Having an “Attitude of Gratitude”

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, not just because of the beautiful autumn colors, time spent with family or pumpkin availability (think Pumpkin Spice latte, pumpkin pie and pumpkin patches) but for the representation and focus of the holiday – giving thanks and expressing gratitude.

Researchers in the field of positive psychology have found that people who take time to reflect and focus on what they have (instead of what they do not have) and what they are grateful for are less likely to be depressed. It’s true that counting our blessings and reflecting on all we are grateful for is one way to generate positive thoughts. In addition to improving mood, expressing gratitude may lead to better physical health, specifically a decrease in inflammation and improved heart rhythms.

Expressing gratitude is a positive habit and mindset that only takes a few minutes and can be incorporated into every day. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Express to yourself or someone else at least 3 things you are grateful for;
  • Consider what you have that is often taken for granted (e.g. running water that heats up when you turn on a facet, the fact that food is usually not hard to come by or that you usually know where your next meal will come from, freedom, employment that provides an income, your health, family members and their health, etc.)
  • Reflect upon what you are proud of or have accomplished in the last day, week, month or year. Give yourself credit for these things.
  • Consider at least 3 things that you are most grateful for in a loved one (significant other, spouse, friend, other family member) and express your gratitude to this person.
  • Thank those people who you feel have supported, inspired, encouraged or helped you in some way.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Time for SADness (Seasonal Affective Disorder)

Seasonal Affective Disorder (“SAD”) is a type of depression that occurs in the fall as the seasons change and the days become shorter and the temperature cooler. Many people notice a change in their mood and energy level including feelings of sadness or emptiness, loss of energy or motivation (and desire to stay indoors where it is warm), and may also notice changes in their appetite and sleep patterns, such as craving and eating more carbohydrates (such as bread or pasta), or sleeping more.

Many people begin experiencing these symptoms in October and the symptoms usually continue until spring. Although the exact cause of SAD is unknown, it is believed to be related to a lack of sunlight (as we’ve discussed in a previous blog, sunlight correlates to higher serotonin levels which is linked to positive moods). The lack of sunlight may not only affect a person’s serotonin levels but may also affect a person’s circadian rhythm (sleep-wake pattern) which, in turn, affects mood.

The holidays that occur in the winter months may also exacerbate mood changes in those who have recently experienced loss, especially the loss of loved ones, as we often associate holidays as a time of joy and “togetherness” of family. SAD may also exacerbate depression in people who have already been struggling with depression.

Although it may be difficult to distinguish between SAD and depression, you may consider how your daily functioning is affected by these symptoms listed above and consider talking to your doctor or a mental health professional about treatment options.

10 Tips for Better Sleep Hygiene

August 2016

Over 60 million Americans struggle to get good quality sleep each night. From racing thoughts to tossing and turning in bed, nothing is more frustrating than being tired but unable to sleep!

While all of us occasionally have a sleepless night for one reason or another, insomnia may become a real problem as sleep deprivation interferes with all aspects of our daily functioning such as mood, memory, concentration, energy level and appetite.

On average, most adults needs approximately 7-9 hours of sleep to function best. Practicing good sleep hygiene or practices that promote quality sleep are essential and worth implementing into your nightly routine. Below are 10 tips for better sleep hygiene:

  1. Encouraging Natural Melatonin Production – Keeping the lights dim in the evening and limiting screen time can encourage the body’s natural production of melatonin, our “sleep” hormone. Paying attention to your body’s signals (ie: heavy eyelids) is important – this is the time to get in bed!
  2. Beginning to Unwind Before Bed – From the time we wake, most people are inundated throughout the day with text messages, phone calls, social media and emails. Our brains stay busy all day long processing information. Establishing a quiet time before bed, journaling or making a “to do” list for tomorrow may be helpful in helping your brain quiet down.
  3. Decreasing Body Temperature – A drop in body temperature is known to induce the body’s relaxation response. Soaking in a warm bath before towel drying off and keeping your room temperature cooler for sleeping are 2 ways to drop your body temperature and induce the relaxation response.
  4. Keeping the Same Sleep Schedule – The best way to prepare your brain and body for sleep each night is by keeping a regular bedtime routine and schedule. Going to bed and waking at (approximately) the same time, along with limiting naps, will help keep your sleep schedule regular.
  5. Getting Out of Bed – Tossing and turning only increases a person’s worry and frustration about not being able to sleep (which, in turn, activates the stress response). If you do not fall asleep within 30 minutes, it is best to go to another room and engage in a quiet activity (eg: reading, stretching) for 30 minutes.
  6. Turning the Clock Away – Most people have numbers stuck in their head (ie: “I have to be asleep by 10 pm to get 7 hours of sleep”) OR (ie: “If I can fall asleep in the next 3 minutes, I can still get 5 hours of sleep..”). These thought patterns activate the body’s stress response. Turning your clock away may be helpful.
  7. Limiting Substances – Many people drink alcohol as a way to relax in the evening and to help them sleep. Since alcohol is a depressant, it works well (initially) to help a person feel drowsy and tired. However, after the alcohol is processed in your body, the body signals a “wake up” response and arousal levels increase. This typically results in frequent waking or lighter stage sleep.

    Caffeine is another substance that may interfere with good quality sleep. On average, caffeine stays in your system for approximately 14 hours. High doses of nicotine may also result in frequent waking or lighter stage sleep.
  8. Getting Enough Exercise – Exercise and physical activity throughout the day have been shown to help people sleep better and “deeper” each night.
  9. Practicing Mindfulness – Tuning out and focusing on your senses helps the brain shift from its thinking and analyzing mode (ie: racing thoughts) to its sensing and observing mode. Focusing on only the sounds that you hear at night, whether it’s the sound of a fan or your breathing patterns, for example, may help calm your mind before sleep.
  10. Resisting Anxious Thoughts – Our thought patterns influence our feelings and emotions. Stressful or anxious thoughts (eg: “I’m going to feel miserable tomorrow”) can activate the stress response in the body which keeps us from being able to relax and fall asleep. Using calming thoughts such as “I may be tired tomorrow, but I can still function..” help to calm the mind and body.

It is worth mentioning that there are some medical conditions and even side effects of certain medications that may result in insomnia. Insomnia is also a common symptom of depression and anxiety.

If you continue to struggle with insomnia despite good sleep hygiene, I encourage you to talk to your primary care physician or a mental health counselor. Sleep affects our quality of life and is vital to our overall physical and emotional health.


Night Owls Defy Melatonin Production

Some of us prefer to stay up late and sleep in (like myself). Others are content to go to bed early and wake early (the early birds who catch the worms). The problem with being a night owl is that staying up late interferes with the body’s natural melatonin production. Typically, the body’s natural production of melatonin begins to “ramp up” at around 9:00 pm each evening. The increase in melatonin results in that drowsy, ready-for-bed feeling which night owls usually ignore in order to stay up late and continue their activities (ie: watching a movie, reading, surfing the internet, etc.). Staying up late suppresses natural melatonin production and may keep night owls feeling wired instead of tired. Having bright lights on in the evening is another way to suppress natural melatonin production since melatonin is produced only when it is dark. It is important to dim the lights in the evening and limit screen time to encourage melatonin production.

While every person is different, there is a natural circadian rhythm that our bodies are accustomed to and function best at. Keeping a regular sleep schedule and staying in tune with your body’s signals allow you to have better quality sleep and to wake up feeling more rested, not groggy. Try the early bird schedule and see how you feel in the mornings. (Oh! And you don’t have to catch worms!)


Nutter Butters – All or None?

I just had a 100 calorie package of Nutter Butters. There were only a few tiny cookies in the package, so, of course, I’m thinking about eating more. Not only does this remind me of why I don’t keep desserts, especially cookies, in our house, but it also reminds me of how easy it is to slip into “All or Nothing” thinking.

“All or Nothing” thinking is a cognitive distortion and an unhealthy way of thinking. Things are either black or white or good or bad. I choose “good” and eat no Nutter Butters, or I choose “bad” and may as well eat as many as I want. There is no middle ground or healthy balance. This cognitive distortion is very popular among people working towards behavioral change such as with eating a healthier diet, exercising more or abstaining from substances such as alcohol or cigarettes.

If I have more Nutter Butters, then I may think “I’ve blown it – I may as well eat them all..” If I miss going to the gym for a couple of days, then I may think “Nah… Why bother?” It makes me feel bad about myself and my doings (or not doings) and that’s not a healthy way to live or be.

The thought “What can I do to make this day better?” is a much healthier way to think when you eat too many Nutter Butters. Maybe that means eating lighter for dinner (ie: soup or salad), going for a short walk after dinner, or adding 10 extra minutes to your workout the next day. Finding balance and middle ground is what it’s all about. It’s the only way to stay consistent living a healthy lifestyle!

Sunshine and Serotonin

One of my favorite things about Spring is having more daylight at the end of a day! It makes me feel happier to see more of the sunshine and that makes sense given the connection between bright light and serotonin production. In short, bright light is known to raise levels of serotonin.

Healthy serotonin levels are linked to more positive moods in people whereas people struggling with depression usually have lower serotonin levels. It’s no wonder that exposure to bright light (light therapy) is used to treat seasonal depression or seasonal affective disorder (SAD) during winter.

Spring is here! Slather on your sunscreen and take a walk in the sunshine! The daylight lasts longer now and there is more time to do it!