Beating the winter blues

With shorter days and increased hours of darkness, it might seem natural to feel down now and again. Maybe you feel anxious or a little more moody. You find it hard to get out of bed in the morning. Perhaps you just don’t have the energy you used to.

For as many as one in four adults, it may be more than a case of the winter blues. An estimated 11 million Americans experience seasonal depression, also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Some simple strategies can help you win the fight against SAD:

Talk to your healthcare provider.

If you experience symptoms for more than a few weeks, it’s a good idea to talk to a medical professional. If it’s something more than a winter slump, the sooner you get help the better.

Stay on track with healthy eating.

Eating a healthy diet will help to give you more energy and enhance your mood. Also pay attention to how you feel when you eat certain foods. If you find you get a temporary high and then a big drop, avoid those foods as well.

Stay active.

We all know that getting your 150 minutes of physical activity each week is important for overall health. Research also shows it is beneficial for coping with the winter blues.

Get outside light.

Getting as much daylight as possible is important. It plays a big role in your mood and how you are feeling. If possible position yourself near windows on sunny days and choose colors that reflect light for décor.

Turn up the music.

Studies have shown that listening to upbeat, cheerful music helps to improve mood in both the short- and long-term. Try a daily dose when you are feeling in a funk and see how your body responds.

Be a social butterfly.

Studies have shown that socializing can help to boost mood and fight the winter blues. This could be as simple as a quick phone call to a night out with friends. Find a happy medium that makes you feel best and make it a habit.

Call a health coach.

UPMC Health Plan offers an online program called Beating the Blues US ™. It can help you relieve stress and feel more positive, take control of your mood and thoughts, feel more confident, and change the way you respond to challenging situations.

It’s important to have a plan in place so you’re prepared when you start to feel a drop in your mood or a shift in how you are feeling. As you find which strategies work best for you, build those into your daily routine.



American Psychological Association:

National Institutes of Health:

UPMC Health Plan Beating the Blues:

Mental health disorders in children

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (1), one in five children are currently managing a mental health diagnosis or will be diagnosed before age 18. But what do mental health disorder symptoms look like? As an adult, you may wonder: When are children “just being kids” and when is it important to pay attention?

Mental health disorders in children impact daily activities and symptoms impact various areas of life including home, school, and peer interaction.

Common disorders

The National Institute of Mental Health lists the most prominent mental health disorders seen in children. These include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders
  • OCD
  • PTSD
  • Phobias
  • Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Autism spectrum disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Mood disorders
  • Schizophrenia


  • Family history
  • Trauma
  • Brain development and chemical makeup


Mental health disorder symptoms may look different in children compared to adults (2).

Irritability vs. sadness

Children experiencing depression may show signs of irritability rather than sadness (which is more prominent in adults). This can be due to the level of emotional development in children compared to adults.

Physical vs. emotional

Physical symptoms are also reported more often than emotional symptoms. Children may complain of stomachaches rather than feeling anxious or sad. Again, this can be due to brain development in a child compared to adults.

Health care providers including PCPs, specialists, psychiatrists, mental health counselors, etc. evaluate the symptoms severity and duration. How severe and how long a child has shown symptoms will help a health care professional determine a diagnosis.

Because mental health disorders may look different in children, the National Institute of Mental Health suggests connecting with other adults (teachers, caregivers, etc.) to evaluate behavior in different environments. A key component to distinguishing “childhood behavior” and a mental health diagnosis is similar behaviors and symptoms regardless if the child is at home, school, etc.

Evaluation and treatment

Talk with a doctor

Being able to talk with a doctor is the first step to treating and managing mental health disorders in children. A health care professional can work with you on a treatment plan that works best for your child.

Discuss evidence-based treatments

Research suggests that psychotherapy and medication are the most common and effective treatments for mental health disorders in children and adults.

  • Therapy
    Many different types of therapy have been shown to be effective in managing mental health disorders, including CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy), behavior modification therapy, talk therapy, and family therapy. Talk with your child’s health care provider for more information.
  • Medications
    Medications impact a child’s brain development. Discuss benefits and risks of medication versus alternative treatment options. If medication is prescribed for a child with a mental health disorder, the child should be monitored closely and frequently.

Children who experience a mental health diagnosis are able to manage the disorder through education, therapy, possible medication, and support from family members and caregivers. It is important to stay connected with health care professionals, educate yourself on your child’s diagnosis, be present during conversations with your child about their experience, and practice self-care.



  1. National Institute of Mental Health

  1. Mayo Clinic


Redefine holiday health & wellness

The holiday season is a time to celebrate and spend time with friends and family. For many of us, though, it often also becomes a time of worry about keeping up with our health and wellness plan. But the truth is that you can celebrate the holiday season and still focus on staying well. The foods you eat, how active you are, and how you manage your stress determine how your mind and body feels. What you can control is fueling your body with nutritious choices, sweating a little each day, setting aside some extra time to unwind and relax, and having self-love for the person you are. If you do these things it’s going to be very hard to feel like you failed this holiday season. Here are my tips on how to get started.

Focus on stress management

The holiday season can be a stressful time in part because of all of the added activities and commitments. Make a promise to yourself to make time each day to unwind and relax. This can mean different things for different people. Some examples include taking a bubble bath, meditation, yoga, deep breathing, and visualization. You have to find what works for you and then let no barriers stand between doing it.

Tracking and self-monitoring

As the old saying goes, you can’t measure what you didn’t track. So make it easy to hold yourself accountable. Having self-monitoring in place for things like calories, activity, sleep, and stress can help you be more successful at tracking your progress. Some health and wellness trackers even have all of the measures you need built in with goal lines for easy up-to-the-second progress checks throughout the day.

Shift your focus

A big challenge for many during the holiday season is our beliefs about the things we are eating and drinking. For example, if you have a piece of your favorite pie at a party and then tell yourself a story about how bad it is because it’s unhealthy, you are robbing yourself of the enjoyment you wanted in the first place. Chances are you will also end up with self-loathing thoughts and guilt about food, which is BAD. If you want pie, eat it and eat it with no regret or guilt. Abandon negative thoughts and voices in your head and be positive and empowered about the choices you are making.

Go social

The most important part of the holiday season is spending time with those who you love, so focus on doing exactly that! Use the time you have to make connections and catch up rather than focusing solely on the food. My favorite trick is to plan ahead and have a filling snack before the party, which allows me to concentrate on conversation rather than indulging in extra food and drinks.

Do away with “last chance” thinking

Many adults struggle with thoughts and guilt of “last chance” food and drinks during the holiday season. Try not to think of anything you consume as a last chance; if you want to have it later in the season, just plan ahead. In fact, if there is something you really enjoy, make a note on the calendar to have it another time and look forward to a treat rather than overindulging because you have to wait another year to enjoy it.

Self-love and self-care

This holiday season, show yourself some love by being present with your mind, body, and surroundings and adding more intention into your day. By doing this, you will focus on what’s good for your heart and what makes you most happy. If you start to experience negative chatter in your mind or feelings of shame or guilt, then identify what is causing these feelings. Remind yourself that your self-worth isn’t based on anything unless you allow it to be.

At its core, the holiday season is intended to be a time of celebration, generosity, and gratitude. So make a promise to yourself to enjoy every moment, slow down and take time for yourself, and to do the best you can with each day given. I think you will find that by focusing on the positive ways to stay accountable, you will have a different view on aspects of the holiday season you once perceived as challenges!

Health benefits of meditation


We all experience stress on a day-to-day basis, right? Stress could be something small that can be easily fixed or something big that can leave you wanting to pull your hair out. So what are some of the healthy ways you manage your stress? As you noticed, I said “healthy ways.” If you said deep breathing, using humor, or even exercising — you have a very healthy way of managing your stress. What about meditation? Is that something that comes to mind?

Believe it or not, meditation has been around for thousands of years. It has continued to become more popular in today’s busy and stressful society. Now anybody can download a smartphone app to practice meditation anytime, anywhere. You don’t need a temple on top of a mountain to practice a meditation technique.

So what exactly is meditation?

Meditation is a mind and body practice that focuses on the cooperation not just between the brain and the body, but also the mind and behavior.1 Meditation allows you to focus your attention on just one thing instead of focusing on other thoughts that are keeping your mind busy and causing stress.2 There are many types of meditation out there, but they all have the elements of a location with few distractions, a relaxed posture, a focus of attention, and the mindset of allowing distractions come and go without judging.1 Just to warn you, it does take practice to become really good with mediation, especially with keeping focus on your breathing or your go-to word.

There have been a number of studies on the benefits of meditation on our health. Studies have found that meditation can change the brain wave patterns from patterns of high activation to patterns of relaxation that can help manage and improve our health. When the brain is in a relaxation pattern, it allows the stress hormones to lower in the blood.1,2 Put it this way: Meditation is like a cool-down for your mind, just like a cool-down after a good workout for your body.

Here are some benefit examples of meditation:

Benefits of meditation on illness1,2:

  • Pain management
  • Better sleep
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improved management of:
    • Anxiety disorders
    • Depression
    • Asthma
    • Heart disease (and even decreasing the risk of this condition)

Benefits of meditation on emotional health1,2,3:

  • Mental stress
  • Ease anxiety
  • Helps reduce negative emotions
  • Can promote healthier behaviors

Those are some of the benefits of meditation. Remember, there are many types of meditation — so it could take time to find the one most suitable for you. Meditation takes practice, so be patient. You will not become a master of meditation in one day. Lastly, meditation does have a lot of health benefits, but at the same time it can’t be used on its own to treat a medical condition. Make sure you consult with your doctor.



  1. Meditation: In Depth
  2. Meditation: A simple fast way to reduce stress.
  3. Corliss, J. (January 08, 2014). Mindfulness mediation may ease anxiety, mental stress


Mental health and getting older


As our population continues to age, health problems continue to increase as well. While many tests, diagnoses, and treatments focus on physical health, one area that can be overlooked is mental health. An estimated 20 percent of older adults (age 50 and older) have experienced some type of mental health concern (CDC), yet many go undiagnosed or undertreated. A decrease in mental health is not a normal sign of ageing, but it can happen to anyone at any age. By being aware and educated about mental health, you can help yourself or loved ones receive proper treatment.

The most common mental health disorders among the elderly population include cognitive impairment, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and anxiety.1 Recognizing signs and symptoms is key to receiving treatment. Signs and symptoms2 include:

  • Noticeable changes in mood, energy levels, or appetite.
  • Feeling flat or having trouble feeling positive emotions.
  • Feelings of sadness or hopelessness.
  • Difficulty concentrating, disorientation, or confusion.
  • Memory loss.
  • Feeling restless or on edge.
  • Anger/irritability.
  • Problems with sleep.
  • Social withdrawal and loss of interest/motivation.
  • Physical problems that cannot be explained, such as headaches, digestive issues, or pain.

What you can do

Mental health can affect many areas of your life. It could lead to physical and mental impairments, or even social functioning. Research has shown that a mental health condition could worsen chronic health conditions like heart disease and diabetes, and cause complications.1 But by following healthy habits and taking care of your body, you will feel better and may improve your mental health.

  • Engage in exercise! Believe it or not, exercise has been shown to be a treatment just as effective as medications for mental health conditions such as depression. It does not have to be a strenuous, high-intensity workout. Think about small ways you can add movement to your day. Enjoy a short walk or do light housework. Small bouts of movement all add up!
  • Eat healthy. Focus on eating lots of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains. Avoid processed, refined foods. Also, try to eat every three to four hours.
  • Aim for quality sleep. For many older adults, sleep may be a challenge, but lack of sleep can worsen mental health conditions. Aim for seven to nine hours of sleep per night. To get better sleep, make a routine and stick with it! Keep a regular schedule, darken the room, keep it cool, and limit any sounds.
  • Stay connected. Social support is key! Whether it is in person or by phone or email, support can help you manage your health. Think about ways that you can get out – meeting a friend, going for a walk in the park, or even joining a local group or senior citizen center.
  • Seek medical advice. Talk with your doctor! Your doctor can help you find effective treatments, therapy, and even resources to help you manage your health.

Helping a loved one

Providing support to a family member or friend who is facing mental health issues can have a strong impact on their overall health.

  • Watch for signs and symptoms and help them seek medical advice to get an accurate diagnosis and effective treatment.
  • Offer moral support by listening. You may not be able to fix the problem, but listening is sometimes enough.
  • Accompany your loved one to doctor appointments.
  • Schedule activities to help keep their mind and body active. Go for a walk, see a movie, play a game. Regular activities can help individuals stay engaged and combat loneliness.
  • Plan and prepare meals. A healthy diet can help manage mental health issues.
  • Encourage healthy habits and treatments. Encourage your loved one to exercise, eat healthy, and take prescribed medications.

Mental health issues and concerns can happen to anyone, but it doesn’t have to keep you down. With proper management and support, you can feel better and enjoy your golden years!



31-day gratitude challenge


Gratitude means feeling thankful as well as expressing thanks and appreciation.1 And there is more to gratitude than meets the eye — practicing gratitude can have a positive effect on all areas of your life: physical, mental, emotional, and even social! Research has shown that individuals who regularly practice gratitude experience these benefits:2

  • Stronger immune systems
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Less stress
  • Improved sleep
  • More joy and optimism
  • Expressing more positive emotions
  • Improved and strengthened relationships

Gratitude can be a simple “thank you,” but can go beyond just the momentous occasions and situations we may be grateful for. Gratitude can sometimes be taken for granted in day-to-day life. Think of gratitude as way to appreciate and refocus on what we have instead of what we lack. It can be easy to be grateful for the big things in life: good health, a job, and supportive family. Remember the small things you experience every day — you can be grateful for those as well. Think about these small things, like sending a short text to a friend or hearing a compliment from a co-worker. Being thankful for all of these can help you reap the benefits.

Just like any other habit, being grateful requires practice. And you can start here with the 31-day gratitude challenge!

Use a journal to write down your thoughts and experiences of gratitude during this 31-day challenge. Collect them in a “gratitude jar.” Share your letters and lists with others. Use social media to share your gratitude. At the end of 31 days, you will be able to look back and see all of your moments of gratitude. So let’s get started!

31 day gratitude challenge infographic

Are you ready to start developing an attitude of gratitude? Take the challenge on your own, or encourage your family and friends to join you!



Night terrors: a type of sleep disturbance


We all dream, and many of us have found ourselves awakened from a nightmare, able to remember parts of the story that unfolded in our unconscious. Night terrors, however, are a very different and more troubling type of sleep disturbance.

During a nightmare, the person is sleeping. The nightmare is a “story” with specific details and images. Nightmares usually happen in later stages of sleep, when dreaming occurs. Nightmares are common.

Night terrors, sometimes called sleep terrors, are different from nightmares in that people are asleep but often sitting up or standing, eyes open, screaming or yelling, and ready to fight or run because they are extremely frightened or aroused to action. Night terrors are uncommon.

Usually occurring in the early parts of sleep, about 45 to 60 minutes after falling asleep and before actual dreaming takes place, they are more common among children aged 4 to 12 but can last into adulthood. They may be triggered by stress, sleep deprivation, fever, or being in unfamiliar surroundings.

The sufferer will commonly be unable to remember what happened within minutes of the night terror and may have no memory of the incident at all. Night terrors are commonly paired with other conditions, such as sleep apnea, migraines, or restless legs syndrome.

While usually not serious, night terrors can lead to sleep loss. People may strain vocal chords from screaming or hurt themselves while thrashing. They may also disrupt other people in the household.

Most people write off night terrors as a quirk. If however night terrors are becoming a problem for you or someone in your family, talk to your doctor. There may be another condition contributing to their occurrence. Some things that may help:

  • Keep your surrounding safe: Clear the floors and set up nightlights.
  • Make getting more sleep a priority: Sleep deprivation is a common trigger.
  • Find your pattern: There may be a trigger in your life triggering night terrors more often. Locate your triggers and make adjustments.
  • Manage stress: Learn healthy and effective stress management techniques. A UPMC Health Plan health coach may be able to help you or point you to resources. Call 1-800-807-0751 to speak to a health coach today.



Laughter as medicine: Fact or fiction?


“Laughter is an instant vacation.” —Milton Berle

One of the most common pieces of folk wisdom is that “laughter is the best medicine.” How true is this idea? Laughter doesn’t have magical properties. It won’t prevent the flu like a vaccine will, and it won’t reset a broken leg. But it can be an important part of mental health self-care.

  • Did you know that laughter could reduce pain and discomfort? (1) Humor reduces pain beyond simple distraction. Laughter reduces pain just as well as relaxation techniques (though they work too). The next time you are in pain or discomfort, find something that tickles your funny bone. It will likely help you feel better and lift your mood.
  • Did you know that laughter reduces anxiety? (2) If you are dreading something, get to work at finding something funny. Again, the humor reduces anxiety beyond simple distraction. It isn’t just getting your mind off of things. It’s the laughter.
  • Having a good sense of humor can lead to more social contact and social support. Both can be a powerful buffer against stress and increase resiliency. (3)
  • It’s unclear if humor or laughter increases immunity. Research has shown mixed results. In the studies that show increased immunity, it is unclear if it is the humorous outlook or actual laughter that helps. (4) So the jury is still out.
  • Humor and laughter have not been clinically shown to help long-term blood pressure or overall longevity. (5)

So it seems that laughter and humor help but don’t exactly seem like a miracle cure.

So why might you pursue humor and laughter, outside of the utility it might have toward better health?

  • Because it’s enjoyable!
  • It lifts your mood!
  • It brings people closer!
  • It feels good!

Maybe humor doesn’t help you live longer. Maybe it only helps you live better. Humor and laughter don’t need to serve any other purpose. They are ends in themselves.

So get to work. Start pranking friends. Share funny pictures. Call up funny movies to watch. Listen to your favorite comedians. Make humor a bigger part of your life, and start living better.



  1. “Effects of Laughter and Relaxation on Discomfort Thresholds,” Journal of Behavioral Methods, 10, #2, 1987.
  2. “Benefits of Humor in Reduction of Threat-induced Anxiety,” Psychological Reports, 66, 1990.
  3. “Stress, Social Support, and the Buffering Hypothesis,” Psychological Bulletin, 98, 1985.
  4. “Sense of Humor, Hassles, and Immunoglobulin A: Evidence for a Stress Moderating Effect of Humor,” International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, 18, 1988.
  5. “Is Laughter the Best Medicine? Humor, Laughter, and Physical Health.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11, #6, 2002.


Obsessive-compulsive disorder

Obsessive-compulsive disorder | UPMC Health Plan

What is obsessive-compulsive disorder?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) includes thoughts and behaviors that affect daily living, working, and relationships. The thoughts are characterized as obsessive and behaviors as compulsions. These obsessions and compulsions are uncontrollable and reoccurring. The thoughts can be based on fear; behaviors are often done as a way to cope with the repeated thoughts. In some cases, individuals diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder can have only obsessions or only compulsions. OCD can be diagnosed by a doctor based on Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) criteria. It is a chronic disorder, but can be treated with medication and therapy.

Common themes of obsessions

  • Fear of germs
  • Importance of order or symmetry
  • Aggressive thoughts toward self or others
  • Unwanted thoughts of harm, sexual experiences, or religion


  • Handwashing or excessive cleaning
  • Organizing
  • Checking
  • Counting
  • Sticking to a strict routine
  • Silently repeating phrases, word, prayer

How can I tell if I suffer from OCD?

Compulsions serve as a response to obsessive thoughts and temporarily relieve anxiety and fear from thoughts. The obsessive thoughts reoccur, causing the cycle to repeat. Individuals diagnosed with OCD spend at least an hour per day completing compulsions. When these thoughts and behaviors impact quality of life, it may be time to discuss symptoms with your doctor.

About a third of individuals diagnosed with OCD can experience a motor or vocal tic. Tics are defined as sudden, repetitive movements or behaviors. Common tics include shoulder shrugging, head jerking, eye blinking, sniffling, or throat clearing.

Who has OCD?

  • About 1% of the U.S. population
  • Signs can begin in childhood and most are diagnosed by 19 years old

What causes OCD?

There is no concrete cause. Risk factors include:

  • Brain structure (research suggests differences in frontal or subcortical cortex)
  • Family history of OCD diagnosis
  • Environment
  • Trauma

What is the treatment for OCD?

OCD can be managed and treated using medications and therapies to lower symptom occurrence.

  • Medication
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy
  • Exposure and response prevention therapy (includes introduction of fear gradually after learning healthy coping techniques to manage anxiety)

Talk with your doctor regarding symptoms of OCD and possible treatment options. Be sure to monitor side effects and always follow guidelines recommended by your doctor. It can also be helpful to join a support group of individuals diagnosed with OCD. Sticking to medication regimen, engaging in physical activity, and learning healthy coping techniques to manage your condition and emotional health can improve your quality of life.



National Institute of Mental Health

Mayo Clinic


Bipolar disorder explained

16MKT0406 postImage -Bipolar Disorder

What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a chronic mood disorder that includes shifts in mood that can be rapid or prolonged. Periods of depression, mania, and stable mood are experienced. The length of time between periods will vary from person to person. These shifts in emotion impact daily functioning, sleep, and activity levels.

A bipolar diagnosis can be categorized into four types:

  1. Bipolar I:
    • Manic episode lasting > 7 days
    • Depressive episode lasting > 14 days
    • Mixed episodes can occur
    • Hospitalization in manic state
  2. Bipolar II:
    • Depressive episode
    • Hypomanic episode
    • Less severe symptoms
  3. Cyclothymic disorder
    • High frequency of episodes
    • Depressive episode lasting > 2 years; 1 year in children
    • Hypomanic episode lasting > 2 years; 1 year in children
  4. Other specified and unspecified bipolar and related disorders
    • Symptoms that occur outside of criteria listed above

What do mood episodes look like?

Depression symptoms:

  • Decreased energy or activity level
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Loss of interest
  • Feeling worried
  • Eating too much or too little
  • Thoughts of suicide or death

Manic symptoms:

  • Increased energy
  • Need less sleep
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Restless or jumpy
  • Rapid speech
  • Rapid thoughts or ideas
  • Risky behaviors

Proper diagnosis can be difficult! Talk with a health care professional regarding symptoms. For more information on each, click here for additional information.

What causes bipolar disorder?

Different factors can contribute to a bipolar diagnosis. There is not a definitive cause but rather risk factors, including:

  • Genetics or family history of bipolar disorder.
  • Brain structure.
  • Recent stressful or traumatic life events.
  • Brain injury.

 Statistics on bipolar disorder

  • 10 million individuals in the United States have been diagnosed with one of the bipolar disorder types listed above
  • A mixed episode can include both manic and depressed symptoms. Hypomania can also occur meaning manic symptoms could be present but less extreme.

What is the treatment for bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder can be treated through medication, therapy, and self-help practices.

  • Medication: Mood stabilizers, antipsychotics, anticonvulsants, or antidepressants. Talk with your health care professional regarding prescription medications and side effects.
  • Therapy: Cognitive-behavioral therapy, talk therapy, psychoeducation
  • Self-care: Keeping track of shifts in mood using a journal or app, maintaining medication regimen

Support and resources

Just like a physical condition, a mental health disorder should not define someone. If someone you know is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, take time to ask questions, listen non-judgmentally, and provide support.