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.

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.

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.

 

Optimizing your child’s potential — Tips from Research

Infant Playing --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

It’s hard these days to go to a restaurant to not find a toddler having his/her meal without a smart device in front of them. Even though there are parents who say they don’t allow their babies any television at all (yes, they exist!), the trend is in the other direction.

We’re not making it up. A US study reported at the 2015 Pediatric Academic Societies Annual Meeting, which surveyed 370 parents of children aged 6 months to 4 years, reported that 1 in 3 had already used a smart device before their first birthday. By their first birthday, 1 in 7 infants in the study were using a smart device for at least an hour a day. Being left to play with smart devices on their own was an experience common to the majority (70%) of the children in the study. And the data from a larger poll by Common Sense Media with 1,463 parents doesn’t really tell a different story. Along the same trends are the findings by a Childwise survey comprising 2,000 children aged 5 to 16 years that children spend more time online (on average 3 hours) than watching traditional TV.

We’re still in the process of accumulating compelling data on the long-term effects of smart devices on young children. Research suggests that children who receive more screen-time are more likely to be at risk for attention problems. But it’s not difficult to understand why one might be concerned about the impact giving infants free rein to play with a smart device. Social interactions are seen as key for children’s development whether it’s about growing their vocabulary, fostering their social skills, developing their narrative abilities, helping to structure their memory of past events, or acquiring new concepts and knowledge. As the American Academy of Pediatrics says, “a child’s brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.” So more time spent on non-age-appropriate television programmes and games on a smart device means less time developing these core skills.

Which is why the expert recommendation is no screen-time at all for those who haven’t reached their 2nd birthday, and why other experts argue that children should watch videos only when they’re in their preschool years. And why Taiwan passed a law last year which curbs parent-enabled smart device usage by children under 2 years of age.

So if not mobile devices and screen-time, what then? Here are a few other ideas to help boost the development of your little one…

1. Traditional toys are better
Remember those toys? The wooden puzzle, the shape-sorter, and wood blocks with pictures. They might seem out-dated but they could be the key to boosting your baby’s cognitive development. A recent study documented how much words parents spoke when they and their 1-year-old played with electronic toys (e.g., talking phone, talking farm, baby laptop), with traditional toys, and with picture books. The researchers found that parents spoke the most with traditional toys, followed by picture books, and finally, least with the noisy toys. The reasons for this pattern aren’t clear but it might be because noisy toys which light up are exceptionally good at keeping babies occupied so in contrast, parents talk more to help keep their babies play with the quiet toys!

2. Speak more not less
Earlier studies have long established that school-readiness at the kindergarten-age predicts later school performance and academic achievements. But a new study also shows that 2-year-olds with better oral language are also more likely to learn better and have fewer behavioural problems while at kindergarten. So it pays to foster language development from a young age.

But parents often worry that introducing two languages to their child hinders their progress. The experts on bilingual research suggest that speaking in 2 languages doesn’t confuse babies nor is a one-parent-one-language policy necessary. Put simply, more speech by parents in both or either language is always a good thing.

3. Try interactive picture-book-reading
There’s plenty of research evidence to support the idea parents can boost their toddlers’ language development by reading books with them. What’s new however is the finding that it’s what parents say when they’re reading picture books that matters. Parents appear to provide more speech sounds which are helpful to their toddlers’ spoken language development during a book-reading activity than when playing with toys or puppets. So pay attention to the sounds that your baby says and respond to them!

4. Surprise your baby!
So it’s not a coincidence that babies really enjoy playing peek-a-boo with you. Previous research has already shown that babies not only pay more attention to something which surprises them than to something which is more predictable. But a recent study shows that babies pay attention to things which surprise them in order to try and “figure something out about their world“. So, showing your baby something unexpected is likely a good way to get and keep their attention!

5. Let your hair down and have fun
It turns out that babies under 2 years can judge whether we’re joking around or not. For a silly moment, we might wear a rubber chicken on our head as a joke. Or we could be pretending to wear the chicken as a hat. How babies tell which is which depends on what we say and whether there’s disbelief on our faces (which we show when we’re joking). It might seem silly, but previous studies have established a number of benefits from being funny with your kids. A 2015 study also demonstrates that 18-month-olds were more likely to remember new information from a funny situation compared to an unfunny one.

6. Avoid distracted caregiving
Responsive caregiving is another cornerstone for healthy development during infancy. This includes responding to your baby’s smiles, cooing and other vocalisations. Earlier studies have shown that not recognising signs of distress by babies and inconsistent responses by mothers towards their babies, negatively impacts their children’s later cognitive and social skills. But recent research also suggests that distracted caregiving arising from using mobile phones (e.g., whatsap) could also affect brain development in young infants.

The early signs of dementia

Woman looking into distance whilst thinking

According to the 2013 Well-being of the Singapore Elderly (WiSE) study, 1 in 10 persons in Singapore aged 60 years and above has dementia, which according to the WHO definition, is a “syndrome in which there is deterioration in memory, thinking, behaviour and the ability to perform everyday activities”.

To suggest that someone with dementia “may” have memory loss, is misleading. Dementia is a condition in which people with dementia encounter problems with memory. But it is of course worth noting that the “symptoms of dementia are not limited to forgetfulness and memory loss“, as the author of this 2015 Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) Commons article points out. The ability to plan and make decisions, as well as solve problems, are other cognitive difficulties faced by someone with dementia.

Recent research efforts offer relatively quicker ways for clinicians to diagnose dementia and identify individuals at risk for dementia. According to a recent study published in 2015, researchers have developed a brief questionnaire, known as the QDRS comprising 10 items, which can accurately identify if someone has very mild, mild, moderate, or severe dementia. And a 2014 study has found a time-efficient method for identifying those at risk for dementia — through their ability to track a moving target with a computer mouse which moves in the opposite direction to what they see on the screen. Those diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) (and who are at risk for dementia) made many more errors than the control group. A more recent study also points to the tendency for those with amyloid plaques associated with dementia to have walk at a slower pace compared to healthy peers.

But you’re concerned that you may be developing dementia. Or you’re concerned about someone you know being at risk for dementia…

So here are 3 questions to answer:

1. Have you noticed any of these early warning signs?

The local Health Promotion Board has a print-friendly fact sheet, while the local Alzheimer’s Disease Association offers a checklist and describes the stages of dementia. No? Move on to Question 2!

2. Are you aware that you have difficulties remembering things?

recent study which tracked over 2,000 individuals for 10 years reported that awareness of memory problems is a good clue as to whether they have dementia or not. In this study, those who were eventually diagnosed with dementia stopped being aware of their memory problems about 2.5 years before showing signs of dementia. So being aware that you have memory problems is actually a good thing. But read on…

3. How often do you have problems remembering things?

The US Alzheimer’s Association distinguishes behaviours which are characteristic of dementia from behaviours associated with healthy ageing in their list of early warning signs. Forgetting the names of things and/or the names of people is something that happens to most of us. Some of us experience the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon quite often in fact. We can also be prone to forgetting appointments. But we’re usually able to retrieve these words and/or names later on, and we typically realise that we missed an appointment at a later time.

But a 2014 study also found that those who reported a change (more difficulties) in their ability to remember things were much more likely to subsequently develop dementia. So if you’re concerned that you might have cognitive issues, you can take an online assessment — Self-Administered Gerocognitive Exam or the SAGE test. But it’s also important that you consult with a medical professional if memory and thinking problems are a concern for you. 

Learning, it’s no child’s play

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Our children’s learning starts early. These days, preschoolers are not only learning the fundamentals of maths and science, they’re learning to code. Parents who advocate the role of play in children’s development are likely to find themselves a somewhat rare and endangered species. Even though there are numerous benefits to encouraging children to play. Social and communication skills are some good examples.

But let’s not get distracted. Parents want to their kids to do well in school. And we know the home environment does contribute to children’s academic achievements.

It’s also important for parents to have high expectations of their kids.

Only thing is that, well, that might not be entirely true. A study hot off the press finds that unrealistically ambitious aspirations of parents can adversely impact their children’s academic performance. The findings of this 2015 study of 12,000 US school-aged students mirror those from an earlier study conducted on 3,530 school-aged students in Germany. So apparently, unrealistically high aspiration may hinder academic performance“. And parental academic pressure appears to be leading to more and more children and teenagers experiencing chronic stressburnout, and depression.

So, what else are parents to do? Well, we can suggest a few relatively painless ways to boost your child’s performance:

1. Help them develop a homework habit 
A 2015 study finds that school-age students in Spain perform better on a standardized maths test when they complete their homework on their own and when their teachers set homework on a regular basis. In fact, these high achievers only spent 1 to 2 hours a day on their homework.

So, less is more (but only if homework is also a daily habit).

2. Encourage community and sports participation
It’s no surprise that exercise helps children learn better. Children concentrate better when they’re physically active, and their academic performance improves when they play sports. A more recent study finds that children who are lean and active perform better on cognitive tests.

But it may not just be about the physical health benefits of exercise. Even though exercise does help children sleep earlier and get better quality sleep (because tired children stay up late less, which according to a 2015 study, costs teenagers as many as 9.3 GCSE points per hour spent on youtube, TV, and computer games.

It could be that gaining better body awareness somehow helps our brains retain information better. In fact, a recent study finds that dancing not only alleviates depression, stress, fatigue, and headaches, but boosts self-esteem and self-confidence about solving everyday problems among young Swedish teenagers.

But there may be another reason why children involved in extracurricular activities in the community perform better in school. Experts argue that extracurricular opportunities work because they give children a chance to experience “a sense of accomplishing something“.

3. Eat breakfast with your kids
A 2015 study on 5,000 children 9- to 11-year-olds provides unequivocal evidence that healthy breakfasts make a difference to children’s academic performance. Having breakfast was found to be better than not having any. But having a breakfast of diary foods, cereal, fruit, and bread produced better students than a breakfast of empty calories — sweets (candy) and/or crisps (chips). And having fruit and veggies during the day was also associated with better school performance.

4. Spend time with your kids
It’s common sense. But there’s research evidence to back this one up. A 2015 study finds that successful children come from families who recognised their children’s talents early, but also helped to motivate their children to work hard at practising and improving their skills.

Conversely, another recent study finds that children’s mental well-being is associated with time pressures experienced by their parents — children whose parents have difficulties fitting everything they need to be do into their day, are more likely to have mental health concerns.

Spending time with children, especially teenagers, also helps parents understand their children’s daily experiences. As a result, their children have less likely to have behavioural problems and more likely to be better psychologically adjusted.

Autism: What have we learnt so far?

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Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder in which individuals have difficulties with social interactions and communication and a reliance for routines and/or repetitive behaviours (Read this NIH fact sheet for more information). Individuals with autism also tend to display sensory seeking behaviour and according to more recent scientific endeavours, experience high rates of gastrointestinal issues.

It’s a disorder which receives much attention in both the press and in research. But research findings, despite advancing at the pace of greyhounds chasing a bunny on the race track, don’t always accompany news stories. The public’s understanding and awareness of this disorder is still work-in-progress, even though local resources for autism has vastly improved.

Research links the use of joint attention — the ability to use gaze and gestures to share attention — to autism, but a recent study points to a more accurate red flag for autism — a social smile during joint attention. This 2014 study observes that infants at 8 months tend to look at an object of interest and then smile at the person they are interacting with, before looking back at the object of interest, during joint attention. In contrast, infants at risk for autism tend not to direct the social smile at the other person in between looking at object and at the other person.

Other research has established that individuals with autism find faces aversive, and as a result have difficulties recognising the emotions of others (more about their difficulties with empathy here). In fact, a hot-off-the-press study finds that individuals with autism focus on areas of contrast and colour of real photographs and the centre of the image, whereas those who don’t have autism look almost exclusively at faces in the same photographs. And this tendency emerges at a young age: a 2014 study observes infants at 6 months to fixate on faces when someone is speaking. In contrast, infants diagnosed with autism later look away from the eyes and mouth when someone is speaking.

Recent research has also identified two other markers useful for screening autism among children aged 9 to 12 months. A 2014 study finds that babies with a head circumference that is at or higher than the 75th percentile at 9 months and infants who fail the tonic neck reflex (also known as the head tilt reflex) are at a higher risk for autism.

With slightly older children, nonverbal screening tools may be useful. A 2015 study proposes a novel way of screening for autism: It turns out that individuals with autism don’t reduce their sniffing of unpleasant smells (and conversely increase their sniffing of pleasant ones). In contrast, their peers who don’t have autism “stop” a wiffy smell in about 305 ms. Another 2015 study finds a higher proportion of children who are subsequently diagnosed with autism among families where parents voiced concerns about their child’s sensory and motor abilities from the age of 6 months, and their child’s language and social communication abilities from the age of 12 to 15 months. So although autism cannot be diagnosed till 2 years of age, there are clear indications and red flags which are proving to be effective for screening autism at a much younger age.

Screening for autism aside, there are still no clear answers to what contributes to autism. Recent research does however indicate differences in brain structure between individuals with autism and peers who don’t have autism. Apart from differences which have been observed in the brain structures which connect the two brain hemispheres to each other, a 2014 study observes a lack of neural pruning — the process by which neural connections which we don’t use are eliminated — among children with autism (for a more in-depth discussion, read this article). Genetic factors are acknowledged to contribute to autism, but environmental factors are also considered to play an important role. Increasing evidence that the composition of gut bacteria differs in individuals with autism from that of their peers who don’t have autism, has led some to suggest that gut bacteria to be a possible contributing factor to autism. While a 2015 study definitively excludes MMR vaccines as a contributing factor to autism (read more about the study here), another 2015 study speculates that other chemicals, such as solvents and pesticides, to which expectant mothers may have exposure, can adversely affect foetal development.

Despite the mixed findings about the cause of autism, more recent research does offer some promising news about effective interventions and strategies found to be useful for helping children and adolescents with autism. Just as children who don’t have autism can be trained to enhance their ability to identify emotional expressions and young preschoolers with autism can be taught social skills, recent research demonstrates that early intervention programmes play an important role in helping children with autism improve their social skills, as well as cognitive and language abilities.

One 2012 study has reported that an intensive programme comprising 20-hours-a-week one-to-one training with interpersonal exchanges over a period of 2 years, yields improved brain responses to faces among infants with autism aged 12 to 30 months. Use of this therapeutic intervention by parents has been shown to be effective on even young infants with autism. In this 2014 study, at-risk 6-month-olds, who showed signs of autism at the start of intervention (e.g., a lack of interest in social interactions and communication), had better cognitive and language skills 12 to 30 months later. In a follow-up study of these infants, further improvements were observed after 2 years of intervention. Infants’ cognitive, communication, and adaptive skills (skills for everyday living) were observed to undergo greater improvement compared to peers with autism who attended a preschool programme and who were given speech therapy.

Other groups of researchers have also shown that parent training is also an effective way to improve the quality of social interactions between parents and infants with autism. A 2014 study has shown that teaching parents to support their children’s learning during everyday activities results in better language and social communication among toddlers with autism. In another recent study, one-year-olds with autism whose parents received coaching on how to attract their infant’s attention and interest their infant in social interaction games produced better outcomes than peers receiving community-based early intervention and monitoring. A separate 2015 study has also shown that the benefits of parent training over a period of 24 weeks to include a reduction in disruptive and aggressive behaviours among children with autism aged 3 to 7 years (Supernanny also some useful tips…). It’s evident that there are various effective therapeutic options available to families of children with autism.

Interventions which reduce the severity of children’s autistic behaviours are important. But support for families are as, if not more, important. This is particularly true for caregivers and parents of children with autism, who experience a high level of caregiving stress on a daily basis and can be at risk for caregiver burn out. Journal writing has been found to help mothers manage their stress levels, while mothers are less likely to experience depression if their partners share the burden of caregiving. But it’s often easier said than done. Respite care — which provides parents and caregivers with time off to take of themselves — can play an important role for helping parents and caregivers manage their stress. And more public awareness won’t do anybody any harm either.

World Autism Awareness Day is a few months away but there’s no time like the present to support a greater public awareness of autism.

Not happy at work? Try some different solutions

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A 2015 study finds that working long hours (specifically, 55 hours or more a week) is related to a higher risk of stroke and coronary heart disease (more details here). Another 2015 study with data from over 138,000 employees reveals a link between high stress jobs and an elevated risk of stroke. But the more worrying finding is that high job demands lead to poor mental wellbeing, according to a 2015 study of 12,000 workers in Sweden.

And the irony is that working long hours doesn’t increase productivity. So what does?Here are some other things to try:

1. Vote for a water fountain
It’s not a new age suggestion for improving fengshui at the office. Sounds which mask speech in open-plan offices can make conversations by colleagues less distracting, creating a conductive working environment. Rather than white noise, a new study indicates an advantage in using natural sounds such as flowing water. Specifically, the study finds mountain stream sounds to be most effective at masking speech sounds. When your workplace budgets for a coffee machine, why not lobby for a water fountain instead?

2. Grow these plants at the office
A 2015 study finds that taking a mini break from your computer — glancing at a rooftop flower meadow for as little as 40 seconds — boosts concentration. Other studies find that plants in the office can effect as much as a 15% productivity boost. There’s also evidence that our cognitive skills are better preserved in “green working environments” — offices with good ventilation and low levels of indoor pollutants (e.g., formaldehyde fumes from varnishes, plastics, and particleboard in office furniture). In fact, our ability to make strategic decisions and to respond to a crisis situation is enhanced in such a green office. It could be hard to make structural changes to your office building, but you could get a pot or two of Spathiphyllum (aka Peace lily) and Philodendron, both of which have been shown to absorb pollutants by NASA (yes, NASA). And a mini mid-morning break (e.g., spent watering and checking on your plants) has been shown to improve employees’ energy, boosting their productivity (here‘s the science explained)!

And if you lack green fingers, a multi-tasking bouquet of Chrysanthemums can decorate your desk and brighten your day while it cleans the air!

3. Reduce your commute time
It turns out that longer commutes to work contribute to poorer life satisfaction, according to a 2014 study. But the negative effect traffic has on our mental well-being can be mitigated by a familiar factor: Physical activity improves our life satisfaction. A 2015 study links stressful commutes (e.g., heavy traffic, road safety for cyclists, commutes above 35 minutes) to a higher risk of burnout. Opting for a shorter route (e.g., taking a direct bus rather than driving in heavy traffic to work) could be a holistic strategy for managing work stress. Other options include having access to flexible commuting arrangements, although it’s worth noting that research indicates that telecommuting is most beneficial when used in moderation.

4. Widen your social circle
Pay cuts and fewer promotion opportunities during an economic downturn apparently doesn’t automatically result in less motivated employees. It turns out that apart from having purpose at work, social connections at the workplace are a key factor which helps employees manage such challenges. It may be time to organize a group Safari Run at the Zoo and check out the cute newborn giraffe or for the Yolo Run… or try skating at the Christmas Wonderland ice rink at Gardens by the Bay in December (Admission is free!)… or plan for some chill out time at the Laneway Festival in the new year…

5. It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it
A 2015 study shows that rudeness is contagious: individuals at the receiving end of rudeness are more likely to show rudeness to other people. In contrast, the practice of avoiding offensive language encourages creativity among teams made up of both male and female employees, according to this study about “political correct” speech. Research indicates that positive outcomes are brought about by encouraging employees to suggest ideas for improvement, rather than articulating mistakes or problems at the workplace. Yet other research shows that words of encouragement have been shown to raise productivity by as much as 20% while reducing employees’ mistakes by 40%. As the saying goes, money ain’t everything.

6. Don’t open email after work
A new study shows that we get angry when we read an email that’s negatively worded or which requires a lot of our time outside office hours. And the people who desire work-life balance are most likely to be adversely affected by such emails. Solutions to the problem include equipping employees with strategies for effective electronic communication. But training endeavours take time and require management support. In the meantime…there’s an easy way to avoid the problem — don’t read your emails!

7. Find fulfilment in your work
Employees who feel that their work is meaningful are more likely to have better mental health. Research published in 2015 supports earlier findings that emotional attachment to work is important for reducing absenteeism and enhancing productivity. Questions to ask yourself include, “Am I making good use of my strengths in my job?”, “Am I learning at my job?”, “How am I contributing at work?”…  Not getting any answers? Work through these steps from www.fastcompany.com to find enlightenment.

8. Charity begins at the workplace
Working for a good cause improves productivity as much as 30%. Not everyone wants to share their pay with proceeds to a charity. But a 2015 study finds that when individuals choose to make a lumpsum or performance-based donation to a social cause of their choosing, they’re much more conscientious at the task at hand. So providing your team with the option to donate to a good cause can help motivate and energise them.

9. Provide mental health resources
Tight deadlines and difficult working relationships aren’t the only contributing factors to burnout. A 2014 study finds that difficulties at the home front also affect employees’ mental well-being. Because “mental health in the workplace doesn’t exist in a vacuum“, it’s important that employees have access to training and counselling resources to cope with work-family conflict and parenting/relationship concerns.

 

Manage your stress for a sweeter life

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So, here are the answers to yesterday’s quiz:

1. False. Those with Type 1 diabetes have a pancreas that doesn’t produce insulin. In contrast, the pancreas of those with Type 2 diabetes does produce insulin, but their body is unable to respond to the insulin. Here are the facts.

2. False. Most people have Type 2 diabetes. Those who have Type 1 diabetes usually have the condition before the age of 35 years. And in fact, experts project as many as 1 in 2 locals having diabetes by 2050.

3. True. Regular exercise and an appropriate diet both work to improve insulin sensitivity of people with Type 2 diabetes. Find out more about how exercise helps here. According to research, the total amount of carbohydrates that we consume is important for managing blood sugar levels. Read more to understand why here. You can also find out what it means to “eat right” here.

4. False. The risk of developing heart disease for those with diabetes is 2 to 4 times higher than people who don’t have this condition, and smoking doubles this risk if you have diabetes. Read more here. A 2015 study also found that those with mild cognitive impairment were more likely to progress to dementia (which is linked to heart disease) if they also had diabetes.

5. False. People with diabetes are at a higher risk of developing kidney disease because excessive blood sugar damages the kidneys over time. In fact, studies report that about 10 to 40% of people with Type 2 diabetes will need dialysis due to kidney failure. But research also shows early screening and early treatment to be highly effective for maintaining kidney function.

6. True. In addition to excessive sweating, weight loss, and other symptoms, people with undiagnosed diabetes may notice changes and problems with their vision. Read more about these eye problems here.

7. Experts recommend a balanced diet, regular exercise, and blood sugar monitoring for keeping blood sugar levels stable, not just oral medications and/or insulin injections.

And it’s not just common sense. Research shows that exercise does reduce the risk of diabetes. A 2014 study found that people who lived “walkable neighbourhoods” — neighbourhoods where the shops and amenities were within walking distance — were less likely to develop diabetes.

Here are some practical tips for monitoring blood sugar levels.

As this ADA help sheet suggests, it’s also important to tell yourself that tracking blood sugar levels helps you evaluate how well you’re looking after yourself. Instead of berating yourself for not doing better, try these techniques for managing your emotions.

8. True. Nerve damage and/or poor circulation from excessive blood sugar are the reasons why people with diabetes may experience slower healing from cuts and sores. So it’s particularly important to take care of our feet. Read more about that here.

Did you get all 8 questions correct? Good job!

But recent research shows that a balanced diet and regular exercise aren’t the only lifestyle changes to make in order to get a better handle on one’s diabetes.  In fact, a 2015 study found that chronic stress to be a factor for developing diabetes, while another 2015 study found that people who stay awake later at night have a higher chance of developing diabetes than people who sleep earlier, even when both groups have the same amount of sleep.

So there you have it. The key to having a sweeter life (and lower levels of un-metabolised sugar in your bloodstream): Get to bed earlier and manage your stress!