At this time of year in our clinical practice, we noted a slight uptick in folks – usually women – suffering from depression. Some are aware of the cause and some not so much. They have just sent their youngest or only child off to college and have fallen into the void of loss and sorrow known as the Empty Nest Syndrome. As an aside, a “syndrome” is “1: a group of signs and symptoms that occur together and characterize a particular abnormality or condition, 2: a set of concurrent things - as emotions or actions - that usually form an identifiable pattern”, (Merriam Webster dictionary). After explaining Empty Nest to them (see next section), these forlorn folks would frequently ask the following: If I have Empty Nest Syndrome does it mean there is something wrong with me? (No; it’s situational and pretty normal.) Do I need to be on meds? (Not unless it gets out of hand.) When will I get over it? (In time.) And is there something I can do to feel better now? (Yes – explore being a liberated parent!)
What Is Empty Nest Syndrome?
Our editors at Psychology Today have succinctly defined this form of situational depression: http://www.psychologytoday.com/conditions/empty-nest-syndrome, “Empty Nest Syndrome refers to feelings of depression, sadness, and/or grief experienced by parents and caregivers after children come of age and leave their childhood homes. This may occur when children go to college or get married. Women are more likely than men to be affected; often, when the nest is emptying, mothers are going through other significant life events as well, such as menopause or caring for elderly parents. Yet this doesn't mean that men are completely immune to Empty Nest Syndrome. Men can experience similar feelings of loss regarding the departure of their children.”
A couple of weeks ago I took my youngest child to the airport where she boarded a plane to Washington, DC to attend her first year at university. She is now physically 5,000 miles way. Fortunately, via the wonders of modern technology, we can communicate at any time within seconds - bearing in mind the 6 hour time difference. And when it’s not possible to connect with her, she can be accessed via the innumerable memories stored in my smart phone, laptop, photo albums and of course that traditional storage bin in the memory between my ears.
If you read last month’s column, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-time-cure/201407/life-after-life, you know that my husband - and Phil’s and my colleague, cowriter (Time Cure) and co-developer of time perspective therapy - Rick, passed away two months ago so my nest is truly empty. Now, nearly everything in life is a choice – especially how we chose to act/react to other people and situations. So in what seems to be a tragic time, I am choosing instead to focus on the Losses or “Lesses” and turn them into “Pluses”:
• Less laundry – Plus time and physical energy
• Less shopping – Plus time and physical energy
• Less cooking – Plus time and physical energy
• Less nagging – Plus time, physical energy and peace of mind
• Less house cleaning – Plus time and physical energy
• Less monthly utilities (electricity/water/gas) – Plus money
In reality, any financial gain from the above is immediately absorbed (and then some!) by the cost of college. But the time and physical energy saved on the Lesses lead to Pluses which are now free to use doing things I, and likely you, have been meaning to do – or want to do:
• Freshen up the house - rearrange and reorganize; a daunting task made easier by taking one room (closet, cabinets, drawers) at a time.
• Catch up - and spend time with friends and family, especially your significant other.
• Get healthier – take the dog for a walk, practice yoga, exercise, swim.
• Stimulate the brain – take a little time each day to increase brain function. Cross word puzzles and Sudoku are popular ways to stimulate the old gray matter; personally, I use Lumosity and Scramble with Friends.
• Projects – start or complete projects you like to do and that bring you joy; try to use the artistic side of your brain.
• Be aware – especially of the beauty that surrounds us. No matter where we are, we are enveloped by beauty which can be found in the simplest things like the color and shape of the flowers or fruit at the grocery store, or the symmetry of a nut or pinecone, or the smile on someone’s face.
• Embrace solitude – be with yourself fully. Appreciate silence, meditate.
Ways to cope with Empty Nest Syndrome
Our friends at Mayo Clinic have more helpful advice for those suffering from Empty Nest:
• Accept the timing. Avoid comparing your child's timetable to your own personal experience. Instead, focus on what you can do to help your child succeed when he or she does leave home.
• Keep in touch. You can continue to be close to your children even when you live apart. Make an effort to maintain regular contact through visits, phone calls, emails, texts or video chats. (But accept their limits, their time is likely to be scheduled and routinized. Don’t become their chore or guilt trip for not calling, emailing or texting every day.)
• Seek support. If you're having a difficult time dealing with an empty nest, lean on loved ones and other close contacts for support. Share your feelings. If you feel depressed, consult your doctor or a mental health provider.
• Stay positive. Thinking about the extra time and energy you might have to devote to your marriage or personal interests after your last child leaves home might help you adapt to this major life change.
Look forward to a bright future
Although a portion of the 71% of mothers in the U.S. that work – as well as some fathers - may succumb to Empty Nest Ssyndrome, the bout may be shorter than expected because our identities are more than “parent”, and our lives are rich with new opportunities. If we have done a decent job parenting, one day in the not too distant future our progeny will return to the nest and share with us the knowledge they have gained, and maybe also their new progeny.
Bottom line: keep busy, spread your wings and fly to new spaces and places!
Visit our Psychology Today blogs to get a fuller appreciation of how to create a more balanced time perspective in your life!
Take the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory at www.thetimeparadox.com to discover your personal time perspective.
See The Time Cure: Overcoming PTSD with the New Psychology of Time Perspective Therapy "http://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/psychotherapy" \o "Psychology Today looks at Psychotherapy" Therapy (Zimbardo, Sword & Sword, 2012, Wiley Publishing); for strategies to reduce stress and improve communication, visit "http://www.timecure.com/" \o "www.timecure.com" \t "_blank" www.timecure.com and "http://www.lifehut.com/" \o "www.lifehut.com" \t "_blank" www.lifehut.com.
Empty Nest Syndrome – Tips for Coping (04/18/2012). Mayo Clinic Healthy Lifestyle Adult Health. http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/adult-health/in-depth/empty-nes...
Empty Nest Syndrome (Last reviewed 03/04/2009). Psychology Today Diagnosis Dictionary. http://www.psychologytoday.com/conditions/empty-nest-syndrome
Empty nest syndrome (2010). Better Health Channel. Retrieved from http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/empty_nes...
Mothers in the Work Force (2012). The National Association of Child Care Resources and Referral Agencies’ 2012 article, (http://www.naccrra.org/sites/default/files/default_site_pages/2012/ccgb_mot
Images: blogs.bu.edu, allaboutbirds.org