Understanding Depression

A startling finding: The World Health Organization has determined that depression is the most burdensome disease in the world today. It robs adults of more productive days of life than AIDS, cancer, or heart disease.

What is depression?  What is it not?  We all know the feeling of being sad or "blue" after experiencing a loss or disappointment.  It may last a few days or a few weeks.  But when do we start talking about an actual "depression" in clinical terms?

Common signs of clinical depression include:

  • Frequently feeling sad and/or guilty
  • Eating more or less (including significant weight loss)
  • Sleeping more or less
  • Loss of interest in things you usually enjoy
  • Low energy, fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • Thoughts about death and suicide

While the above signs are more common, everyone is different.  The following may also indicate depression for some people:

  • Increased use of alcohol and drugs
  • Anger
  • Difficulty envisioning a hopeful future
  • Helplessness
  • Increased aches, pains, or bodily ailments

Depressive episodes can be situational - that is, they occur after a stressful event or events (for example, death or loss of a loved one, diagnosis of severe or terminal illness, children leaving home, divorce, persistent stressful job conditions, academic stress/difficulty, job loss, and other extremely stressful situations).  Or, it can happen for what appears to be no reason at all, literally out of the blue.  Research shows that clinical depression can also occur when stressors in the environment combine with a genetic or biological disposition.  If depression runs in your family, you are likely more vulnerable to also being depressed.

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Depression is a complex and serious illness, comparable to diabetes or heart disease.  You can't just "snap out of it" by pulling yourself up by your bootstraps or thinking happy thoughts.  People with depression need professional treatment, just like people with diabetes and heart disease do.

What helps?  Talk therapy can help individuals determine what life circumstances may contribute to their depression and how to address them.  Therapy can also teach important skills to lower stress and address recurring negative thoughts that happen with depression.  Antidepressant medications can help normalize chemical imbalances in the brain that contribute to depression.  A helpful analogy to consider when thinking about antidepressants:  Just like insulin can help a person with diabetes whose pancreas no longer produces it, antidepressants can help a person with depression whose brain may be low on certain chemicals, or neurotransmitters.  More and more novel treatments are being researched and becoming available for people with recurring and treatment-resistent depression.

Only about one-third of individuals with depression seek treatment.  It is quite common for someone to live with depression for years, even decades, before deciding to seek help.  The sooner a person can get treatment, the higher their chances for recovery.  

If you know someone who is depressed, offer a supportive, non-judgmental, and listening ear.  Then offer your support in getting the person professional help and treatment.  Remember - depression is an illness that can linger, worsen, and/or recur if left untreated.  Remember, there is hope and there is help.

 I am a Houston psychologist who specializes in treating depression.  

Please click here for an inspiring article in the New York Times on new approaches of treating depression in developing countries, impacted by war, famine, AIDS, natural disasters, and other trauma.

Job Burnout - Are You At Risk?

"Without work, all life goes rotten, 

But when work is soulless, life stifles and dies." - Albert Camus

Feeling stressed at work and unfulfilled by one's job is a familiar topic to most people.  But there is a difference between having a difficult set of days or weeks and actual job burnout.  Burnout is not an all or nothing phenomenon.  Fluctuations in motivation and enthusiasm are normal.  Job burnout occurs when enthusiasm and motivation have completely dried up while your job skills and knowledge remain intact - a very frustrating feeling.  Those hardest hit by job burnout are people in the helping and medical professions, those who make high stakes or life and death decisions, and those whose work is very detail oriented.

Burnout is a cumulative process and it is important to be in in tune with early warning signals:

- Loss of interest in work

- Emotional fatigue

- Increased moodiness and irritability in both personal and professional situations

- Increasing frustration with everyday responsibilities at work

- Inability to re-charge your internal batteries while not working

- Interpersonal problems marked by decreased tolerance and patience

- Social withdrawal - becoming aloof and inaccessible

- Indifference towards people and dehumanization of those you work with (eg, thinking of clients as objects not people)

- Health problems as a result of chronic tension or stress

- Substance abuse as a way to cope with difficult feelings

- Declining performance at work

- Being emotionally or physically absent from work

- Ceasing to find meaning in your work

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Most people suffering from burnout share an experience of powerlessness, hopelessness, and helplessness.  They lose a sense of being able to control their work and self-confidence takes a major dwindling hit.  

Re-establishing a sense of empowerment and confidence is key to addressing job burnout.

  Before deciding whether or not to quit a job, it is important that you get yourself to a replenished and rational place first.

Here are some tips to help you reclaim a sense of personal control:

-Learn better ways to manage stress.  Healthy coping is key to replenish those dead batteries and get you to a place where you can clearly assess and evaluate what to do next about your job situation.

-Seek social support.  Even though the first instinct during burnout may be to withdraw from others, it is important to counteract this instinct.  Build a solid network made up of friends, family, and coworkers.

-Increase your knowledge base.  By continuing to build your marketable job skills set, you increase your personal and professional sense of empowerment.

- Manage negative thoughts.  See my previous blog entry on Talking Back to Your Internal Chatterbox to learn how to manage types of thinking that can take control of your emotions.

- Develop detached concern.  This means learning to let go of attachment to how things could or ought to be - a skill that becomes immeasurable especially when you are working with serious or impossible situations.

- If all else fails, consider changing jobs

.  However, it is paramount that you analyze the source of your job dissatisfaction first and explore what is needed to improve the situation.

Talking to a mental health professional who specializes in job burnout can be a powerful tool to regain a sense of control.  It can help to have a neutral person to process the above topic with.  I am a Houston psychologist and enjoy working with job burnout concerns. 

Negativity: Talking Back To Your Internal Chatterbox

Thousands of thoughts run through our head every day. 

Just consider your own internal dialogues all day long – about your own actions, about others’ behaviors, about the world as a whole, about what has happened in the past, about what is yet to happen.  The way we talk to ourselves can be positive, negative, or neutral.  Or even a mix of all of those.  Self-talk is often a mostly automatic and even unconscious process.  These dialogues can turn very unpleasant – such as beating yourself up in the face of perceived “failure”.

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Needless to say, the way we talk to ourselves can give rise to many different emotions. For example, if you tell yourself that if you don’t do well on tomorrow’s presentation at work, then you’ll never get promoted.  Or if you feel like a conversation with a friend felt awkward and you find yourself wondering if they now think less of you.  Both of these examples of self-talk can result in feelings of anxiety or hopelessness.  The key about making self-talk more constructive is learning to be more gentle and compassionate in the ways we talk to ourselves.

Cognitive and cognitive-behavioral therapists work with their clients to change negative self-talk into more rational responses.  The goal is that if we can start recognizing our own automatic negative thoughts and then turn them around, we can feel better about ourselves and the world around us.  Much research has been done to back this up as an effective form of therapy, especially for anxiety and depressive disorders. 

There are different categories of negative self-talk, and if you work with a cognitive or cognitive-behavioral therapist, you will get to know them intimately.  Below are some examples of negative self-talk (also called “cognitive distortions”) and more gentle alternatives.  Note that these are simple examples for illustrative purposes.

1. Should statements:

  • Negative Self-Talk:  I should be able to deal with stressful situations better.
  • Better:  I know how to deal with stress and I am having a hard time right now.

2 .  Disqualifying the positive:

  • Negative Self-Talk:  I hate my life, it always is so difficult.
  • Better:  There are some things going on right now that are difficult and also some things that are actually going right.

3. Emotional reasoning:

  • Negative Self-Talk:  I don't feel good right now, so it feels like I can't handle anything.
  • Better:  I feel like I can't handle things right now and I know I can.

4.  Catastrophizing: 

  • Negative Self-Talk:  If I don't do well on this work presentation, my boss will think poorly of me, I'll never get that promotion, and eventually I'll be jobless and homeless.
  • Better:  Nobody's perfect.  I'll do my best on the presentation and know that less than perfect is not the end of the world.

If negative self-talk is ingrained in the way you think, and is regularly

impacting your mood and relationships, you might consider working with a psychologist or other licensed mental health professional.  Also look for a future installment on this blog about how to foster more self-compassion. 

What To Do About This Pesky Anger...

Anger is an interesting and powerful emotion.  We have all felt it – perhaps as a fleeting annoyance or even as full-fledged, out-of-control rage.  Anger is a normal human emotion designed as a “red flag” to let us know something is causing us stress.  But when anger takes a hold of our life, it can lead to problems at work and in relationships.



Some experts consider anger a “secondary” emotion – meaning it is formed as a reaction to and cover-up for more primary emotions, such as sadness or fear.  It may feel easier or more acceptable to express anger rather than sadness or fear. It is therefore important to first understand triggers for our anger – what in our lives is causing us this emotion.  Is it irritability with rush hour traffic, or is it flying off the handle unexpectedly after the death of a loved one?  Both involve anger but the causes are very different.  It is often helpful to determine the true cause of anger and address it directly.



Here are some thoughts about anger, meant to help guide you in the right direction of addressing it:

  • Do you bottle up your feelings rather than expressing them?  Your anger may be an issue of learning effective and assertive communication to express feelings in an appropriate and timely manner.
  • Simple relaxation tools, such as deep breathing and relaxing imagery, can help calm down angry feelings.  An example would be breathing in for 4 counts, holding your breath for 4 counts, and exhaling for 8 counts.  As you exhale, tell yourself a relaxing word, such as “peace”, “relax”, or “let go”.  Do this at least 3 times.
  • Rigorous exercise can help address anger – this is especially effective if the underlying cause is anxiety.
  • Changing your environment may be the key to address angry triggers.  This may become an “If all else fails” strategy.  For example – if it becomes increasingly difficult to control your road rage, consider public transportation.  If anger is a reaction to a toxic person in your life that drains your resources, it may be time to learn to set concrete boundaries.
  • Pick your battles.  One powerful tool to address anger is learning to distinguish between what we can and cannot change.  Then invest your energy into those aspects of your life that are worth the effort.  This may be particularly helpful if your anger is accompanied with a sense of helplessness or powerlessness.


If you feel that your anger is out of your control, impacting your relationships and important parts of your life, you might consider counseling to learn how to handle it better. A psychologist or other licensed mental health professional can work with you in developing a range of techniques for addressing and managing anger.  I am a Houston psychologist – to learn more about my services, visit DrGortner.com. 


Great Expectations and What's Love Got To Do With It




Romantic relationships are one of the most frequently discussed concerns in counseling.  Lots of people would agree that it is at least as hard to maintain a relationship as it is finding that special someone. 

What constitutes a healthy relationship?  Mutual respect, trust, and support are basic building blocks.  Honesty and safety, both physical and emotional, must be a given, not a privilege to be earned.  Open communication and willingness to negotiate keep relationships steady.  In addition, we all deserve to be respected by our partner as a unique individual, while acknowledging that we can make conscious choices to mutually make positive changes in our behaviors and attitudes towards our partner.

There are clear warning signs that a relationship is in trouble and that something fundamental needs to change.  Possessiveness and controlling behaviors, as well as threats or use of violence are obviously huge red flags.  Less easy to detect are unfair and unrealistic expectations that may slowly seep into a relationship once the initial romance wears off.  These expectations can be of your partner, yourself, or the relationship as a whole.  Some examples of common unrealistic expectations in relationships are:

  • Expecting that he/she will change.
  • Hoping that he/she will never change.
  • Assuming that your partner thinks and reacts as you do.
  • Assuming that your partner knows your wants and needs.
  • Expecting that he/she has the same priorities, goals, and interests as you.
  • Believing that the relationship will fulfill all of your social, intellectual, and personal needs.
  • Giving up other interests, activities, and friends.
  • Seeking improved self-esteem through the relationship.
  • Feeling incomplete without a relationship.
  • Expecting that each new relationship is "the one."
  • Expecting that he/she will never make mistakes.
  • Viewing conflict as a threat to the relationship and to be avoided at all costs.
  • Working hard to get the relationship started, but exerting little effort to keep it going.
  • Trying to be what he/she wants, rather than being yourself.
  • Not understanding that feelings of love and passion change with time, as do your priorities and expectations.

Most people recognize themselves somewhere in these expectations.  Individuals who succeed in relationships are able to recognize and work on unrealistic expectations of oneself and others.

Finally - what many forget is that within a relationship, you also have to be accountable to yourself.  This means that being part of a healthy relationship is taking care of yourself.  This can be deduced from several of the above bullet points.  By being yourself – from the beginning, keeping your own life balanced, and not losing yourself in the relationship, you plant seeds of stability and health within a healthy partnership. 

If you are struggling with finding or maintaining a healthy relationship, talking to a psychologist or other licensed mental health professional can help. I am a Houston psychologist and I work with both couples and individuals.  Call me for a free consultation at 713-364-8328 or visit DrGortner.com for more information on my services. 

Hot Summer Days Got You Down?

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









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

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

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

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

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


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

Plan your vacation in a cooler climate, if possible. 

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

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

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

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