Shake Off Those Winter Blues

February is the shortest month, and as it often appears, the month when people’s tempers, patience and energy levels are the shortest, as well. Blame it on the cold, gloomier days, lack of sunshine in general, and too much physically idle time indoors. We don’t tend to sleep or eat as well, and we don’t exercise or socialize enough. Whatever the cause, depression runs high in the dead of winter, though there are several steps we can take to keep our spirits – and energy levels – at a higher, and healthier level.

Thought it’s not the only cause, one common diagnosis for the “winter blues” is Seasonal Affective Disorder Association (SAD). This is a winter malady that causes depression, lethargy, and lack of motivation. It affects up to six percent of the U.S population, particularly women in their twenties, thirties, and forties. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that SAD can also occur in men and children and that many SAD sufferers have at least one close relative with severe depressive disorder.

The key symptoms of SAD include extreme fatigue, sleep problems, depression, anxiety, irritability, carbohydrate cravings, increased appetite, weight gain, and loss of libido. Sufferers are also more vulnerable to winter illnesses because their immune system can become weakened. Due to its symptoms, SAD can be misdiagnosed as hypothyroidism, hypoglycemia, infectious mononucleosis, and other viral infections.

Here are tips to help combat Seasonal Affective Disorder and for fighting the “winter blues:”

  • Light up your day. Even if it is gray and cloudy, the effects of daylight are beneficial. In addition to more exposure to daylight, daily light therapy has been shown to be effective in 85 percent of diagnosed SAD cases. Daily light therapy involves one to four hours of exposure to lighting that is 10 times the intensity of regular domestic lighting.
  • Balanced nutrition. A well-balanced, nutritious diet will provide more energy and possibly quell carb cravings. Comfort food tastes good and it may make you feel better for the short-term, but a balanced diet of vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, and whole grains will healthfully keep your weight in check and make you feel better in the long-run.
  • Get your supplements. Getting your recommended daily amounts of vitamins and minerals can help alleviate some of the SAD symptoms and improve your energy, particularly if you are deficient in key nutrients. There is a variety of seasonal supplements available but check with your physician or naturopath before taking mega-doses or herbal formulations. A multi-vitamin and mineral supplement may be all you need.
  • Move your body. Regardless of the time of year, regular exercise is essential for overall health. Even if the weather has you mostly relegated to the indoors, you can still head to your local gym or exercise in the comfort of your home. Getting your body moving will help you battle winter weight gain, boost your endorphins, and may even help you sleep more soundly. If dressed for the weather, walks and hikes outdoors are invigorating and good for you physically and mentally. And yoga, meditation and classes that promote group stretching and exercise are good for you physically and socially.
  • Prioritize social activities. Stay connected to your social network. Getting out of the house and doing enjoyable things with friends and family can do wonders for cheering you up. Go to a movie or make a dinner date. Plan regular social activities and, if weather permitting, get outdoors for a group ski or hike — you can meet your exercise, social and daylight needs in one shot.
  • Get help. If you have exhausted your attempts at natural remedies and the symptoms of SAD are still interfering with your daily functioning, seek professional help. Antidepressants and certain types of psychotherapy have proven effective in treating SAD and helping people cope with seasonal mood changes.

Winter is a beautiful time of year, and doesn’t have to drag you down. Take proactive steps to keep fit and healthy, and remember, the days are getting longer and spring will be here soon!

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Stretching toward improved physical and spiritual health

People come to yoga for a wide variety of reasons, including fitness, stress management, and relief from physical or emotional pain. September is National Yoga Awareness Month, and a good time, with the holidays and colder weather rapidly approaching, to look into yoga’s spiritual and physical healing properties. Regardless of your motivation, most yoga enthusiasts credit yoga’s meditative component — as well as the physical training and discipline — with allowing them to reach a deeper, more spiritual place in their lives while helping them relax and improve their overall health and wellness.

Yoga has been practiced for more than 5,000 years, and approximately 11 million Americans enjoy its health benefits. The traditional series of yoga poses, called asanas, work by safely stretching your muscles. This releases the lactic acid that builds up with muscle use, which may cause stiffness, tension, pain, and fatigue. Additionally, yoga increases the range of motion in joints and stretches not only your muscles but all of the soft tissues of your body. That includes ligaments, tendons, and the fascia sheath that surrounds your muscles.

No matter your level of yoga, you most likely will see benefits in a very short period of time, though you should seek guidance from an experienced yoga teacher to help avoid possible injury and to learn how to get the most value. The greatest gains typically are in shoulder and trunk flexibility. Yoga includes postures (asanas), energy and breath control (pranayama), meditation, music, philosophy and other approaches. While many people equate the word Hatha with a particular style of yoga, the word actually refers to the physical aspect of yoga — to the asana and pranayama practices.

Meditation is important to all styles and traditions of yoga but is often the least understood aspect of yoga. The art and science of transcending one’s thoughts and liberating the mind, meditation may involve simple breath awareness, chanting or movement. For some, it is the heart of the practice, for others it is integrated with the asanas, often at the beginning and the end of the class.

Common styles of yoga

The following are some common styles of yoga:

Gentle yoga: Gentle yoga can be as dynamic as some of the more vibrant styles, yet is gentle on the body. Classes are often multi-level and do not assume prior yoga experience. They include breathing techniques, warm-ups and basic postures to increase mind-body connection, self-awareness and self-confidence.

Yoga flows: Yoga flows are more invigorating. Postures are linked in a flow and provide some aerobic components while also improving strength and coordination. The classes assume a participant begins with a certain degree of strength and endurance.

Power yoga: This dynamic yoga style includes specific sequences designed to build strength and stamina. These classes are often recommended for people with some familiarity of the basic postures.

Fitness yoga: Fitness yoga is a newer expression designed to incorporate traditional yoga postures in a form common to most fitness clubs. Students warm up, practice more strenuous postures and then cool down. They tone the body, especially the core, and increase flexibility, balance and mind-body awareness.

Specialty yoga: Yoga can also be customized for the special needs of a broad spectrum of groups including expectant mothers, seniors and children, as well as for those battling life-threatening diseases or debilitating chronic conditions. Specialized training is important for teachers who work with these groups.

Spiritually-oriented yoga: Originally, Hatha yoga was primarily a tool for spiritual growth as well as for physical well-being. Modern styles that emphasize the spiritual dimension of yoga practice tend to involve slower movement and often include meditation practice.

Therapeutic yoga: Yoga therapy is the adaptation and application of yoga practices and techniques to help those facing health challenges manage their condition, reduce symptoms, restore balance, increase vitality and improve attitude.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Too stressed to take a vacation? Think again.

Considering we’re a society that claims to love our vacations, it’s curious that Americans don’t take enough vacations, and often don’t even use the vacation days we’ve earned. What’s up with that?!  It’s a sad reality, but job reductions, doing more with less, pressure from employers, financial challenges and our own sense of insecurity drives us to make bad choices about our need for healthful relief from our jobs. And whether you’re an employer or an employee, you’ll both suffer for the lack of time off, whether it’s staff or management time.

We all get it. Every day seems an endless cycle of deadlines, customer, associate or employer demands, tough decisions, endless house chores, commuting, kid duty, and more.  There’s stress whether you’re employed, under employed or unemployed, and everyone who has a job worries about keeping it. Even trying to arrange and take the time for a vacation is stressful – little wonder we often put off making our vacation decision, feel guilty taking time off, and have trouble relaxing when we finally do get away.

Time off from our jobs and our regular routines helps us manage stress, improves our bonds with family, friends and co-workers, can alleviate fatigue, and strengthens our immune systems. When we’re stressed our work performance suffers. That has an impact on customer service, as well as safety, quality and productivity. Most of us are harder to get along with when we’re under pressure and feeling anxious, and more prone to depression, memory loss, distraction and bad decision making. We eat poorly and sleep less. Whether you’re typically healthy or not, that’s an insidious mix, and while vacation or time away from work and our regular routines won’t cure it all, vacations offer an important break.

Ironically, the United States lags behind most developed countries when it comes to paid vacation time, and vacation is typically not mandated in our country, or a legal right. In contrast, the United Kingdom requires employers to give at least 28 vacation days. In Finland, France and Greece the minimum is 25, and in Germany and Japan, it’s 20.

We don’t take time off for many reasons. Typically these include having too much work to do, fear of losing our jobs, or because people are unable to afford to go away. But there’s more at work here, if you can excuse the bad pun. With tough workloads and schedules, cost issues and market demands, employers often send mixed signals to their staff about accommodating time off. Instead of being supportive, there’s often the unspoken caveat, “Sure, take the time off, but make sure all your work gets done and nothing falls through the cracks.” The insinuation is that vacations are inconvenient, and the time is allowed reluctantly instead of graciously as the earned benefit and healthy break it represents. According to a 2011 survey conducted by Harris Interactive for Jet Blue, about 57 percent of working Americans had unused vacation time at the end of that year, many leaving as much as 70 percent of their time untouched.

Sometimes vacation days carry over from year to year, and employees “stockpile” them, but it isn’t healthy, despite longer-term intentions. And while in today’s unstable job market it’s understandable that employees – or managers – are reluctant to take time off, employers should be encouraging this healthy respite.

Vacations have the potential to break the cycle of stress that plagues most working Americans. We emerge from a relaxing vacation fresh, more enthusiastic and better able to solve problems. Time off helps us regain perspective on our problems, allows us to reconnect with our families and friends, and gives us a break from our usual routines. When we return to work we’re happier, better focused, more pleasant and more productive. Everyone benefits – so if you’re an employer, start asking your team when they’re planning time off, make it as easy as possible for them to take their breaks, and book yourself some time off as well!

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If you’re not enjoying the benefits of a wellness program at your company, join CBIA Healthy Connections at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Reducing Stress at Work

Last month was National Stress Awareness Month and we examined the impact of stress on employee wellness. This month we’ll address how to set up a roadmap for decreased stress in the workplace.

According to the 2013 Work and Well-Being Survey released in March by the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Center for Organizational Excellence, more than one-third (35%) of American workers experience chronic work stress. The APA’s most recent Stress in America survey (released in February 2013) also found high levels of employee stress, with 65 percent of working Americans citing work as a significant source of stress, and 35 percent  reporting that they typically feel stressed during the workday.

According to the Work and WellBeing Survey, fewer than half of working Americans report that they receive adequate monetary compensation (46%). Of course, employers can’t be expected to arbitrarily increase employee compensation across the board and stay in business. But it’s critical to note that almost half of the employees surveyed (46%) talked about non-monetary compensation. Additionally, just 43 percent of employees say that recognition is based on fair and useful performance evaluation, and just over half (51%) say they feel valued at work. Besides feeling undervalued, employees also report feeling unheard: Less than half (47%) say their employer regularly seeks input from employees, and even fewer (37%) say the organization makes changes based on that feedback.

These numbers help put into perspective what organizational development experts see as an epidemic-level wave of unhappy employees. If you’re wondering what the impact of this unhappiness may be on your workplace, consider that stress at work manifests itself in increased absenteeism and presenteeism, lower productivity and increased service errors, and has a negative impact on safety, quality and teamwork.

Yet despite growing awareness of the importance of a healthy workplace, few employees say their organizations provide sufficient resources to help them manage stress (36%) and meet their mental health needs (44%). Just 42 percent of employees say that their organizations promote and support a healthy lifestyle, and only 36 percent report regularly participating in workplace health and wellness programs.

That sounds like a boatload of opportunity for savvy employers who want to do more to address workplace stress, but don’t want to spend a fortune.  People want to be heard and feel that their opinions count. They want to see an employer show an interest in them as human beings, and want to be recognized for their hard work, dedication and value. And since health is important to all of us, investing in health and wellness planning, and involving your workforce in both the planning and execution can result in a significant return on investment.

Taking time to ask employees what they think is important. That can be done informally at lunches, team meetings, small-group interactions, and one-on-one. There are a variety of inexpensive online tools available for surveying attitudes and communication, as well. But the easy steps, like building employees into planning and decision making is invaluable for improved execution and buy-in. And recognizing performance, personally and in front of the team, pays back in spades. Small gestures like gift certificates, comp time, and team lunches go a long way toward improving morale.

You can sponsor team walks and charity events, supplement fitness center fees, host on-site health screenings, and many other activities – the list of potential steps is long, as are the benefits. Additionally, if you haven’t yet, consider establishing a wellness champion and having your employees participate in a free, online health assessment. You can do this by joining CBIA Healthy Connections at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

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Stress at Work: Recognizing and Understanding Symptoms

We all experience stress, in different ways and from different sources and it affects each of us differently. The common denominator, though, is that stress in the workplace manifests itself in increased absenteeism and presenteeism, lower productivity and increased service errors. Stress also has a negative impact on safety, quality and teamwork.

According to the 2013 Work and Well-Being Survey released in March by the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Center for Organizational Excellence, more than one-third (35%) of American workers experience chronic work stress, with low salaries, lack of opportunities for advancement, and heavy workloads topping the list of contributing factors.

The online survey polled 1,501 adults in January 2013. The majority of those surveyed (53%) work at organizations with fewer than 500 employees, 37% at organizations employing fewer than 100. Thirty-one percent of respondents had frontline jobs, directly involved with the production of products or providing services such as sales, bookkeeping, and customer service. Twenty-nine percent had mid-level positions involving management and supervision or coordination of people or departments. Those with mid-level or senior positions but no management responsibilities comprised one-quarter of respondents, while 15% had upper-level positions, involving coordination of the organization, development of organizational plans/goals, and supervision of managers.

The APA’s most recent Stress in America survey (released in February 2013) also found high levels of employee stress, with 65% of working Americans citing work as a significant source of stress, and 35% reporting that they typically feel stressed during the workday.

Stress also is a contributor to high blood pressure and other diseases. When we’re frustrated, depressed, or under tremendous pressure at work or at home, we tend to eat poorly, not exercise and otherwise tax our bodies. Links have been established between stress and our body’s production of excess cholesterol. Stress also interferes with our normal sleep, which causes fatigue and makes us irritable and more susceptible to illness. When unchecked, stress interferes with our general quality of life, and can affect our relationships, productivity, customer service, safety and quality.

Why are we so stressed?

For starters, says the Work and Well-Being Survey, many workers don’t feel like they’re being paid enough or getting the recognition they deserve. Less than half of working Americans report that they receive adequate monetary compensation (46%) or non-monetary recognition (43%) for their contributions on the job. Additionally, just 43% of employees say that recognition is based on fair and useful performance evaluations. Just over half (51%) say they feel valued at work.

In addition to feeling undervalued, employees also report feeling unheard: Less than half (47%) say their employer regularly seeks input from employees, and even fewer (37%) say the organization makes changes based on that feedback.

On the heels of the recession, many employees also appear to feel stuck, with only 39% citing sufficient opportunities for internal career advancement.

Despite growing awareness of the importance of a healthy workplace, few employees say their organizations provide sufficient resources to help them manage stress (36%) and meet their mental health needs (44%). Just 42% of employees say that their organizations promote and support a healthy lifestyle, and only 36% report regularly participating in workplace health and wellness programs. “This isn’t just an HR or management issue,” says Norman B. Anderson, Ph.D., APA’s CEO, “The well-being of an organization’s workforce is a strategic business imperative that is linked to its performance and success.”

Also, despite many work-related advances for women, the workplace still doesn’t feel like a level playing field for many women who report feeling less valued than men (48%). Less than half of employed women (43%) say they receive adequate monetary compensation for their work, compared to 48% of employed men. Further, fewer employed women than men report that their employer provides sufficient opportunities for internal career advancement (35% versus 43%) or resources to help them manage stress (34% versus 38%). Though employed women are more likely than men to report having good mental health (86% versus 76%), more women say they typically feel tense or stressed out at work (37% versus 33%).

Employers can’t eliminate all the factors that cause their workers to feel stressed, but there are a number of items that can be addressed – and most of them are outlined in the issues described above. Next month, in the June issue of CBIA Healthy Connections, Wellness Matters will address how to set up a roadmap for decreased stress in the workplace.

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If you’re not enjoying the benefits of a wellness program at your company, join CBIA Healthy Connections at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Now That’s Funny! How Humor and Laughter Help Keep Us Healthy

Wait for it…you know the punch line is coming, you anticipate it, you’re poised and ever the good audience. When humor arrives laughter rolls out of us, and we feel better. We crave laughter, and the relief it offers. In fact, we dose ourselves with situation comedies, flock to funny movies, tell one another jokes and stories, share goofy emails and videos online, and find the humor in almost every situation. And that is very, very healthy.

April is both National Humor Month and Stress Awareness Month. While many health-related awareness designations have little relevance to one another, this combination is an exception. Humor plays an important role in reducing stress, and laughter, whether loud and boisterous, or soft and silent, drives biological reactions that reduce pain, strengthen our immune systems, increase productivity and improve our relationships with our fellow workers, friends, families, and even with total strangers.

Striving to see humor in life and attempting to laugh at situations rather than complain helps improve our disposition and the disposition of those around us. Our ability to laugh at ourselves and situations helps reduce stress and makes life more enjoyable. Humor also helps us connect with others. People naturally respond to the smiles and good cheer of those around them.

The chemical reaction linked to humor and laughter involves endorphins, pain-relieving chemicals usually caused by physical activity or touch. Our bodies create endorphins in response to exercise, excitement, pain, spicy food, love, among other things. In addition to giving us a “buzz,” bursts of energy and a general good feeling, endorphins raise our ability to ignore pain. In fact, researchers believe that the long series of exhalations that accompany true laughter cause physical exhaustion of the abdominal muscles and, in turn, trigger endorphin release.

Consider these facts about the positive health effects of humor:

  • People with a developed sense of humor typically have a stronger immune system.
  • People who laugh heartily on a regular basis have lower standing blood pressure than the average person. When people have a good laugh, initially the blood pressure increases but then decreases to levels below normal. Breathing then becomes deeper, which sends oxygen-enriched blood and nutrients throughout the body.
  • Laughter can be a great workout for your diaphragm, abdominal, respiratory, facial, leg, and back muscles. It massages abdominal organs, tones intestinal functioning, and strengthens the muscles that hold the abdominal organs in place. It is estimated that hearty laughter can burn calories equivalent to several minutes on the rowing machine or the exercise bike.
  • Laughter stimulates both sides of the brain to enhance learning. It eases muscle tension and psychological stress, which keeps the brain alert and allows people to retain more information. Laughing also elevates moods.

The sound of laughter is far more contagious than any cough, sniffle, or sneeze. Humor and laughter have many benefits, and they don’t cost a penny. So laugh at yourself and laugh with others — you’ll be improving your health with every chuckle and smile!

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

It Sounds, Smells, and Feels like December!

Oh, we love the sights, sounds, and smells of the holidays! Like the natural changes that distinguish New England’s four seasons, we eagerly anticipate favorite songs, familiar scents, and reconnections with old friends and family. There are family traditions, foods, and serving dishes that appear only for the holidays; decorations and numerous personal items that drive our nostalgia meters bonkers. Yet, as much as we share in this seasonal smorgasbord of life and renewal, each item evokes different memories and reactions for every individual, as well as stoking our personal emotional furnaces.

Scent and sound are especially powerful catalysts that help us travel back in time, at least figuratively. Fresh pine, cinnamon, mulled cider, candles, cookies and desserts…these all transport us to holidays past, possibly to our parents’ or grandparents’ kitchens, maybe to amily — now es long goneto holidays past, possibly to our grandparents’ies, each of us  appear only for the holidays, decorativisit family now long gone. That’s the double-edged sword nostalgia offers; we remember the good and the not-so-good, but it’s all valuable in helping to maintain our emotional health and reduce stress, and can revitalize us through hope, renewed friendships, and overall optimism.

Psychologist Krystine Batcho, PhD, is a professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., and an expert on nostalgia. Her research finds that people who are prone to nostalgia excel at maintaining personal relationships and choose healthy social ways of coping with their troubles. According to Batcho, nostalgia can be associated with a number of psychological benefits. Nostalgic reminiscence, for example, helps a person maintain a sense of continuity despite the constant flow of change over time.

“It is reassuring,” Batcho explains, “to realize how rich our lives have been — how much joy, hard work, success and excitement we have experienced. During difficult times, attention to our past can strengthen us by reminding us of how we survived challenges, loss, injury, failure or misfortune. When we are sad or discouraged, it can be uplifting to remember that we are still the person who had been happy, strong and productive at times in our past.”

Research has shown that our sense of who we are is closely related to how we see ourselves in relation to others. Nostalgia, Batcho stresses, can help a person cope with loneliness by enhancing the sense of social support that comes from knowing that each of us is someone’s daughter or son, mother or father, sister or brother. Nostalgic memories can help someone who is away from home or someone who is mourning the death of a family member by reminding us that the bonds we share with those we love survive physical separation.

Giving back at the holidays, through toy, food and clothing drives, volunteerism and donations also is linked to nostalgia, and has the added benefit of producing a euphoric response known in psychological circles as “giver’s high, which is the result of our bodies’ responding emotionally to our personal goodwill and gestures by producing endorphins, which make us feel good.

Additionally, like scent, music is especially evocative of emotion. Nostalgic song lyrics engage the listener in reverie and capture the bittersweet feeling of years past. “Songs focus us on how the passage of time inevitably brings change, or may remind us of our mistakes and painful aspects of life,” says Batcho. “But the distinctive bittersweet affect of nostalgia also can transform the sense of loss into a positive appreciation of how much we have enjoyed, how much we have survived and, most importantly, how much we have loved and have been loved.”

Nostalgia, Batcho concludes, engages us in reflection on who we once were and how we have arrived at our present selves. Whether secular or religious, shared traditions renew our sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves. By reminding us of events, customs, beliefs or rituals, holiday sounds, sights and scents can help us feel connected to others, even during times of stress or loneliness.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. Employees in this program have access to tools and information that can help improve their overall physical and mental well-being. The program is free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Put Down the Remote and Your Phone and Visit a Friend!

Holiday chaos getting to you?  Too much to do, too many places to be, people to see, cookies to eat?  Maybe you’re just not ready to hear Jingle Bells 20 times a day yet. Or the extra traffic, rushing around, and crowds are wearing you out. Well, if you’re feeling pressured, guilty or resentful, you’re not alone — for “the happiest time of the year,” December can be pretty darn stressful.

For some people it’s an abundance of friends and family coming out of the woodwork that has them down. In contrast, you may be alone, not have your family or friends nearby, and feel isolated. The holidays are very nostalgic, but for every good memory there also may be memories of family members and friends now deceased or living far away, and traditions no longer possible.

Spending time with difficult family members, grieving the loss of a loved one, feeling pressure to give gifts when finances are tight, and loneliness can leave people feeling sad, angry, or even depressed. And these feelings are aggravated by the shorter, colder days and reduced sunlight, which can trigger Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a psychological state that literally changes your biology and can cause or add to depression.

But psychologists point out that there is a difference between the holiday blues, which are often temporary and go away once the season ends, and more serious conditions such as depression, SAD, and anxiety disorders. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), depression occurs when feelings of extreme sadness or despair last for at least two weeks or longer and when they interfere with activities of daily living such as working or even eating and sleeping. Depressed individuals tend to feel helpless, and hopeless about changing their situation.

If the holiday blues seem to linger or become more intense, people may want to seek help from a mental health professional, such as a psychologist, who can help determine if someone has depression and how best to treat it. The APA also cautions about the risks of turning to alcohol for comfort. Although it may seem to bring temporary relief, it is actually a central nervous system depressant and a diuretic. Alcohol use affects balance, increases the risk for falls, may not interact well with medications, and disrupts sleep, which has a number of health consequences. 

Take charge, and get out of the house

As the seasonal maelstrom rages around us, there are a number of steps we can take to reduce stress and depression, and to lift our spirits. To start, it’s always beneficial to try and continue our normal routines to help feel like we’re still in control. We can consciously try to not over-eat and make time for exercise and rest.

Additionally, personal outreach, especially socializing and connecting with old friends and associates is important for our emotional health. Today’s electronic world often allows us instantaneous messaging and the ability to “reach out and touch” someone far away, but virtual communication through email and tools like Facebook and Twitter can’t replace the value of face-to-face interactions. We humans are social creatures, and while digital outreach is valuable and sometimes our easiest option, the Internet tends to act as a buffer between us and real intimacy.

Relationships and effective communication are built on eye contact, touch, feedback and unspoken physical communication. When possible, make the effort to visit friends and neighbors, attend parties and gatherings, contribute personal time through charitable efforts and catch up with people in person. That kind of communication is far better for our emotional health — and our souls.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. Employees in this program have access to tools and information that can help improve their overall physical and mental well-being. The program is free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Remember, Memory Loss is Not Inevitable and Can Be Reduced or Limited

Word on the tip of your tongue? Misplaced your keys or glasses again?  Mixing up your kids’ names when you talk about them? If you recognize any of these behaviors, you can probably relax; they all are common memory lapses that increase when we’re tired, stressed, overworked, and as we age. Who hasn’t walked into a room, gotten distracted, and returned to our previous location without the book, phone number, file or other item we originally went searching for? Forgetfulness, distraction, and memory are affected by time and by what’s going on in our lives. But there are a number of steps we can practice to improve and strengthen our memory and warning signs we should heed that could point to a more severe memory problem, such as Alzheimer’s or dementia.

As we grow older, we experience physiological changes that can cause glitches in brain functions we’ve always taken for granted. It takes longer to learn and recall information. We’re not as quick as we used to be. In fact, we often mistake this slowing of our mental processes for true memory loss. But in most cases, if we give ourselves time, the information will come to mind.

The first step to staying mentally sharp as we age is to understand the difference between normal forgetfulness and serious memory problems. The brain is capable of producing new brain cells at any age, so significant memory loss is not an inevitable result of aging. But just as it is with muscle strength, we have to “use it or lose it.” Our lifestyle, health habits, and daily activities have a huge impact on the health of our brain.

It’s important to be aware of ways that our health, environment, and lifestyle may contribute to memory loss. Sometimes, even what looks like significant memory loss can be caused by treatable conditions and reversible external factors. Examples include:

  • Medication side effects. Many prescribed and over-the-counter drugs or combinations of drugs can cause cognitive problems and memory loss as a side effect.
  • Depression. Depression can mimic the signs of memory loss, making it hard for us to concentrate, stay organized, remember things, and get things done.
  • Vitamin B12 deficiency. Vitamin B12 protects neurons and is vital to healthy brain functioning.
  • Thyroid problems. Thyroid problems can cause memory problems such as forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating. Medication can reverse the symptoms.
  • Alcohol abuse. Excessive alcohol intake is toxic to brain cells, and alcohol abuse leads to memory loss.
  • Dehydration. Severe dehydration can cause confusion, drowsiness, memory loss, and other symptoms that look like dementia.

Preventing memory loss and mental decline

Just as physical exercise can make and keep your body stronger, mental exercise can make your brain work better and lower the risk of mental decline. Try to find brain exercises that you find enjoyable. The more pleasurable an activity is to you, the more powerful its effect will be on your brain. You can make some activities more enjoyable by appealing to your senses, such as by playing music during the exercise, or lighting a scented candle, or rewarding yourself after you’ve finished. Play games that involve strategy, like Chess or Scrabble, crossword and number puzzles. Read newspapers, magazines and books. Challenge yourself by playing a musical instrument or learning new recipes or a foreign language. The more you exercise your brain, the more you’ll continue learning and strengthening your brain at the same time.

Additionally, the same practices that contribute to healthy aging and physical vitality also contribute to healthy memory.

  • Exercise regularly. Regular exercise boosts brain growth factors and encourages the development of new brain cells.
  • Stay social. People who don’t have social contact with family and friends are at higher risk for memory problems than people who have strong social ties.
  • Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and omega-3 fats. Antioxidants, found in abundance in fresh produce, literally keep our brain cells from “rusting.” And foods rich in omega-3 fats, such as salmon, tuna, trout, walnuts, and flaxseed, are particularly good for our brain and memory.
  • Manage stress. Cortisol, the stress hormone, damages the brain over time and can lead to memory problems.
  • Get plenty of sleep. Sleep is necessary for memory consolidation, the process of forming and storing new memories so we can retrieve them later. Sleep deprivation also reduces the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus and causes problems with memory, concentration, and decision-making
  • Don’t smoke. Smoking heightens the risk of vascular disorders that can cause stroke and constrict arteries that deliver oxygen to the brain.

When to worry

The primary difference between age-related memory loss and dementia is that the former isn’t disabling—the memory lapses have little impact on our daily performance and ability to do what we want to do. When memory loss becomes so pervasive and severe that it disrupts our work, hobbies, social activities, and family relationships, we may be experiencing the warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease, another disorder that causes dementia, or a condition that mimics dementia.

Symptoms that are reasons for concern include difficulty performing simple tasks, such as paying bills or dressing, or forgetting things you’ve done many times; getting lost or disoriented in familiar places; frequently forgetting common words, and constantly repeating phrases or stories; and trouble in judgment, when making choices, or socially inappropriate behaviors that never existed in the past. If you or someone close to you is exhibiting any of these behaviors, you should consult with a physician.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. Employees in this program have access to tools and information that can help improve their overall physical and mental well-being. The program is free to both you and your employees as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Act now to protect your brain and your heart

When you strive to keep your heart healthy you help keep your brain healthy, too. Following a heart-healthy lifestyle may lower your blood pressure, which reduces your chances of having heart disease or a stroke, and it can also make a big difference in your mental abilities as you age.

May is National Blood Pressure Awareness Month and also National Mental Health Month.

High blood pressure often has no visible symptoms, which is why it’s dubbed “the silent killer.” It can be controlled with lifestyle changes that focus on diet and exercise, and special prescription medications. Many of the same unhealthy lifestyle behaviors (including poor diet and lack of physical exercise) that contribute to high blood pressure also have been linked to dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, memory loss and cognitive dysfunction. It is thought that narrow blood vessels caused by high cholesterol reduce blood flow to the brain which can cause memory loss and general mental deterioration.

Stress also is a contributor to mental high blood pressure. When we’re frustrated, depressed, or under tremendous pressure at work or at home, we tend to eat poorly, not exercise and otherwise tax our bodies. Links have been established between stress and our body’s production of excess cholesterol. Stress also interferes with our normal sleep, which causes fatigue and makes us irritable and more susceptible to illness. When unchecked, stress interferes with our general quality of life, and can affect our relationships, productivity, customer service, safety and quality.

Tips for controlling blood pressure through a healthier lifestyle:

  • Exercise regularly. This includes getting outdoors or to the gym, setting reasonable goals for physical activity, and walking every day, if possible.
  • Maintain a healthy body weight. Limit intake of red meat and fried foods, sugar and fat, and adapt to a healthier diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean protein, and fish.
  • Limit your sodium intake by cutting down on processed foods, soda, and other products with a high salt content.
  • Try to reduce or quit smoking, and limit or eliminate the use of other tobacco products.
  • If you drink alcohol or coffee/caffeine products, practice moderation.
  • Have your blood pressure checked regularly. If it’s high, or if you have a family history of hypertension or heart disease, your physician may recommend medications created to help lower or control blood pressure and related conditions.
  • Be aware of situations and behaviors that cause you stress, and try to address or limit them.

Managing your blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol are all critical elements you can influence. Our bodies and minds are complicated mechanisms, and all systems are intertwined. Be aware of your blood pressure through regular checkups, know the warning signs, and make conscious decisions to take better care of yourself.

It’s also important to discuss any cognitive problems you’re having with your healthcare provider. We all have a little trouble when we age, like forgetting where we put our keys, but if your memory problems seem greater than usual, you may need to be evaluated by a neurologist, or someone who specializes in cognitive issues.

Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. Employees in this program have access to tools and information that can help improve their overall physical and mental well-being. The program is free to both you and your employees as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!