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.

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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!

New ways to de-stress

Apparently, we’re a very stressed workforce.

According to a 2015 workplace survey of 7, 883 employees who used their company’s employee assistance programme (read more here to find out about EAPs), there was a high level of anxiety among younger employees. Compared to X-gen and baby boomer employees, high anxiety was reported by 5% more employees in the millennial age group.

But it’s probably not just the Y-gen who need help managing their stress and anxiety. Even foreign domestic helpers have mental health concerns. According to a study by the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economies, 2 in 10 domestic helpers showed signs of psychological distress.

The fact is, we all could do with a bit of help. A 2014 study showed poor coping strategies were more likely to lead to the development of insomnia.

So what does help?

1. Zap your fatigue with a nap
It’s not new that getting a nap helps your brain perform better at tasks of memory. But if you were in doubt, here’s a new finding that supports that idea.

What’s new is the finding that taking a nap is “an effective strategy to counteract impulsive behavior and to boost tolerance for frustration”, so says this new 2015 study. So, go ahead and get those 40 winks. Look here for the best way to nap.

2. Exercise and meditate your stress away
Previous studies show that exercise improves your mental health and psychological mood. But new research shows that sports and physical activity can be as effective as depression meds. Put another way, exercise has been shown to be an effective way to lower stress hormone levels, in turn alleviating depression.

Like exercise, doing relaxation exercises while at work can help us cope with high levels of job stress. A 2015 study showed that mindfulness techniques to be as effective in alleviating depression as depression medications, while another 2015 study found that workplace mindfulness exercises helped reduce stress responses among nurses.

So, getting physical and mindful are some of the best ways to manage stress.

3. Boost your mental health with a balanced diet
The experts advocate the consumption of “key nutrients, such as polyunsaturated fatty acids Omega-3, essential amino acids, B-group vitamins (B12 and folate), vitamin D and minerals like zinc, magnesium and iron” for our mental health..

4. It’s all in your attitude!
Research suggests that staying psychologically healthy can be as simple as just having a positive outlook. A 2015 study found that people had better mental health when they were able to stay calm and/or cheerful while coping with a stressful situation.

And when you have tried all that, you can try a few more whimsical options:

5. That’s how the smart cats do it
A new study found that watching cat videos helped boost viewers’ positive emotions, while reducing their negative ones. Here’s a Maru video to get you started.

6. Time to get your colour pencils out
Colouring is the new black. Not only are there colouring books for adults, there are colouring workshops too. Research findings about the mental health benefits of colouring for adults are as easy to find as an oak tree at the Singapore Botanic Gardens. But research has found creative pursuits to be helpful for relieving stress. So go on, get those crayons and watercolour brushes out.

7. After work, doing nothing is better than checking facebook
A recent study found local commuters reported more positive emotions “zoning out” than being connected online on their evening commute home. In contrast, they reported more positive emotions while engaged in online social networking and text messaging on their morning commute into work.

So, you have it now. The official endorsement to engage in a little bit of people-watching. Without any pangs of guilt. It’s for your own mental health of course. And it works best when on your way home from work.

That’s what friends are for

Living in a dense city apparently is bad for our health, according to news reports (“Mental health experts say city dwellers more prone to stress-related disorders“, Channel News Asia, 24 March 2014). It could be our competitive work ethic. It could be that our corporate culture lacks emphasis on work-life balance.

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Whatever the reason, we typically experience an elevated amount of stress. Even though some report that we’re happy (read this report), there are indications that many aren’t happy at work (read this Straits Times report and this Today article).

And we should know the negative impact stress has on our mental and physical health. Because Mediacorp’s Channel 5 programme, Body and Soul, channelled all its energies into explaining mental health in its 8th episode (“Behind the curtain of depression” on 1st April 2014 9pm).

Despite this education campaign about mental health, the public’s awareness and understanding about depression will likely remain poor. And relatively few who need support for mental health problems seek professional help (here’s why). Those are the same reasons why there is a need to document Singaporeans’ understanding of mental health and the factors which motivate them to seek professional help (see these Today published on 19th and 20th March 2014).

But awareness campaigns work best through word of mouth. Friends these days are useful for providing entertainment through their lifehacks and buzzfeed posts, and for creating social envy among friends through the multitude of food pictures they post on their facebook. But they sometimes also provide emotional support to friends in need.

So on this World Suicide Prevention Day, it’s important that friends have the facts:

What Is Depression?

Everyone occasionally feels blue or sad. But these feelings are usually short-lived and pass within a couple of days. When you have depression, it interferes with daily life and causes pain for both you and those who care about you. Depression is a common but serious illness.

Many people with a depressive illness never seek treatment. But the majority, even those with the most severe depression, can get better with treatment. Medications, psychotherapies, and other methods can effectively treat people with depression.

What are the signs and symptoms of depression?

People with depressive illnesses do not all experience the same symptoms. The severity, frequency, and duration of symptoms vary depending on the individual and his or her particular illness.

Signs and symptoms include:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Irritability, restlessness
  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex
  • Fatigue and decreased energy
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
  • Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
  • Overeating, or appetite loss
  • Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
  • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment.

I started missing days from work, and a friend noticed that something wasn’t right. She talked to me about the time she had been really depressed and had gotten help from her doctor.

How can I help a loved one who is depressed?

If you know someone who is depressed, it affects you too. The most important thing you can do is help your friend or relative get a diagnosis and treatment. You may need to make an appointment and go with him or her to see the doctor. Encourage your loved one to stay in treatment, or to seek different treatment if no improvement occurs after 6 to 8 weeks.

To help your friend or relative

  • Offer emotional support, understanding, patience, and encouragement.
  • Talk to him or her, and listen carefully.
  • Never dismiss feelings, but point out realities and offer hope.
  • Never ignore comments about suicide, and report them to your loved one’s therapist or doctor.
  • Invite your loved one out for walks, outings and other activities. Keep trying if he or she declines, but don’t push him or her to take on too much too soon.
  • Provide assistance in getting to the doctor’s appointments.
  • Remind your loved one that with time and treatment, the depression will lift.

Taken from the US NIMH Depression publication; the PDF is available here.

And friends don’t keep good information to themselves. They will want to spread the word.

Quick tips to happiness

Quick Tips to Happiness

There are some reports that being happy means that we’re more productive at the workplace, judging by the desire of some organizations to increase workplace happinessIt might seem crazy what I’m about to saybut it seems that it might just be a little more important to help unhappy employees rather than find ways to make employees happier.

It’s not difficult to understand why unhappy employees are probably less engaged and less productive at their workplace (read this 2012 article). The impact of mental well-being on job productivity is plain to see. High levels of occupational stress impact psychological well-being and job satisfaction, which in turn adversely affect employee engagement and productivity. At the same time, prolonged exposure to stress not only damages our long-term memory capacity but also weakens our immune functioning. A recent study has even suggests that stress is contagious: Observing someone get stressed makes us feel stressed!

A 2011 study reveals that role conflict and role ambiguity are sources of stress which negatively impact mental well-being, while older findings point to job control (workers who have little control over their job outcome) and low levels of social support as other important source of stress. Equipping employees with stress management techniques and providing them with access to counselling (based on a sample of Malaysian fire-fighters) are frequent recommendations which arise from such studies.

Here we take a look at whether some tips for promoting happiness, even workplace happiness, are effective strategies for managing stress:

1. Exercise YES
Exercise is the key to managing stress levels. Exercise improves psychological mood and mental well-being, reduces depression symptoms and anxiety levels, and lowers absenteeism rates. The release of endorphins in exercise results in muscle relaxation and makes available neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenalin) which help make us feel good.

2. Meditation YES
Daily practice of a relaxation method resets the threshold at which we get angry (Goleman, 1998), thus helping us manage our stress levels. But this can be achieved through mindfulness where one focuses on breathing. But other methods such as pursuing creative hobbies are also found to be effective.

3. Nurturing social relationships YES
Using active coping strategies such as seeking social support (e.g., friends, family, co-workers) are associated with reduced job stress.

4. Having something to look forward to ERM…
We all need things to look forward to. That holiday in the mountains where smart devices do not work. Those weekly pilates and yoga classes. Happy people tend to have things they look forward to and find purpose in. But looking forward to it in itself is not part of the stress management kit. The self-care activities are.

5. Eliciting positive emotions and avoiding negative ones ERM…
Our ability to shift a bad mood to a good one develops in early childhood, although some of us may be better at regulating our own emotions than others. We typically aim to avoid things which elicit negative emotions for us and look towards things which promote positive emotions.

Faced with team conflicts, our desire to avoid confrontations and negative emotions can however cause us to stonewall and ignore the problem. Not particularly a productive way to solve a problem. Conversely, this tip advocates investing in things which promote positive emotions. One example is spending time in the green outdoors. It’s noteworthy though that this self-care activity works because it is an opportunity to exercise and it induces relaxation.

Emotions do affect productivity: A study in 2000 showed that teams with managers, who infused positive emotions into their team, were more cooperative and produced better task performance than teams whose managers expressed negative emotions. So being able to get ourselves out of a bad mood makes for effective teams and desirable managers. But it’s not a stress management tool.

6. Exercise fairness ERM…
Employees with fair managers are likely to be productive and engaged in their job. But fair managers can be at risk of burn out and need to take extra care of themselves! Exercising fairness is unlikely to be a useful stress management technique. Engaging in regular self-care (exercise, relaxation, social support) is.

7. Optimism, gratitude and kindness OH ALRIGHT, YES!
Changing one’s perspective on a problem is an active coping strategy which can be useful when coping with difficulties. We know it as “looking on the bright side of things” or optimism. Counsellors call this reframing the problem. It’s more effective for dealing with stressors than avoidance strategies such as distracting oneself with TV or food.

Seeing a problem as a challenge, and being therefore grateful for the challenge (previously a “problem”) and being subsequently intentionally kind to its source (known as “difficult colleague”), are useful when dealing with sources of stress. They help us navigate life’s stressful events and building mental resilience, as this article instructs.

Not surprisingly, gratitude is associated with stronger immune systems and psychological well-being, while altrustic acts are associated with better mental well-being. At the same time, it has been demonstrated that acts of intentional kindness produce improvements in life satisfaction (though note that gratitude is not a crutch for ignoring a problem).

So the first three and the last are useful for managing stress at the workplace. But there may just be a few important strategies missing from this list…

Be S.U.R.E. Know the facts. Do something about it.

There’s no sugar-coating it

Food is a national pastime.

We all scream for ice cream!

CNN Travel names chicken rice, char kway teow, wantan mee, chai tow kuay, and chill crab as the top 5 foods locals can’t live without (surprisingly, katong laksa didn’t make it to the top 5; it’s listed at #14). According to a 2012 Mastercard survey, locals spend as much as $262 in US dollars dining out each month. There are more local food blogs than supermarkets and more than just a few food apps (e.g., Hungrygowhere, BurpplePicky). With almost every other person a foodie, that’s quite a lot for a place less than half the size of Greater London and nearly double in its population density.

It’s not the problem of junk food here. Rather, if the National Nutrition Survey in 2010 is anything to go by, nearly half the nation dines out at their local friendly hawker centre more than four times a week (up from 40% in 2004: National Nutrition Survey by HPB). In addition to the problem of too much salt from eating out, which increases the risk of high blood pressure and vascular illness, the most recent data reveal a disturbing trend of overeating. As many as 6 in 10 locals consume too many calories, leaving them vulnerable to the risk of obesity and diabetes, and heart disease.

But there’s a bit more to the story than that. In reality, stress has a bit of a starring role, while sugar plays a vital supporting role.

We typically respond to a stressful situation at work with cortisol (since we can neither fight our co-workers nor flee from our emails, much as we try to sometimes), which encourages our appetite and desire for high energy foods — simple carbohydrates (find the science explained herehere and here). We often think of these as just sugar and honey. But in reality, they often wear clever disguises from white rice, breads, cake, muffins, cupcakes, doughnuts, and biscuits, to hot and cold desserts. And an overconsumption of these lovely, fragrant, heart-warming energy-dense foods increases the risk of impaired insulin function (read this to understand the link between overeating and diabetes).

And while prolonged exposure to stress leads to chronic inflammation, it should be recognized that sugar also contributes to inflammation. In fact, it is sugar in all its various nefarious disguises which is responsible for populating the blood stream with small, dense LDL cholesterol particles. And it’s these small, dense LDL particles which raise our risk of coronary heart disease (read this for a full review of the factors for cardiovascular disease).

So yes, stress and sugar are the bad guys (here’s an earlier blog entry on thwarting the ill intentions of sugar). But there is a simple solution. It’s called exercise.

When should you tell your colleague to “take a holiday”?

workplace stress

Going by the elevated stress levels reported by employees in Singapore (read our earlier post) and lack of job satisfaction bemoaned by many in the local workplace (discussed in an earlier post too), it would appear that for some employees, the answer may be now!

According to a recent workplace survey, as many as 94% of bosses held the view that employees shouldnot bring work home. It doesn’t add up. Or bosses say “have work-life balance”. But they hand their employees more work than that which can be completed within working hours. Clearly, there are going to be instances where bosses say one thing and do another. It also doesn’t help when bosses continue working outside office hours. 

Numerous studies have highlighted the effects of chronic stress on employees’ emotional and physical well-being. Prolonged exposure to stress weakens the immune system, causing employees to be absent from work and less productive when working with a stuffy head and sniffy nose at work (read this Fortune article). Burnout leads to higher staff turnover and elevated business costs. More crucially, it may mean losing valuable employees. It’s the reason why some companies have started to insist on employees taking their annual leave.  

Depression is explained as a condition in which an individual experiences “a persistent and pervasive low mood that is not affected by external circumstances”, with the individual losing interest in activities which once interested them. And it may escape the notice of most bosses, but the fact is that employees who are experiencing burnout, may be actually experiencing symptoms of depression (here’s an explanation of the two terms). 

But what can you do about it?

Here are some steps you can take:

1. Find out if you and/or your colleagues are experiencing burnout.
Complete this self-assessment questionnaire.

2. Recognise signs and symptoms of depression.
Mayo Clinic has a fact sheet on burnout. Understand that someone with depression cannot “cheer up” and “get over it“. It’s not just about feeling “sad“. One in 17 has depression in Singapore (find out more). 

3. Raise awareness about burnout at your workplace.
This article on Understanding and Avoiding Burnout has tips for managers. 

4. Provide a supportive environment for preventing burnout at your workplace.
Here’s a systematic list of things you and your organization can do to help.

5. Reach out to your colleagues.
Find the right words, but don’t forget to take care of your own emotional well-being.

World Mental Health Day. It’s two months and 19 days away. What are you doing on World Mental Health Day?