating body temperature.  Individuals who are naturally sensitive to light and heat may be more vulnerable.

The primary symptoms of summer SAD are the following:
  • Poor or increased appetite
  • Insomnia
  • Increased anxiety
  • Increased irritability and/or agitation
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Increased or decreased sex drive
  • Loss of interest in your usual activities
  • Hopelessness
  • Feelings of Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts
If you think you might suffer from summer seasonal affective disorder, here are some recommendations.

Limit your exposure to heat. Stay indoors in air conditioning.  Plan some indoor social activities (for example, game night).  Some people with extreme forms of summer SAD prefer windowless rooms and using ice packs to cool down their body, especially at night.

Get enough sleep. Make sure your sleeping quarters have a consistent cool temperature.

Eat light meals and keep a regular exercise schedule.  Stick to indoor exercise during extreme heat.

Plan your vacation in a cooler climate, if possible. 

Wear Polarized Sunglasses.  This is important for everyone, but especially light skinned and blue-eyed people.  For some, wearing these types of glasses already translates to mild to moderate mood boost.

Recognize you are not alone! The difference between what we think we “should” feel in the summer (energetic, happy, carefree) and what we may actually feel (anxious, bored, uncomfortable) can alone lead to feelings of irritability and depression. Remember, even though it may seem as if everyone else is having a wonderful time frolicking in the sun, many people are not and are coping with some of the same concerns as you!  

Recognize there is help.  If you are having suicidal thoughts or have been struggling for more than two weeks with the symptoms listed above, get help from a psychologist or other licensed mental health professional.

I am a Houston psychologist specializing in depressive disorders such as SAD.  Call me for a free consultation at 713-364-8328 or visit for more information on my services. 

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Finding Yourself High and Dry? Navigating Stress During a Financial Crisis

The financial crisis is back on everybody’s mind as we have been watching the news.  Money worry is familiar to most of us.  And it doesn’t help to see this issue illuminated from all angles on our news networks.  No matter what your employment status or how far away you are from retirement.

People deal with financial stress in different ways.  Some take the “head in the sand” (aka ostrich) approach by avoiding thinking or talking about the topic.  This can often backfire – the more we suppress certain thoughts, the more likely they are to pop back up in sneaky ways in our minds (research backs this up).  This approach can also leave us in the dark when we may need to make important decisions. 

Other people become obsessed with the topic and find themselves glued to the TV screen, analyzing each minute detail.  This too can be unhealthy, as it takes away important mental resources from our daily lives and may not help us solve the problem. 

In this, as with many other issues, balance is key when we try to cope.   Here are some things to keep in mind:

Be News Savvy.  While it’s important to stay in the know, don’t get caught up in the media hype prophesizing doom and gloom.  Try to limit your news intake to a certain amount of time per day - for example 15-20 minutes from a trusted news source.  Avoid these news first thing in the morning or right before bedtime.

Take Inventory.  It is important to assess what in life we are in control of, as opposed to what we are not.  All too often we grip onto and waste our energy on things that will run their course.  If you are immediately affected and/or have lost your job, create a written outline on how you and your family can manage expenses and finances differently and more efficiently.  Reaching out to credit counseling services and financial planners can help alleviate anxiety.  Talk to your bank, utility companies, and credit card companies about payment options.  Research options for continuing education to make yourself more marketable.

Notice How You Deal With Stress.  Stress can be sneaky – before we know it, we can turn to food, inactivity, smoking, alcohol, or other substances to somehow manage it.   We may withdraw from family and friends and lose sight of what’s important.

Identify Healthy Choices.  Take a walk with a loved one, try a new recipe at home, call a friend.  Be proactive while taking care of yourself.  Reach out for support.  Make sure to eat right and make some room for exercise and socializing – again, things you can control. 

Be Patient.  Uncertain times leave us with more questions than answers.  It takes courage and tenacity to weather these types of storms.  Having question marks in our lives can help us reflect on what’s important.  And this can leave us richer in the long run.

If you continue to be overwhelmed by the stress, it can be useful to seek professional support.  A career counselor can help you create a concrete vision and goals if you are in a job transition.  A psychologist can help you address the emotions and meanings behind your worries and teach new skills to manage stress.  I am a Houston psychologist – to learn more about my services, visit  

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Need A Good Night's Sleep? Some Thoughts on Insomnia

Many things keep us up at night - a crying child, the financial crisis, stress at work, difficult conversations to be had, a conflict,  just to name a few.  Almost everyone knows the nuisance of occasional insomnia – or, difficulty falling or staying asleep.  About 60 million Americans a year have insomnia frequently or for extended periods of time.  Older people and women tend to suffer more. 
While causes often include situational stress or life habits, medical and psychological conditions can also be a factor.  Sometimes depression or anxiety are to blame.  Insomnia over the long term can affect productivity in work and personal life.
Here are some tips that can help with mild insomnia:
·      Avoid Disruptive Waves:  Turn off any screens – computers, TV, cell phones, reading devices – 1-2 hours before bedtime.  Screens emit waves that interfere with the brain’s sleep function.  Preferably, keep these devices out of the bedroom.
·      Establish a Routine:  Try to go to sleep and get up at the same time every day, even weekends.  Avoid daytime naps.
·      Set the Stage:  Keep your bedroom orderly and clean.  Keep the temperature comfortable (most people prefer 68-74 degrees).
·      Embrace the Ritual:  Establish a bedtime ritual to signal to your body and mind that it’s time for bed.
·      Natural Remedies:  Herbal tea, warm milk, as well as ginger and lavender products can help with relaxation.  Flat ginger ale at room temperature has worked wonders for numerous people.  Stay away from caffeine after 4 pm.
·      Write It Down:  If to-do lists, ideas, or conversations keep re-playing in your mind, jot them down on a bedside notepad.  That helps clear the mind.
·      Meditation:  In your mind’s eye, outline an equilateral triangle over and over again.  When your mind starts to wander, gently bring it back to the triangle. 

It is important to learn the cause of your insomnia.  Some types of insomnia require medical or psychological treatment.  Consult with your health care provider if you suffer from chronic and severe insomnia. 

Talking to a professional about the concerns that pre-occupy you, including insomnia, can be immensely helpful.  I am a Houston psychologist – to learn more about my services, visit