With Veterans Day and Halloween behind us, we are moving full steam ahead to the holidays, the stretch from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day (or Super Bowl Sunday, depending on your perspective). The holidays can be a wonderful time, full of friends, family, and fun. But they can also generate pressures and situations that undermine health. To help you enjoy a healthy and happy holiday season, Harvard Health Publications is offering three Special Health Reports that focus on common holiday challenges: depression, overuse of alcohol, and healthy eating.
Anxiety and Depression
Americans are taking antidepressants in astounding numbers. According to a report released yesterday by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), the rate of antidepressant use in this country among teens and adults (people ages 12 and older) increased by almost 400% from the early 1990s to the mid 2000s. The federal government’s health statisticians figure that about one in every 10 Americans takes an antidepressant. Antidepressants were the third most common prescription medication taken by Americans in the study period. Antidepressant use was higher in women than men, and in whites than blacks or Hispanics.
Many people try to tune out stress. A healthier approach may be to tune in to it. Paying more attention to what is going on around you, not less, is the first step toward cultivating mindfulness, an excellent technique to help you cope with a range of mental and physical problems, including stress. Mindfulness teaches people to be present in each moment. The idea is to focus attention on what is happening now and accepting it without judgment. Mindfulness techniques have been shown to ease stress, prevent major depression from reappearing, alleviate anxiety, and even reduce physical symptoms such as pain or hot flashes.
As summer winds to a close, many school age children are reluctant to greet another school year. Who can blame them? Swapping swimming, lazy days, camp activities, and late nights for classrooms, homework, and early morning bus rides isn’t much of a trade at all. For some children, reluctance turns into school refusal. This goes beyond an occasional “I hate school” or “I don’t want to go to school today.” Children with school refusal may sob, scream, or plead for hours before school in an attempt to stay home. They may often complain of illness and run home from school if forced to go. Absences can last weeks or even months. The problem may start at any point but common triggers are the start of a new school year, making the transition to a new school (middle school to high school, for example), or returning from school vacation. School refusal often stems from an anxiety disorder, according to Coping with Anxiety and Phobias, a new Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School. Helping a child through school refusal often takes concerted effort from the parents, school staff, a therapist, and the child.
Are you worried that certain rituals might be obsessive or compulsive? If they aren’t interfering with your ability to function, relax. It’s obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) only when obsessions and compulsive behavior become so severe that they interfere with your ability to work or have relationships. These behaviors help people with OCD deal with overwhelming feelings of anxiety that are usually triggered by intrusive images and thoughts, explains Dr. Jeff Szymanski, a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of The Perfectionist’s Handbook, which will be published in September. A combination of medications and psychotherapy can help many people with OCD live more balanced lives. A mainstay of treatment is called exposure and response prevention—a sort of “face your fears” therapy.
One of the newest therapists at Harvard Medical School is Cooper, a 4-year-old Shih-Tzu who recently joined the school’s Countway Library as a registered therapy dog. From the confines of his very own office, Cooper is on duty at the Countway to help students, staff, and faculty members who need a little mid-day stress relief. They can spend up to 30 minutes at a time with Cooper by showing their ID at the reference desk. Before becoming a therapy dog, Cooper underwent training with an organization called Caring Canines, where he works when he’s not at Harvard. Studies going back to the early 1980s support the idea that dogs—and other pets—have enormous health benefits for people.
A symposium on complementary and alternative medicine put on by Massachusetts General Hospital’s Mood and Anxiety Disorders Institute indicates that a handful of so-called natural supplements may be worth trying against depression and other mood disorders. The symposium focused on several for which there is good evidence. These include omega-3 fats, St. John’s wort, maca root, and valerian. Just because these remedies come from plants and animals doesn’t automatically mean they are safe. Herbal remedies have unwanted side effects and can interact with medications just like antidepressants and other drugs do. Talk with your doctor before trying any alternative approach, especially if you take any medications.
Feeling stressed? Call a timeout, counsels “Stress Management,” a new Special Health Report from Harvard Health Publications. One way to stop stress and worry from taking over your days involves setting aside 15 minutes or so to focus on your problems. When the time is up, try to leave your worries aside and focus on something more productive. Writing down your worries and dropping them in a “worry box” can also help, explains Harvard Health editor Annmarie Dadoly.
Confused about how to extend analog parenting into the digital world? New guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics offers practical advice to pediatricians (and parents) to help children use social media tools safely and in ways that encourage them grow socially and emotionally. Michael Miller, M.D., editor of the Harvard Mental Health Letter, says the guidelines are “anchored in what we know about child and adolescent development rather than any perceived special influences of the social network.”
New government statistics show that there are nearly 12 million cancer survivors in the United States. In many ways this is terrific news, and a testament to improved diagnosis and treatment options. But there’s a flip side to surviving cancer, and many survivors are never totally “free” of the disease. The ongoing psychological and emotional issues can be almost as much a challenge as cancer treatment was. Harvard Health editor Ann MacDonald explores the ongoing fear of recurrence, survivor guilt, the “Damocles syndrome,” and more.