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!

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!

Secrets to success at school

What do you think helps your children do well at school? If you had to guess, you might say sleep, exercise, breakfast, and language. And you’d be right.

Sleep
It’s no secret that sleep is the crucial in order for our brains to function. It is essential for cognitive tasks like storing and recalling newly learnt information, as well as problem solving. Naps have been shown to be improve the ability to learn in babies, not just adults, older children, and teenagers.

But studies also demonstrate a direct relationship between getting good sleep and children’s school grades. A 2014 study on Swedish teenagers found that teens who had poor sleep performed more poorly in their academic studies, while a 2015 study on Canadian children aged 7 to 11 years showed that those who were efficient at getting to sleep had better grades in Maths and their language subjects.

The problem however is getting that good quality sleep. Which is where good sleep habits come in. In fact, studies show that not drinking coffee or hot chocolate near bedtime, having a regular bedtime, and not having access to a smart device during the night, are important factors for helping kids get good quality sleep.

Exercise
If we spent less time on co-curricular sports activities, we’d have more time for learning. True. We’d also have better reading and maths scores if we read more books and did more maths exercises. Also true.

But studies also show that exercise improves academic and school performance. A 2014 study found that primary school children’s ability to pay attention and avoid distractions improved after participating in a 9-month intervention involving moderate-to-vigourous physical activity for at least an hour each day after school. In another study, boys in the first three years of schooling had better reading skills and arithmetic scores if they were more physically active from sports during recess or after school.

So it pays to be active. Literally.

Breakfast
It’s old news that breakfast is good for learning. Previous studies have shown that a low GI breakfast like oats and fruits or scrambled eggs on multigrain bread can help children maintain their attention on cognitive tasks through the morning.

But what’s new is that the benefits of breakfast can be measured in school grades. A 2015 study showed that children from low-income homes who received free school breakfasts performed better at maths, science, and reading than their peers whose schools did not participate in the school breakfast programme.

But it’s not just breakfast that’s key. A 2014 study showed fast food consumption to be linked to poor school grades, among 11-year-olds.

So, happy meals are out, and breakfast is in.

Language
The number of words babies learn in their first years of life is predictive of their later cognitive skills and verbal IQ levels, as well as school achievements. But it’s not just their vocabulary size during infancy that’s important.

There are also benefits to providing very young children with exposure to two or more languages. Recent research not only finds that bilingual infants have better executive control (read this review), but that they are also better at understanding other people’s perspectives and can use these social skills to solve problems. So, rather than erroneously assume that getting young children to learn two languages is deleterious to their language learning, there’s actually much evidence to suggest that it’s an advantage.

So there you have it. The four important things for school success are sleep, being physically active, having breakfast regularly, and language skills in the early years.

Well, okay. There are a few more things.

Music
Learning a musical instrument doesn’t just help children gain musical ability. A 2014 study found that teaching low-income 9- and 10-year-olds a musical instrument prevented their reading abilities from declining, compared to a control group of peers. Another 2014 study found that learning a musical instrument improved children’s ability to pay attention and regulate their emotions. In addition, it reduced their anxiety levels. Even musical training as brief as half an hour could result in greater blood flow to brain areas responsible for learning language and processing music. So, get your children to learn a musical instrument, even if they don’t pursue it for long.

Green spaces
Having access to green spaces appears to have a beneficial effect on children’s learning. Although it’s not clear exactly what’s so special about looking at green stuff, research suggests that green spaces are associated with better grades in school, according to a 2014 study. And a 2015 study has found that just one year of exposure to green spaces produces better working memory among primary school children.

The good thing is that you’re never far from a green space here in sunny Singapore. Unless you spend all your family and leisure time in a shopping centre…

Family dinners
Apart from providing children with the opportunity to develop social and emotional skills with the guidance of their parents and siblings, family dinners are also useful in buffering the effects of cyberbullying. A 2014 study found that teenagers whose families regularly had dinner together were less likely to experience cyberbullying.

Warmth and boundaries
Research shows that children are academically more successful with parents who are responsive to their children’s emotional needs and who are consistent in setting limits and boundaries for them. Don’t underestimate the power of believing in your child’s abilities and potential, because great expectations promote great achievements (Time, 2013).

So there are really no secrets to how to help your children be their best at school. But it helps if children have the parental support and the social emotional skills they need to navigate not only school work, but also life’s ups and downs.

Sleep is key to doing well in school

Sleep is important for examination and academic performance

We think of being exam smart, having the right study techniques, studying for longer hours and more frequently as being the key to academic success. But one of the ways to boost school performance is rooted in doing the opposite: nothing. More exactly, sleeping.

A study on medical students in 2012 showed that those experiencing more stress and poorer sleep before exams, performed more poorly than their peers, while a 2010 meta- analysis of 17 studies found that children and teenagers who reported feeling sleepy were those with poorer academic performance. In short, inadequate sleep either from not sleeping adequate durations or having interrupted sleep can spell trouble for maintaining learning performance at school.

And sleep quality has a profound effect on our daily functioning. Studies suggest that getting adequate dream sleep (also known as rapid eye movement or REM sleep) maintains our mood, mental wellbeing and problem solving abilities. These websites offer a detailed explanation of how sleep is crucial to our cognitive functioning: NIH, Harvard Medical School, American Psychological Association (APA), WebMD, Harvard Business Review, the Guardian, Huffington Post, Mayo Clinic.

In keeping with the existing literature on the importance of sleep, as this article explains, recent studies show this to be true. Sleep research published in last year demonstrated that sleep is critical to maintain a healthy lifestyle – specifically, not having adequate sleep impacts us both physically and mentally (Science Daily, 15 Oct 2013).

A recent Swedish study found that missing just one night of sleep is associated with signs of brain tissue loss (Science Daily, 31 Dec 2013) – a conclusion shared by other researchers. A literature review published this year explains that sleep allows the the brain to strengthen neural connections (“SHY hypothesis explains that sleep is the price we pay for learning”, Science Daily, 9 Jan 2013).

In short, not having enough sleep impairs our ability to make decisions, remember things, and learn new things. And school’s about learning new things and remembering them.

Here’s a few things you can do:

1. Cultivate good sleeping habits

Discovery Health has 10 useful tips. Not every tip may be appropriate or useful to everyone but we need to start somewhere. And a dark room can help: here’s why. And here are few more ideas for boosting your sleep efficiency.

2. Read about sleeping

Try the book Why We Sleep: The Functions of Sleep in Humans and Other Mammals. You might find yourself soon extolling the virtues of sleep to other busy bees.

3. Sleep the sleep

Children will do as they see. Parents who don’t practice good sleeping habits or play an enabling role for their children to have poor sleeping habits, probably aren’t going to have children who get enough rest (to do their bestest at school)!

The key to happiness

the key to happinessBeing happy is all the rage these days. It’s been reported with much fanfare that Singapore is the 30th happiest nation in the UN’s World Happiness ReportGallup wellbeing scores for local respondents, which have achieved a delirious increase from 46% to 70% between 2011 and 2012, have also received much media attention. Local newspapers are replete with tips for being happy (“You’re happy if you think you are”, Mind Your Body, 31 Oct 2013).

But as pointed out in various local news (e.g., “A measure of happiness in Singapore”, Asia News Network, 13 Oct 2013), the UN happiness index is about overall life satisfaction, whereas Gallup wellbeing scores are self-reported ratings for questions such as “Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?”, “Did you feel well-rested yesterday?”, and “Did you learn something interesting yesterday?” on a scale of 1 to 10. Crucially, the UN happiness index comprises among other things gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, years of healthy life expectancy, and perceptions of corruption (“Singapore the happiest nation in Asia: UN study”, My Paper, 11 Sept 2013). In light of that, achieving a ranking at the top 20th percentile is then perhaps not wholly remarkable.

Interestingly, the 1,000 local respondents in the 2011 Gallup survey included residents living in private housing, whereas the equivalent number of local respondents in the subsequent annual survey appeared to have no representation from this group, which make up 12% of the general population. It’s also noteworthy that the face-to-face surveys were conducted between 1st September and 30th October in the preceding year of 2011, but between 22nd December 2012 and 28th March 2013 for the 2012 survey.

But that’s not what’s important. What’s important is that we understand the factors which impact our mental wellbeing, and that we try out various ways to improve our mental wellbeing.

Here’s FOUR ideas to chew on:

  1. Nothing like exercise

    Findings from a cross-cultural epidemiological study of 17, 246 young adults (Grant, Wardle, & Steptoe, 2009) indicate positive correlations between life satisfaction and physical exercise (as well as eating fruit!). Although their findings appeared to suggest a mediating role for physical health, it is clear from those and other findings that exercise improves mental wellbeing. A recent study (Maher et al., 2013) with 253 participants found that young adults reported greater life satisfaction on days when they engaged in physical activity compared to other days, even after controlling for other factors such as gender, BMI, daily fatigue). So if that’s not persuasive enough, this blog on why we need exercise from The Dr Oz Show might help convince you to get up and out to the park.

  2. Assess your mental wellbeing

    Everyone experiences stress, anxiety, and feelings of sadness from time to time. But perhaps you or someone you’re concerned about is experiencing more stress than usual and showing signs of burnout at their workplace or as a caregiver. There’s no better motivation to engage in good self-care than when you’re convinced that you need it! This anonymous self-assessment tool will help you assess your mental wellbeing, while a burnout questionnaire can be insightful for not only employees, but caregivers. Once you’ve assessed your stress levels, you might be more willing to give the other things below a go!

  3. Get some zzzs

    Sleep is highly underrated when we’re young. Okay, we’re not that young anymore but nonetheless sleep quality has a profound effect on our daily functioning. Studies suggest that getting enough rest is essential to not only our problem solving abilities, but also closely related to our mood and mental wellbeing. A study (Dinges et al., 1997) found that an accumulated sleep debt equivalent to 33% less sleep than normal negatively affected psychomotor vigilance and working memory performance. Moreover, the removal of sleep deprivation produced a significant improvement in participants’ mood. And what’s more. The link between sleep problems and mood disorders including depression has also been well established in the literature (Breslau et al., 1996; Neckelmann et al., 2007; Weissman et al., 1997). So it’s important to get some good quality REM (and not the Shiny Happy People kind)!

  4. Relaxation is key

    Tips for managing stress always seem to revolve around a million things which should make us feel good. Tips often include things like having a bubble bath, taking the dog for a walk at Pasir Ris Eco Green, having brunch at Selfish Gene Cafe with friends, peering at migratory birds at Sungei Buloh, and spending the afternoon painting at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, as well as paying someone to press your head and shoulders, crack your knuckles, pull your toes, and fold your knee across your body. Other strategies include being thankful and forgiving, being encouraging to someone else, and being aware of one’s thoughts and emotions. The underlying notion behind most of these strategies is that chronic stress is harmful to our heath. It’s not only responsible for poor immune functioning, but has long-lasting negative consequences for our cognitive abilities. Prolonged exposure to stress damages our hippocampus – a brain structure responsible for consolidating short-term memory to long-term memory (Sapolsky, Krey, & McEwen, 1986). So, looking after yourself is the key to good mental wellbeing (and happiness). But more importantly, along with lowering one’s risk of vascular diseases, it plays a key role in protecting against dementia.

Can’t get enough of coffee

There’s yet another place in town for the coffee connoisseur. Along with the established Highlander Coffee at Kampong Bahru, 40 Hands in Tiong Bahru, Papa Palheta at Tyrwhitt Road and Loysel’s Toy at Kampong Bugis by the Kallang Basin, coffee beans and brunch are on offer at Common Man Coffee Roasters on Martin Road. There’s also terribly good coffee at The Plain Cafe, and don’t get me started on Vietnamese drip coffee.

It’s certainly the answer to a productive day at work. Too much coffee though, might result in difficulties deciding which things on a long to-do list to actually do, a propensity to enthusiastically vacuum all carpet surfaces and wash dishes that don’t need washing till the wee hours, an uncanny ability to wax lyrical about just about anything, and in general, behaviour not unbecoming of the squirrel in Ice Age. Of course, perhaps this doesn’t happen to everyone.

But nonetheless, it’s of interest to know if all this coffee is actually good for us. A literature review in 2003 by Nawrot and colleauges indicates that moderate caffeine intake up to 400mg a day is not associated with increased health risks including osteoporosis and cancer, although recommendations also include limiting caffeine intake to under 300mg for women. These findings are reiterated in a subsequent review of epidemiological research. The authors of this 2006 review, Higdon and Frei, also document an association between cardiovascular disease risks and coffee consumption.

A recent summary of epidemiological studies and meta-analysis by Butt and Sultan further clarifies that caffeine consumption raises serum cholesterol. As such, moderating one’s caffeine intake has been suggested for individuals with hypertension, as well as children and older adults. In fact, this recent 2011 literature review suggests an inverse relationship between coffee consumption and the risk of some cancers or Alzheimer’s disease.

That’s assuming of course that one drinks coffee or tea in its purest form. Adding sugar and condensed milk to coffee or tea of course may undo the health benefits that caffeine is said to provide.

Interestingly, a recent study also reveals — in contrast to the USDA figures which puts caffeine in an espresso at about 77mg — that espressos on the Gold Coast in Australia had on average 106mg of caffeine. A fifth of the 97 espressos sampled in this 2007 study by Desbrow and colleagues had at least 120mg of caffeine. To consider the thought that the kopi o kosong gao that you’ve been overdosing on recently has much, much less caffeine than some of these espressos perhaps belongs in the category of unicorns, leprechauns and mermaids. 

More importantly, copious amounts of caffeine has deleterious effects on productivity. In a 2010 study by Rosekind and colleagues, employees reporting insomnia or insufficient sleep were found to be less productive than controls. Annual loss in fatigue-related productivity was estimated at US$1967 per employee. This is not surprising given that lack of sleep negatively impacts our capacity to learn and remember things.

The cognitive benefits are illustrated in Harvard Medical School educational videos about why sleep matters. Poor sleep which is linked to not only increased hunger and appetite and greater food consumption but also anxiety and depression — read this Mental Health Foundation (UK) report on why sleep matters — can have a profound effect on work performance.

Perhaps after you read this Huffington Post article (5 May 2013) on the 5 Things You Should Know About Sleep Health in the Workplace, you might want to switch over to light oolong. How about some 包種茶?