Ask the Doctor: Improving Short-Term Memory; Antidepressant Side Effects; Trouble Sleeping

Q: How can I improve my short-term memory? I feel a little scatterbrained when I can’t recall something I just heard or read.

A: It’s quite common to feel a little scattered sometimes, especially in today’s world with so much information coming at us all the time. There are some strategies you can use that may be very helpful in locking away new information. One of the most helpful “tricks” is simply to focus on one thing at a time. For example, don’t look for your keys while getting directions to a friend’s home. Stop and get the directions, and then look for your keys. Also, write down new information as you receive it. Not only will you have a written record, but the actual act of writing things down helps cement information in our memory. Saying things aloud, such as repeating a new name, is also helpful. Chunking information is also very helpful. Think about your phone number. It’s divided into small groups of numbers. Lastly, form similar groups when you need to store a long list or complicated information.

Q: I was recently prescribed antidepressant medications, but I’m nervous about complications down the road. What are some of the more common antidepressant side effects?

A: Antidepressants are powerful medications, which means they can be quite effective in treating depression in some people. It also means that they, like all medications, do come with some possible side effects. Some common antidepressant side effects include dry mouth, weight gain, headaches, nervousness, insomnia, diarrhea, and sexual dysfunction. However, some side effects are more common with certain medications. You and your doctor should discuss the potential side effects associated with the specific medication you have been prescribed. Your pharmacist may also be a helpful resource. You also may never experience any problems with antidepressants.

Antidepressants are usually prescribed for the short term, perhaps four to six months. For someone with severe depression, longer treatment may be more appropriate. These drugs tend to be used in conjunction with therapy. Keep in mind that there are many types of antidepressants, so if the one you are taking isn’t helping, or is causing side effects, talk with your doctor about possible alternatives.

Q: I have trouble sleeping. How do I know if it’s a physical health problem or a psychological problem?

A: Insomnia can take many forms. You may have trouble falling asleep, but then you’re able to sleep through the night. Or, you may fall asleep with no problem, but then wake up during the night. Sometimes improving your sleep hygiene routine is enough to improve your night’s sleep. Sleep hygiene tips include avoiding caffeine in the evening, no electronic screens right before bed, exercising regularly (especially in the morning), and making sure your bedroom is cool and dark.

If your bedtime routine is conducive to a good night’s sleep, and your mattress isn’t the problem, then you may want to talk with a sleep specialist. This could be a sleep physician or a sleep psychologist. A sleep physician is an MD who probably has additional training in sleep medicine. Many sleep physicians are board certified by the American Board of Sleep Medicine. A sleep psychologist also has additional training in sleep health and sleep disorders, and can help treat insomnia and behavior concerns related to sleep. If you feel your sleep problems are related to anxiety, for example, then you may want to start with a sleep psychologist. If, for example, your problem is more likely a breathing-related sleep disorder, such as obstructive sleep apnea, then a sleep physician may be a better first choice. Talk with your doctor or seek out a local sleep clinic. You may be directed to a specialist based on your medical history and description of your symptoms.

—Editor-in-Chief Maurizio Fava, MD

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