I want to but I can’t…

You may be one of those individuals who has difficulty concentrating at work because you’re on your smartphone doing things that aren’t work or one of those who feels panicked or anxious when you don’t have your smartphone with you. It has definitely dawned on you that you spend far too much more time on your phone —checking Facebook, posting on Instagram, playing games, surfing the internet, chatting, watching Youtube — much more than you’d like to admit to. Sometimes, you turn down friends who entreat you to join them for real world interactions (but no one needs to know about those occasions). And you’re okay with that.

You may have realised that these activities aren’t helping to relieve your stress. In fact, you feel just a bit more unhappy than when you started. A 2013 PLoS study found that people’s perception of their own well-being declined with continued use of Facebook. Their sense of life satisfaction appeared to be reduced because they, like us, were likely to compare themselves to their peers while reading about the wonderful lives of their peers.  A 2014 PNAS study observed the phenomenon known as emotional contagion: individuals expressed more negative emotions when their Facebook feed was intentionally reduced in positive emotions (it should be noted however that others expressed more positive emotions when their feed was intentionally reduced in negative emotions).

So yes, you are somewhat attached to your smartphone. But you don’t feel that you’d be able to reduce the amount of time you spend on your smartphone. There are however a few things you could consider:

1. Try Cold Turkey
If you’re really motivated, you can install apps —Focus Lock, Pause, Freedom, Anti-Social, and Offtime — which prevent you from using specific applications for specified periods of time. Turning off notifications, muting conversations and airplane mode are other ways to help you focus on the task at hand. Putting your phone on “Do Not Disturb” or Selective Silence mode (after you list callers who can get through to you on this mode) is another way to get work done undisturbed.

2. Choose Your Own Adventure
Instead of letting social networking sites determine your mood, you could control your own destiny by liking posts which promote positive emotions and restricting your newsfeed to only supportive friends who have your interests at heart.

3. Come Out to Play
Distractions like Youtube videos and online games don’t provide effective stress relief. Physical activity and high quality relationships do. The better our aerobic fitness (what is aerobic fitness?), the lower the risk of depression. Not only is our mental resilience boosted by social connections, we also cope better with stress with the support of good friends and family. Group therapy doesn’t cost much. Rent bikes by the hour at Pasir Ris Park or play dodgeball at a trampoline park…

4. Go Green
Research shows that resting our eyes on something green in between working not only boosts our concentration but improves our mood, while moving to neighbourhoods with more access to green spaces has been associated with improved mental health. Scheduling a weekly nature outing with your friends and family would reduce your dependence on your smartphone, while providing effective stress relief. The Nature Society organises guided intertidal walks, as well as kayaking tours through the mangroves which are open to families with children 8 years of age and up…

It gets better with practice…and you can always seek professional help to kick the habit!

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Bringing up baby

Undesirable behaviours sometimes exasperate the best of us. And we can respond with emotions rather than coolly and in the best interests of the child, which is why the experts advise us to “guide, not punish“, especially when it comes to dealing with young children.

We also live in a relatively more enlightened era…with much research to guide our thinking and behaviours. With that in mind, here are a few useful tips for parents:

1. Spare the rod, but don’t spoil the child
A recent study suggests that parents should discipline their children, but this does not necessarily entail spanking. Researchers in this study videotaped parents who spanked their children at home and found that parents were more often motivated by impulse or their emotions than using spanking as intentional discipline. In fact, most spanking incidents were in response to minor wrongs, and children typically misbehaved within 10 minutes of the spanking.

Moreover, a recently published meta-analysis of spanking studies reveals that the more children were spanked, the more likely they were to defy their parents. These children were also more likely to display anti-social behaviours, aggression, mental health problems, and cognitive difficulties. So, it could be better to focus on being consistent and on providing opportunities to reward good behaviours.

2. Positive endings good, sad endings bad
Every story usually has a lesson to learn. The moral of the story about The Hare and The Tortoise is that being persistent wins the race. Recent research has revealed that children learn best from stories which have a good ending. A recent study has found that children respond more positively to a moral story which promotes honesty than one which warns them about the consequences of dishonesty.

3. Avoid threats to help children tell the truth
A recent study in which children were told not to peek at a toy behind them but given the opportunity to peek (when the researcher went out of the room), finds that children are less likely to own up that they peeked if they were afraid of being punished. In contrast, children were more likely to tell the truth to please the adult (especially younger children) or to do the “right thing” (especially older children). So, it seems that threatening children with punishment is not the way to get them to come clean.

4. Use time-outs appropriately
2015 study reveals that if you want your toddler to stop doing something irritating immediately, the best action is to offer him or her a compromise. But this strategy, used often, will likely lead to more undesirable behaviours. Instead, the most effective way to deal with whining, negotiating and hitting involves reasoning with your toddler. Punishments like time-outs are only effective in curbing defiant toddlers, but they don’t work on every child. According to the researchers, this is because parents tend to use time-outs only after toddlers have misbehaved. In contrast, time-outs and other punishments are effective if parents tell their children ahead of time which behaviours result in a time-out or punishment, and apply them when the child misbehaves.

If only rearing children were as easy as knitting

 

5 Shortcuts to Relieving Your Stress

Research produces a report every so often that reports on the effectiveness of exercise and mindfulness for relieving stress. A recent study suggests that the combination of exercise and mindfulness lowers anxiety and depression. But we’re not always immediately ready to overcome the barriers for setting up a regular exercise routine and/or a daily mindfulness habit.

In the meantime, here are some shortcuts to relieving stress at work and/or home:

1. Do your chores mindfully 
Doing an activity, which we would typically do mindlessly, more mindfully can be helpful for managing stress. This study found that focusing on the smell of the soap and the soapiness of the dish water helped participants lower their anxiety. But you’re in charge of cooking, not washing dishes? Fret not, someone’s got to cut the vegetables, clean the kitty litter, walk the dog, and water the plants (paying attention to whether there are new shoots)…the world’s your oyster, as long as you do it mindfully.

2. Enjoy a cup of tea
Life’s difficulties seem more manageable with a cup of tea. Apparently it’s not because tea itself is relaxing but rather, we find hot beverages to be soothing. It may also be that the scent of lemon, lavender and mango reduces our stress response. French Earl Grey which is a blend of citrus with the usual bergamot, paired with a lemon tart or mango pudding, could be the balm to your stressful day.

3. Savour your coffee and bread
The smell of freshly-baked bread was found in this study to make participants more likely to help a stranger, while the smell of roasted coffee beans helped to lower the stress of sleep deprivation in this study. But if you enjoy the smell of neither bread baking nor coffee being ground, there’s yet another quick fix. The scent of jasmine produced a calming effect on the participants of this study. So the next time you need to go shopping to feel better, try hunting down some scented candlesperfume, or handmade soaps!

4. Early bird gets better sleep
Exercise and mindfulness aren’t the only recurring themes in stress management. In fact, experts now advocate getting the right amount of sleep — not too much and not too little. And getting good quality sleep is apparently about shutting out the street lights with blackout curtains or moving to a neighbourhood with less light pollution (Pulau Ubin, anyone?) and getting up to soak up the morning sun. Short-wave light when received in the early part of our day, regulates our sleep cycle, which helps us manage stress better.

5. Are you guilty of catastrophizing?
The key to having less stress is about how we perceive the stressors. It’s actually within our control. A 2016 study observes that those, who experience negative emotions during an event they view as stressful, tend to have a poorer physiological response to stress — their heart rate doesn’t vary a great deal. In contrast, a healthy response to stress is characterised by greater variability in our heart rate. So, one way to manage stress is about letting go! Try asking yourself if it’s as bad as you initially thought it was…

6. Get proactive — be helpful!
A recent study found that engaging in helpful behaviours is another effective strategy for coping with everyday stress. Participants of the study who did more for other people not only experienced more positive emotions during the day but they also had better mental wellbeing. Try these random acts of kindnessHere are some more!

Money, happiness, and your mental wellbeing

Riches help us stay healthy, but apparently, money doesn’t make us happier.

As far back as 2004, researchers already concluded that life experiences are more likely to make us feel happy than material possessions. Despite that, like the participants of a 2014 study, we still feel that our money is better spent on material purchases than on life experiences.

In fact, some of us may not benefit from spending on a life experience at all. According to another study, if we’re buying an iPhone, a Balenciaga clutch and a Bulova watch to fit in with our peers, we’re not likely to feel happier after spending our hard-earned savings on a safari in Botswana or a nice dinner out with friends at a new gastropub like Timbre+. In fact, happiness won’t be the outcome for as many as a third of us, whether the purchase is something material or a life experience.

So, since getting the latest GoPro, admiring your newest acquisition at the Affordable Art Fair, eating your heart out at the current food fest Gourmet Japan, and taking your little ones to KidZania on Sentosa Island, may not improve your wellbeing, what could you be doing instead?

1. Know the value of your time
Happiness is linked to how much we value our time. A 2016 study found that happiness ratings were higher for people who chose to prioritise their time (e.g., a shorter commute or shorter working hours) over salary. It pays dividends to pursue work-life balance, it seems. But not necessarily in dollars and cents.

2. Practise gratitude
Results of a recent study show that those who express gratitude tend to place less emphasis on the contribution of material gains to their sense of satisfaction in life. To a smaller extent, people who experience positive emotions are also less likely to view material possessions as the ticket to happiness. So, even if shiny new things make you happy, you can elevate your wellbeing by being grateful. (And gratitude not only improves mood and sleep quality, but it’s associated with less inflammation and lowered risk for cardiac events).

3. Develop your sense of compassion
current study based at the Malaysia campus of The University of Nottingham is investigating the impact of loving-kindness meditation on individuals’ wellbeing and happiness. But earlier work has actually already established a number of benefits of practising mindfulness which focuses our attention on being kind and showing empathy to others. This sort of mindfulness practice encourages positive emotions and helps with anxiety and chronic pain.

4. Plan your travel and social events in advance
It seems that our experience of happiness — in the form of pleasantness and excitement — endures while we anticipate the enjoyment of a life experience. But this wellbeing doesn’t apply as well to material purchases, says a recent study in Psychological Science. In short, lengthening that anticipatory period might heighten our excitement and ultimately bring us more joy. Might we be even happier if our life experience was free (e.g., a picnic at Marina Barrage or a free concert).

5. Get involved with your community
Another way which raises our “psychological, emotional, and social wellbeing” involves voluntary work, while being employed on a full-time or part-time job. A 2015 study reports that voluntary work leads to greater satisfaction with work-life balance and lower stress levels.

6. Consider life’s adversities
It’s possible, it seems, to have too much of a good thing. Having an abundance of experience and being well-travelled, we can be underwhelmed by a visit to a “pleasant but ordinary” destination. But contemplating past adversities and considering life’s uncertainties, according to this 2015 study, can help us enjoy the small things in life.

Learn the core skills for helping others

Ever wanted to take a course to acquire the core skills of counselling? We’re offering a 2-part course (course date & time: 30 April and 7 May 2016; 9am to 1pm) for participants to develop and practise counselling techniques including active listening and attending skills. Limited spaces so sign up before 22 April 2016! Click here for workshop details »

Upcoming Workshop: Fundamentals of Counselling

Upcoming Course: Fundamentals of Counselling

 

Social Intelligence for Successful Relationships

Ever had the thought “What can I do when my friend is anxious?“…”What do I do or say when someone starts crying?“…

We offer a workshop for individuals who want to learn strategies and communication skills to manage concerns like these. Read more »

Social Intelligence for Successful Relationships

Course Date & Time: 23 April 2016, 1:30 – 5:30 pm

 

Are you eating to feel good or to feel better?

“Thoughts drive dieting plans, but feelings drive dieting behaviour”. We plan rationally what to eat, but we gorge on things which make us feel good.That’s what health psychologists are telling us. No doubt, garlic scallops with broccoli makes us feel good. But after a morning of fighting fires and an string of tedious afternoon meetings involving front line hand-to-hand combat with tiring individuals, we’ll be wanting something that makes us feel better. We’d probably be somewhat receptive to truffle fries and mud pie. We’ll be looking forward to that last slice of chocolate cake waiting patiently for us in the fridge at home.

It’s the same reason why we’re able to sustain a relatively narrow diet of something healthy but quite plain (e.g., a mono-food diet of cabbage soup or a daily regimen of raw veggies and steamed salmon) for only so long. We crave foods which draw out a warm and fuzzy feeling from us in our moments of weakness. I mean, moments of stress, when life throws us challenges. And it’s not something we’ve cooked up. There’s data to show that we’re prone to emotional eating when we experience job burnout and fatigue.

But we need not be slaves to our cravings. Here are seven questions to ask yourself:

1. Are you feeling stressed?
We may not realise it but our emotions are in the driver’s seat when it comes to eating. We reach for comfort foods when we’re stressed. We treat ourselves to something nice after we’ve had to deal with something challenging. This is not just anecdotal evidence. A recent study shows that we’re much more likely to choose tasty but unhealthy food over a healthy but less tasty one after we’ve experienced a stressful event. The reason for this has a neurobiological basis: Our cortisol levels, which are elevated by stress, disrupt the self-control mechanism in our brains, which means that stress can derail our well-intentioned plans to eat healthy. That means that managing your stress levels is one of the key components of eating healthy.

2. Which foods are you emotionally attached to?
Stress is not the only thing we should be concerned about. Anxiety and depression also affect how we eat. At least half of the people who responded to a recent US survey agreed that weight loss was caused by not exercising enough and by the foods they ate. Only 10% considered mental well-being to be a main factor for being successful at losing weight. To cope with emotional eating, it can be helpful to understand why you eat what you eat. Keeping a daily journal can help you track the (unhealthy) foods which you eat to make yourself feel better. Use technology to your advantage: Apps like Calorie Counter and Diet Tracker not only track the nutritional value of your meal, but give you the option to label your foods with say, your emotions.

3. What emotions are you experiencing?
How often have we had lunch but not remembered what we ate? Multi-tasking at lunch or dinner time means that we often inhale our meals without considering whether we should continue eating because we’re still hungry. A 2014 study has shown that those who received training to recognise basic emotions in themselves and others were more likely to choose a healthy snack than the control group. The trained group also achieved weight loss after 3 months, whereas the control group gained weight in the same interval. According to other researchmindful eating — which includes being aware of one’s emotions when eating — means that you’ll be less likely to eat for emotional reasons. To reap the other benefits of being more motivated to exercise and having better blood glucose regulation, ask yourself what emotions you’re experiencing when you’re reaching for your 3rd pineapple tart.

4. Are you in a good mood?
Knowing how you feel when you’re about to eat is one thing. Stopping yourself from finishing all the pineapple tarts and the last of the kueh lapis is another thing. That’s where the findings of a 2014 study come in. Researchers found that people in a good mood more often chose healthy foods than those in a neutral mood. Of course, those in a bad mood more often chose comfort (and unhealthy) foods than those in a neutral mood. But the researchers also managed to get those in a bad mood to make better food choices: Getting them to focus on the future rather than the present made more who were in a bad mood switch to healthy foods. So, distract yourself with music or friends when you’re in a bad mood to avoid indulgent emotional eating.

5. Did you have breakfast this morning?
Breakfast has been linked to various positive health outcomes. Here’s one more! A 2014 study explains the reason why breakfast leads to less overeating during the rest of the day. It turns out that eating at the start of the day regulates your feel-good hormone, dopamine, reducing your food cravings during the rest of the day.

6. Do you really need to eat everything at the buffet?
Given a choice between a cheap all-we-can-eat buffet and a pricier one, which would we choose? The cheap one might be good for our wallet in the short run, but a 2015 study finds that we’re much more likely to overeat and feel guilty for our indulgence at the cheap than pricier buffet. So, practice mindful eating and go for the not-so-cheap option…if nothing less than a buffet will suffice.

7. Are you still feeling hungry?
Proteins, grains and pulses are the secret to curbing our appetite. And not all foods are equal: almonds, saffron, and pine nut oil also help us feel full for longer, according to an 2014 report in Food Technology.

Your attitude towards ageing matters

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Increasing the amount of physical activity that you do cuts the risk of dementia by as much as 60%, when combined with a healthy lifestyle which includes cutting out nicotine and and cutting down on alcohol.

Recent research now explains that exercise is the key to ageing successfully because physical activity keeps your brain healthy. A 2015 study reveals that older adults (their participants were Japanese men aged 60 to 74 years) are more likely to use the same part of the brain for tasks requiring cognitive control (such as the Stroop test — you can try it here) as young adults if they are physically fitter; those with less fitness use more parts of their brain to perform the same task. Another 2015 study also finds that brain atrophy can be reversed among healthy older adults and those with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) through moderate intensity exercise.

But exercise is only half the equation. It’s also important to give your brain opportunities to grow new neural connections. The notion that healthy ageing involves giving yourself cognitively demanding tasks (see our earlier blog post) gets more support from a 2016 study. Building on earlier findings, this study demonstrates that mentally challenging activities – such as learning digital photography or quilting or learning both – produces greater improvements in memory than low hanging fruit, like travel and cooking activities for which participants are not required to learn something new.

It doesn’t do any harm to also increase healthy foods, specifically green vegetables, walnuts, curries, and omega-3 foods like eggs, bananas, dark chocolate, avocado, and blueberries, which have been found to reduce the risk of cognitive decline with age.

But it might surprise you to find out that social connections also have a powerful effect on your health. A 2016 study finds that having a larger social network is crucial for health during late, as well as early, adulthood. Seniors not in social isolation achieve better scores on health markers which include blood pressure, body mass index, and a measure of systemic inflammation.

And that your beliefs about ageing can also be impactful. A 2015 study finds that people who hold negative beliefs (e.g., “elderly people are decrepit”) are more likely to subsequently experience brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s dementia.

Just something to think about as the planets line up on this full moon.

Getting into a habit and reaching your goals

Forty-seven days into the new year, you may have made a new year resolution and may be finding it hard to stick to it. Your new year goal may have been to get more exercise and eat healthier. Or it may have been to spend less and save more money. But it’s been an uphill task over the Lunar New Year.

It takes less than a minute to eat a pineapple tart, but much more time and effort to burn all that energy off — 50 floors for each tart to be exact. Bak kwa can be savoured for a wee bit longer, but not as long as the time it’ll take to climb 40 floors for each coin devoured over the weekend (calorie counts for all the various goodies here). Meeting up with friends over brunch, mall and warehouse sales, red packets and late-night games played with square tiles are the highlights of the festive occasion. It’s hard to get away with spending very little or nothing at all.

Our ultimate aim may be to lose weight or to have a healthier bank balance to make the downpayment on a property. But it’s only within reach when we articulate a goal that is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. We make it possible for us to keep our new year resolution when we set a SMART goal.

Rather than saying we’ll eat healthy, we’re setting ourselves up for success if our plan is to “eat a serving of leafy vegetables at lunch and dinner” and “a serving of fruit with breakfast and at tea-time” by the end of the year. Rather than saying we’ll exercise more, we’re much more likely to implement an exercise habit if we were to aim to “do a physical activity for an hour twice a week” by the end of the year. Because really, who has time to exercise every day? Even carving time out to exercise every other day can be a challenge. Instead of saying we’ll spend less and save more, it’s be more effective to “set a monthly budget for dining and entertainment” by the end of the year.

But articulating a concrete goal which you can see yourself marking on your monthly calendar is only the first step. We’re more likely to succeed in achieving our goal when we form habits. Instead of saying we’ll sleep more, we’ll get more and better sleep if we were to cultivate a sleep habit each month. The goal of setting a budget for specific expenses would be within reach if we were first to develop a weekly habit of recording our expenses at the same time each week, say Sunday evening. Similarly, getting into the habit of eating fruits and veggies daily and exercising on specific days in the week makes it that much easier to achieve the goal of losing weight (How do fruits and veggies help? Here’s how), particularly when we’re preoccupied with life (I mean, problems, difficulties, challenges, sources of stress…that sort of thing).

Research reveals that doing a behaviour for the first time requires our attention. If our typical lunch and dinner are wonton mee and fish noodle soup, we engage the part of our brain which is responsible for decisions to add a portion of veggies to our meal. We intentionally seek out places which serve a generous portion of green veggies with our char kway teow and select foods which already have veggies built into the dish like yong tau foo. As we repeat this behaviour, our actions are stored in the area of the brain responsible for memory. Eventually, the mere action of getting lunch or dinner will automatically cue us into ordering a portion of veggies with our meal. And acquiring the habit of daily veggies and fruit makes our goal attainable.

But there are a few more tricks that will help jump-start your habit formation…

1. “Eating healthy” 
A 2013 study found that acquiring both exercise and diet habits simultaneously was more effective than acquiring them sequentially. People who tackled both exercise and diet habits were more successful in achieving their goals than those who changed their diet habits first and then acquired exercise habits.

So, it’s a good idea to implement both exercise and diet habits at the same time rather than one after the other.

2. “Getting exercise”
A 2015 study found that habits which prompted people to exercise were more important than the habit of exercising itself. Setting an alarm which cues us to go for gym class after work makes it more likely that we’ll actually go to the gym. Likewise, setting an appointment in the calendar to cue us to go on a nature walk or bike ride on the weekend, be it with friends or on our own, makes it more likely that we’ll realise our exercise goals. The study found that it could take a month or longer to develop the habits which prompt us to exercise.

Cues, such as having dinner with friends after attending a free mall Kpop fitness or Zumba class, can help you achieve your exercise goals.

3. “Spending less and saving more”
Because we may choose to shop and spend in order to make ourselves feel better (so say most the 700 women polled in a 2009 study), having a budget can help keep us in check.

But we’re more likely to stick to our budget if we also keep in mind the why of our goal, and if we focus on one goal. A 2010 study found that compared to people who listed 4 ways to save money, those who wrote down why they wanted to save money, actually spent less money when given the opportunity to do so, while a 2011 study observed that people were more successful at saving money when they focused on one goal (e.g., to gain financial independence) rather than multiple goals (e.g., for children’s education, a rainy day, retirement).

So, the first step in financial planningmaking a list of why you want to save money — is far more important than you think. That together with your newly minted habit of tracking monthly expenditure, you’ll be able to set a budget for all the categories of spending (e.g., mortgage repayments, insurance plans, transport, utilities, groceries, phone and internet subscriptions, dining out, clothes, entertainment), bringing you closer to your goal of “spending less and saving more”. To make it even easier, you can take advantage of this budget calculator which will do all the work for you.

 

Beyond stigma, there’s a role for mental health education

The 2012 Singapore Mental Health Study reported that 5.8% of the local adult population are affected by depression during their lifetime. The researchers of the study found that only a third of those with a mental illness in their lifetime had sought the help of mental health professionals (Today Online, 13 Oct 2015).

According to the same study, only 10% of the population did not subscribe to the belief that those with a mental illness “could get better if they wanted to” (The Straits Times, 6 Oct 2015). The other 90% would likely agree that “a person who has mental illness is seen as someone who is weak” (The Straits Times, “A healthy mind isn’t a given for anyone”, 10 Feb 2016) and that “depression is a failure of will” (The New York Times, “7 Thoughts From a Chronically Unhappy Person”, 21 April 2015).

But stigma is not the only reason why people who experience symptoms of depression, burnout, or anxiety do not seek professional help. Aside from prejudicial attitudes, the ability to recognise the warning signs of psychological distress remain a major barrier to mental health care. A 2015 study of 2219 Canadian employees revealed that of the participants objectively identified by the study authors to be experiencing depression, more than half “did not recognize a need to seek help” (ScienceDaily, 7 Oct 2015). But the fact of the matter is that poor mental health literacy is not unique to the community of that study. A 2014 study by IMH on local residents’ understanding of common mental disorders including depression revealed that just over half the respondents surveyed were able to accurately identify the signs and symptoms of depression (Channel News Asia, 6 Oct 2015).

Yes, we should support campaigns to reduce stigma. But, it would only be successful if it were to be accompanied by mental health education programmes which are not only about dementia (it is the only one of the top 3 mental health conditions of local concern) but which also reach the community including those in school and those in the workforce.