Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University News Bureau

1997-1998 index

Distributed November 19, 1997
Contact: Linda Mahdesian

Holiday story ideas from Brown University experts

From holiday stress to international travel, Brown professors offer their expertise and commentary on a variety of seasonal topics.

Holiday depression - is it a myth?

"There's a popular perception that this is the season with a greater incidence of depression - it's not clear that's true," says Gabor Keitner, M.D., professor of psychiatry at Brown and director of the Mood Disorders Program at Rhode Island Hospital in Providence, R.I. "We need to differentiate between what is depression versus what is being sad and upset, more sensitive, more despondent ... but what is not necessarily chronic depression." In fact, Keitner notes that in general, admissions to in-patient psychiatric units go down during the Christmas holidays.
Contact Scott Turner (401) 863-2476 (

Allergic to Christmas? You might want to ditch the tree

For allergy sufferers, winter brings no relief, especially for those allergic to Christmas trees. Guy Settipane, M.D., clinical professor of medicine at Brown and an allergist in private practice on the East Side, points to other seasonal sources of sneezes, including dust mites in pillows, mattresses, rugs and carpets and increased levels of dog and cat dander as pets are kept indoors. Plastic ornaments used year after year can cause odor irritation, as the breakdown of the plastic occurs produces chemical air contamination. The heat from light bulbs may cause more of these plastic chemicals to be released in the air. Plastic Christmas trees are another source of plastic odors. A major problem may be mold and dust that have accumulated on tree ornaments stored in the cellar of attic. Settipane recommends wrapping ornaments in tightly sealed plastic bags and storing them in a dry area of the house.
Contact Scott Turner (401) 863-2476 (

Holiday feasts don't have to be feuds

Forget the passel of presents: Family members often bring their emotional baggage with them when they go home for the holidays. Gatherings are frequently a time when old family battles are rejuvenated. Sibling rivalries, problems with parents, and childhood habits return when there is only a dining room table instead of a telephone separating family members. Brown professor of psychology Lewis Lipsitt speaks about the reasons for these problems and how to avoid them.
Contact Kristen Lans (401) 863-2476 (

International travelers beware - exotic places can be hazardous or fatal

"There are many diseases indigenous to less developed countries which can be fatal. Malaria and traveler's diarrhea are two of the most common problems associated with international traveling," warns Steven Opal, M.D., associate professor medicine at Brown and director of the travel clinic at Memorial Hospital in Pawtucket, R.I. Tuberculosis is another disease that has rapidly emerged as a global problem, according to the World Health Organization. Opal and the clinic's physicians offer immunizations and antibiotics to maintain good health while traveling, advice on vaccine preventable dieseases, tips on food and water consumption, traveling with children and traveling during pregnancy, as well as phone numbers to U.S. embassies and local physicians throughout the world.
Contact Scott Turner (401) 863-2476 (

The body clock in winter - melatonin may not work best at night

Gary Richardson, M.D., assistant professor of research at Brown and clinical researcher at The Miriam Hospital, disagrees with studies of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) that suggest the disorder is a consequence of changes in one's biological clock. Richardson's work questioned whether the biological clocks in SAD sufferers were abnormal. In experiments with light, the findings pointed out that their biological clocks may be responding to light, but the "clocks" themselves are not abnormal. Richardson and his researchers at The Miriam Hospital in Providence, R.I., also study the effects of melatonin on sleep. "We think it works by antagonizing the alert mechanisms of light," says Richardson. "The implication is that melatonin tends to work better if taken during the day. That goes against a lot of popular claims about melatonin."
Contact Scott Turner (401) 863-2476 (

Reality gap may be causing most holiday stress

The frantic pace and financial pressures may be major factors in churning up holiday stress. But a more important reason is that adults often have an idealized image of what they should be experiencing and feeling around the holidays - often based on childhood memories which may have been distorted. "People often don't realize they're setting unrealistic standards that can't be met," says Alan Sirota, M.D., clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Brown, and head of psychological services at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Providence. "They don't realize the childhood experiences can't be replicated and they don't know how to set more realistic standards that they can meet."
Contact Scott Turner (401) 863-2476 (

Best book buys for your holiday shopping list

There are lots of great books to choose from, but Brown Bookstore's senior buyer, Peter Sevenair, offers his picks for picky people on your list. His top favorites include three first novels: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, and Only Twice I've Wished for Heaven by Dawn Turner Trice. He also lists cookbooks, biographies, histories and even a book on cognitive science.
Contact Linda Mahdesian (401) 863-2476 (

Your community center needs volunteers all year

The holiday spirit inspires volunteerism. But people also need to consider how this fits into the other 11 months of their lives and the lives of the people with whom they're working. That's the philosophy of Peter Hocking, director of the Howard Swearer Center for Public Service. Hocking and his staff challenge people to think about starting a long-term involvement during the holidays. Community centers are a great way to begin because they do such a wide range of things - from day care to tutoring to food pantries.
Contact Linda Mahdesian (401) 863-2476 (

Distilled advice on cross-cultural holiday drinking

Dwight Heath, professor of anthropology at Brown, is retired from teaching but is a globe-trotting expert on the role of alcohol in culture. In most societies, alcohol plays a major role in celebrations, sometimes the drinking itself marks the celebration. "For example, there are societies in Africa where the drinking by two parties marks the conclusion of a dispute ... to symbolize the rift has been mended," says Heath, who received his "dream grant" in July of this year - $1.5 million to travel to 30-plus countries and study "what is a drinking occasion." The one-and-a-half-year study, funded by the Washington-based International Center for Alcohol Policies, will culminate in a new book aimed at the lay public, scheduled for publication in 1999. Heath's advice: "Stop before you reach the point of being drunk. ... But if you don't do that, the best prescription is to lie low, take it easy, drink lots of water and wait. Time is the only thing that cures it."
Contact Kristen Lans (401) 863-2476 (

Sylvester Night and messages to Yemanja: New Year's customs around the world

While millions of Americans will be watching the ball drop with Dick Clark's countdowns, Afro-Brazilians will be on the beach giving flowers and sending messages to Yemanja, the goddess of the water. In Poland, celebrants will wish each other "Happy Sylvester Night" and avoid mirrors. In Germany, they'll be setting off firecrackers and reading their fortunes in globs of melted lead floating in cold water. Meanwhile, Peruvians will be stuffing 12 grapes into their mouths - one for each month of the year - before the stroke of midnight, to ensure good luck in the coming year. And if they want to do more traveling, the custom requires them to walk around the block carrying two empty suitcases.
Contact Linda Mahdesian (401) 863-2476 (