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!

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!

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


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.

Trying to help someone lose weight? Here’s what not to say

Healthy eating

Ever wanted to talk to your child, partner, or close friend about their weight and size?

Even if our heart is in the right place, it’s exactly what the experts say we should not do. Research has shown that overweight teens whose parents said that they should try “healthy eating” were more likely to engage in unhealthy weight-control methods (e.g., throwing up) than if parents talked about their teen’s size or weight. But other research has also found that girls who were told that they were fat at 10 years of age were more likely to have a BMI above 30 at age 19.

A 2015 study suggested that teenagers may not be aware of their own BMI and as a result not perceive a need to adopt healthy eating habits. But another 2015 study also showed that having accurate self-perceptions (about being overweight) does not necessarily equate to making healthy eating choices. In fact, labelling teenagers as overweight may in fact be counterproductive.

So what can we do instead? Apart from helping your child, partner, and/or close friend make healthy food choices by eating fruits and vegetables with them and cooking healthy meals with them, experts also advise against using food as a reward for good behaviour.

We suggest 8 useful tips which could help your loved one on the path to healthy eating:

1. Get more sleep. Studies show that lack of sleep is a major determining factor of later risk of being overweight. A 2014 study found that young children who slept less than the recommended duration for their age (e.g., less than 12 hours at 2 years or younger; less than 10 hours at 3 or 4 years of age; less than 9 hours at 5 to 7 years of age) were more likely to be overweight and to have more body fat at age 7 years. A separate 2014 study also found that infants who slept less than 10 hours a day at 16 months of age needed more feeds than their peers who slept 13 hours or more. And it’s doesn’t affect just children. Numerous studies link lack of sleep among adults to increased eating and weight gain, making good sleeping habits a priority.

2. Setting boundaries, warmth and affection matter. A 2014 study showed that children whose parents who set rules without engaging their children in dialogue about their rules and who don’t affirm their children with warmth and affection were at a higher risk of having a BMI above 30: Their risk of obesity was found as early as 2 years of age. A separate 2014 study in Australia found that overprotective maternal parenting during the earlier years (e.g., when children were 6 to 9 years of age) was linked to children having a higher BMI when they were 10 to 11 years of age. That’s why it’s important that your loved one should know that you care for them regardless of their shape and size. And these guidelines for what to say and what not to say apply not just to parents, but partners and friends.

3. Don’t talk about making changes. Instead, it’s more effective to get your loved ones involved in cooking healthy meals and visiting a local attraction or festival.

4. Don’t impose a diet on your child or partner or tell them what they cannot eat. Your good intentions will produce better outcomes if you participate in fun and enjoyable physical activities with them.

5. Don’t say “it’s good for you”. Studies with preschoolers show that a more effective way of getting young children to eat vegetables is to say nothing or to tell them that they’re “yummy”. (It helps of course if they really are yummy!)

6. Say “try this”. Telling your loved one what to eat is more effective than telling them what not to eat. Research finds that positive messages which start with “do” are better received than negative messages which are start with “don’t”.

7. Try and try again. A 2015 study found that children were more likely to eat fruits and vegetables if they were introduced to them on repeated occasions and if their parents also ate them with their children.

8. Start a gardening project. There is consistent evidence that children who participate in gardening projects are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables.


Stressed? Try walking it off…

Workplace programmes which encourage employees to be more physically active not only reduce their employees’ body mass index (BMI), body fat, high-density lipoprotein (HDL cholesterol), and blood pressure, these programmes also alleviate anxiety and depression and improve psychological mood and absenteeism among employees.

Recent research even suggests that physical activity can be as effective as medication at alleviating depression. And the lastest news is that the more we exercise as we age, the less likely we are to be depressed. In fact, the current theory is that exercise protects our brain from the fallout of chronic stress — depression. Just a month ago, a study revealed that we can keep our brains agile with only 75 minutes of exercise a week.

In short, exercise is an excellent strategy for managing stress.

Why? Because exercise allows the release of endorphins which is associated with positive mood, causes an increase in temperature in specific brain regions resulting in muscle relaxation, and makes more neurotransmitters — serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenalin — available, which in turn helps us manage our emotions. Explore the theory about how exercise improves mental health here

We can’t promise that we won’t become a hot sweaty mess when we exercise. But exercise need not be the unpleasant experience we associate with school PE lessons. Music and movement classes along with zumba are an easy choice, especially with a wide range of dance classes available for newbies in the upcoming October da:ns festival.

There’s an even easier choice! It’s called putting one foot in front of the other and repeating it over and over. Research shows that those who walk get better sleep. And combining walking with spending time outdoors is even better. Going for nature walks helps people experience less stress (maybe because spending time in a natural environment seems to lower our stress hormones) giving rise to us experiencing better mental health. Read this article to learn more…

So we suggest some ways to feel good which involve walking:

  1. You don’t like the outdoors and sweating. So go walking in the comfortable aircon gallery of the new Pinocotheque next to Fort Canning. Their current feature exhibition on the Myth of Cleopatra runs till 4th October.
  2. You don’t like the glaring sun, UV rays, and sunscreen. Join in the festivities and view the exhibits of the upcoming Singapore Night Festival which stretches from the National Museum, Singapore Art Museum, to the National Design Centre and starts this weekend. There are even interactive workshops and an artists’ bazaar at the Green next to Dhoby Ghaut MRT on 29th and 30th August.
  3. Walking in the same neighbourhood park is boring. It’s the same all the time. Visit the current floral display “From Tales to Legends: Discover Singapore Stories”  at the Flower Dome in Gardens by the Bay (on till 13 Sept). It’s still SG50!
  4. You find shopping and art galleries too much of a passive pursuit. Instead, you could challenge yourself in a photography competition. Take part in the Canon Photomarathon this Saturday 22nd August at Marina Bay Sands (plenty of ground to cover there). Prizes include cameras, tripods, and other accessories!
  5. You don’t have a camera and you’re not into Instagram. You could instead bring along your sketchbook, watercolours, colour pencils, and markers for a SG Heart Map Sketch in the Botanic Gardens this Saturday 22nd August. If you don’t have art supplies, fret not. Sketching materials are provided on this special sketchwalk!
  6. Art and photography aren’t the kind of things you find yourself good at. And you like having people to walk with. Join the Singapore Footprints guided tour around Chinatown on Saturdays at 9.15am (sign up at the Chinatown Visitor Centre). Their other guided tour is along the Singapore River which starts at 4.15pm at Raffles Place MRT every Saturday and Sunday.