Hotel Q(uarantine) – The emotional hardship of 21 days has sailed

The broad window in my Sigh-ing Pun* hotel boasts a great harbor view. I often sit on the broad windowsill watching the busy waterways between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. It strikes me how fast and lineal some of the ferries plough through the waves. Sailing boats are rarer and more interesting to look at.

Some sail more smoothly than others. All find the same conditions, but some clearly master what they come across with more skill than their fellow travellers. They artfully hold the vessel steady and gain momentum in the elements – independent of size or shape. 

Understanding emotional meteorology

I wonder how I can keep a stable course throughout my journey of 21 days. Like the solo sailors who conquer an ocean – always fearing to capsize on a whale – I am afraid to drown on account of the inert mass of my body and mind. The Highs and Lows of my internal weather have frequently interfered with the moral compass.

Any emotion can be used to gather way. I can even sail against the wind at a pointed angle. It’s not going to be fun, but it can be done. I knew that I will face sunny days, stormy, rainy and calms. Part of my self-care was to allow any weather to arise without fighting it. Accepting the fronts to pass.

Key to survival is a sound sense of the elements. A ship sails better with the wind and the water, not against it. I am well advised to feel the breezes of my mood and to detect and accept the undercurrents of my emocean. But how? How can I bear gusts of anger when I read the news? The spray of unfairness, like a slap in the face?

Using what you have aboard

When I feel the elements getting at me, as best I can, I try to decenter and defuse from thoughts and reactions that appear in my mind. I do so by shifting attention away from myself and towards things I am grateful for, feel joyful about or just to things that are more relevant to my life right now, like helping people with my work as a counsellor in Hong Kong.  

I was grateful for being greeted by the frigate of HK admin, operating smoothly as usual. Holding up a massive pandemic undertaking seamlessly with solid organisation and politeness. Thank you to all the people working day and night to keep our normal life going – efficient at the airport, caring at the hotel and the jolly-friendly testing staff – in particular on NYE!!!

Alternatively, I bring back the focus of attention to my body and expand awareness from head to toe. Connecting with any sensations in my body helps to feel what is already there, honing in on pain, tension, heartbeat, heat and the breath. With the awareness of feeling I settle in with the here and now. Being fully present with the elements, the emotional weather – outside and inside.

“So maybe that’s what all that advice to live in the present moment is getting at: If you can invest more attention in the sensory world than in your narrative overlaying it, you might identify the former, rather than the latter, to be what’s true.”

Drake Baer 2017 thecut.com

Balance is important, intention is paramount

Balancing ourselves becomes easier when we know how we steer, what our sails are and where, understanding which ropes to hold tight and where to best place us and our crew in order to keep gliding steadily. I remain agile by moving around from bathroom to desk, from bed to window ledge and from yoga mat to the door.

Only by actively handling the pushes and pulls of the elements, can we stabilise the boat. Drifting is never an option, unless we do it on purpose (aka sober). Daydreaming can be positive-constructive, whereas the shallows look guilty-dysphoric or with poor attentional control.

We can choose different modes when sailing through life. We can cruise having pleasure in mind, we can be competitive in Regatta-mode having winning in mind or we can set sail having a destination in mind. It helps me to know what I am sailing for. My motivation is the mastery of navigation in order to arrive at shores I thought I could not reach. Competing only with myself.

*Sai Ying Pun intended!

counselling for alcohol coaching change habits

Booze to ban in the month of Jan

The non-drinking movement

The new year is upon us. It’s a time to review our habits and behaviors of the last 12 months and identify what changes our happier, healthier future selves will thank us for.  In 2021, 6.5 million people aimed to complete ‘Dry January’, an increase of a whopping 2.6 million people on the previous year.

The great news is once we put down the booze, we begin to see multiple improvements across health and performance.

Impact on mood and emotion

Firstly, by abstaining from alcohol, you won’t have to deal with erratic mood swings or ‘hangxiety’ (the common hangover anxiety).  Alcohol disturbs the normal release of your neurotransmitters, including dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins.  Alcohol is a sedative, so your brain compensates by exciting the stimulatory systems. 

It seems to affect people more severely if they are already prone to anxiety, typically those using alcohol as a social lubricant.  There’s a lag time, so these signals continue after we stop drinking. A 2013 study on rats still felt fear, depression, and anxiety symptoms 14 hours after alcohol blood levels reached zero.

Impact on sleep

A common mistake people make is to consider alcohol as a sleep aid. Yet sedation is not the same as regular sleep.  In reality, alcohol plays havoc with our sleep cycles and the quality of our sleep after drinking. Our hours in bed are littered with micro-awakenings, preventing us from achieving restorative sleep. 

A study on just under 100,000 Japanese students found alcohol to disturb a multitude of sleep functions, including short sleep duration, difficulty initiating sleep, and waking up early.  The disturbance effect increased with the number of consecutive days the participants drank.

“Hop on the bus, Gus; you don’t need to discuss much.

Just drop off the key and get yourself free”

50 Ways to leave your lover, Paul Simon, 1975.

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Impact on Cardiovascular functioning

People rarely consider the detrimental effects alcohol is having on their cardiovascular function.  Drinkers collectively raised a glass upon hearing the news that one glass of red wine might lower the risk of coronary artery disease, diabetes, and stroke. 

However, people rarely stay within the recommended guidelines, and doctors would prefer we abstain from drinking altogether.  Indeed, binge drinking is the top factor leading to premature death for males under sixty.

Impact on weight and shape

A common side effect of giving up booze is weight loss.  We tend to forget about the hundreds of calories contained in each glass we’re knocking back, but these often show up later on our waistlines.  This effect compounds when one considers that alcohol causes a spike in the body’s insulin secretion (to deal with all that sugar consumed!). Blood sugar levels then fall, hindering exercise performance.  

Impact on workout and fitness

Furthermore, alcohol stops the absorption of vital vitamins and minerals such as thiamine, B12, folic acid, and zinc.  Without these, the human body cannot generate new cells, build a robust immune system or metabolize food efficiently. 

Of course, when you’re not so hungover, you’re also more inclined and motivated to hit the gym rather than the biscuit tin.  Trading a pint for a gym pass will not only help you drop the pounds but will have innumerable benefits for your body and mental health. 

Beer isn’t a good post-gym drink, either: it won’t help you re-hydrate or supply energy. Alcohol dehydrates you because it is a diuretic, meaning that it makes you pee and remove fluids faster than other drinks. Instead, reach for some (coconut) water.

Impact on sexual performance

If all that didn’t get your attention and convince you to take a break from drinking, perhaps this will: alcohol ruins your sex performance.  Sure, a few drinks lower our inhibitions and make potential partners seem more alluring (hello, beer goggles).

But when it comes to the crucial act, males may find their ability to maintain an erection or ejaculate impaired.  Sober sex might sound intimidating, but reassuringly, almost three-quarters of Cornell University students reported being sober when they had their best sexual experience.

Forming healthy habits

For most people, drinking is nothing more than an ingrained behaviour requiring distraction or replacement with more rewarding activities to overcome. Remember that most of our drinking really is just a bad habit, often starting with browsing you favourite wineshop online or stopping-over at the convenience store on your way home.

A period of abstinence will help your mind to form new healthier habits and your brain with learn to pass through the bottled racks unimpressed. Bad habits lead to a closed state of mind from which we deem healthier alternatives less attractive. We risk missing out on the real rewards in life: meaning, intimate connection and achievements.

Counselling helps to increase awareness of unhealthy habit loops and enables sustaining change of thinking and behaviour. Seeing a counsellor in Hong Kong or online provides the support for you to add the emotional and physical strength back into your life.

Committing to dry January and joining thousands of other people may be the kick-start you need to break this habituation, teach your brain new reward pathways, and give your whole body a chance to perform optimally. So raise a glass of Perrier to the new year and you may just find that sober life is a resolution that endures.

Joyful holidays

Mindful Holidays for a joyful year ending

Joy as a Mental Strategy

When I prepare mentally for the holiday season, I remind myself of one mindful attitude in particular: JOY. Joy is an attitude of the heart. The warm feeling we can choose to feel from inside with intention.

I am mindful of my intentions for the festive season. This includes my intention to engage with loved ones, with neighbours and strangers in soft and kind way. But even more so to engage with myself by pacing my levels of tension, impatience and striving.

Also setting an intention that makes a difference from other times of the year. I ask myself, looking back what is the one thing that I want to have accomplished (i.e. making some people happy with a poignant choice of gifts; having spent quality time with some people I love; having met with people without masks and little risk of infection).

Traps of mindlessness

Some of us seem to be driven by perfection, sometimes based on missed chances during our own childhood or due to chasing a nostalgic high we want to replicate. It is essential to bethink yourself of the purpose of the holidays and how you want to celebrate it.

Mindfulness suffers when we get ahead of ourselves, when we are not being present with all our senses.

Some of us want to please too many people or cater for too many needs (i.e. giving, meeting, singing, eating, resting, celebrating, reading, cheering, greeting, kissing, …). It can be difficult during these times of heightened expectations to allow yourself to be human.

Cultivate mindfulness over the holidays

In any culture, important holidays typically put a strain on families and relationships. Christmas being the one I grew up with. It is also a time when sadly I receive more enquiries from couples. Holidays come with cultural norms and obligations, loads of expectation regarding behaviour and family dynamics galvanise.

Being mindful means to pay attention from moment to moment without judging. The reward then is to be able to engage with each other in harmony without being carried away by our minds, our work or our (hi)story.

Coming back to Joy

Mindfulness can simply mean to practice joy, generating warmth from your heart. For some that might mean to be a bit less self-involved and for others that might mean to offer more of what one truly has to offer: their own joyful presence not “presents”. Please find free guided meditations, links to more and reading material on Counselling in Hong Kong website https://counsellinghongkong.com and contact counsellor Sebastian Droesler for more information.

Three simple practice during the festive season

  1. Choose to focus your attention on one thing or task at a time. Be fully present with the task at hand. When you speak to someone, think before you talk. When you eat, chew and taste before you swallow. When you drink, smell and savour the good stuff. When your attention is being pulled or your mind wanders, notice where it went and then bring it back.
  2. Expand your awareness without judgement without striving. Take a moment to observe yourself and your surroundings in stillness. Resist the temptation to leap forward into the next thing to do. What do you notice about yourself? Watch what is going on around you? No need to change anything. But if you choose to act, do it with elegance.
  3. Practice your Lovingkindness. Lovingkindness is the practice of wishing well. You can use phrases such as “may you be happy. May you be healthy.” that you can say in silence to yourself, loved ones, strangers and even people you find difficult. Connect with positive emotions of goodwill and benevolence. We’re not trying to manifest any reality (we’re not going to make anyone healthy by wishing that they are), but rather seeing how it feels to say these words to another person while genuinely meaning it.

If you are looking for counselling or coaching via in-person sessions with Sebastian, you can find his office conveniently in Lan Kwai Fong, Central Hong Kong.

A bundle of nerves to rule them all: Unpacking the vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve relates to our capacity to function as social beings through maintaining our emotional regulation, fear response and social connections. We all constantly cycle through stages of disconnection, mobilisation and social engagement. Our Autonomic Nervous System adapts protection and connection from moment to moment.

However, patterns of protection can compromise our social engagement system. This article highlights some neuro-physiological explanations for why we are often not smooth and balanced. It also addresses ways to regulate and staying connected.

What is so special about the vagus nerve?

The vagus nerve connects the brain with the heart and other major organs and runs on autopilot without requiring intervention. This system regulates our heartbeat, breathing and other autonomous body functions such as digestion, body temperature and sexual arousal.

…the different branches are related to unique, adaptive behavioral strategies and articulates three phylogenetic stages of the development of the mammalian autonomic nervous system. These stages reflect the emergence of three distinct subsystems, which are phylogenetically ordered and behaviorally linked to social communication (e.g., facial expression, vocalization, listening), mobilization (e.g., fight-or-flight behaviors), and immobilization (e.g., feigning death, vasovagal syncope, and behavioral shutdown). 

Porges, Stephen W. (2010). The Polyvagal Theory.

Vagal branches are related to unique adaptive behavioural strategies that are essential for our survival. These strategies developed in three stages from immobilisation to mobilisation to social communication. As part of the autonomic nervous system, it is triggering the human defence mechanism that consists of fight, flight and freeze when there is danger or perceived threat.

It stimulates the body’s response when put under STRESS and it goes into shut-down mode when overwhelmed. However, our stress response is essential for survival, but needs to be tamed to enable social engagement.

How to understand your states of arousal?

The human survival mechanism is an integral part of our physiology. As such, the ability to sense and identify danger is inherently a valuable tool in our biological makeup and is termed “neuroception“. However, due to experienced trauma for example, the brain can map irregular associations resulting in a dysregulated nervous system. The first step, then is to recognise that this is happening.

“Trauma compromises our ability to engage with others by replacing patterns of connection with patterns of protection. If unresolved, these early adaptive survival responses become habitual autonomic patterns.”

Dana, Deb. (2018). The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy

Paying attention to states of arousal is vital, either in the moment or retrospectively. Consciously acknowledging when you experience one of the three defence mechanisms can make all the difference. If you find yourself uncharacteristically defensive (fight), feeling the overwhelming need to escape from a situation (flight), or rooted to the spot in a blind panic (freeze), it’s essential to understand the reasons behind these reactions.

Psychology and physiology merge in stages of the vagus nerve

My clients easily relate to the different stages of their vagal activation which can be described in terms of body and mind. The ventral vagal activation is represented by an open mind (“I may”, “may you be happy”) and an orientation towards others and the environment (posture, tone of voice, feeling warm).

Sympathetic arousal is reported as an increasingly narrowed mind with thoughts about taking action ranging from “I can” to “I should” to “I must” and simultaneously from feeling concerned/activated to anxious/angry to panic-fuelled/acting up. Body sensations include elevated heart rate, heavy breathing and feeling hot.

When the system becomes overwhelmed the dorsal vagal state of “I can’t” (“I collapse”, “I shut down”) takes over and clients of mine report to withdraw, self-medicate or zone out. This state is also characterised by a lack of connection, presence and self-control.

Due to the nature of the nervous system, we can feel each of these responses in varying degrees. A workaholic may have an active “flight” response, feeling a need to keep busy and seemingly unable to slow down. In someone else, a flight response may result in addictions – fleeing from emotions by making them go away with substances. 

Once identified, we can then understand what triggered the episode. Try to determine what happened immediately before the incident. Was it a comment, a specific tone of voice that someone used? Perhaps a smell or a particular situation made you feel overwhelmed.

How to cultivate the social engagement system?

We can take some steps to regulate and manage our nervous system. With a bit of practice using exercises that calm the nervous system and target the vagus nerve, we can maintain a healthy emotional balance.

In order to improve emotional wellbeing, it is important to understand how both internal and external factors impact mental health. Start by looking at your immediate surroundings. What elements spark joy for you? What aspects of your environment make you feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed? Think about what you can do to improve this environment. 

Even more important than the external environment is the internal struggle. One problem you may face is an abundance of self-criticism, overthinking and perfectionism. Practice snapping out of negative mental loops by

  • Simply letting your experience be: When you stub your toe, pause and feel the pain. No need to express it, stay with it – it is already there.
  • Simply letting go of any add-on experience: When you stub your toe, there is no need for anger, no need for cursing, no need for writing a screenplay about it.
  • Simply develop a more helpful attitude: When you stub your toe, pause and change your attitude. Does the leg of the kitchen table ask you to be more cautious or even to refurbish?

Directly Stimulating the vagus nerve can have tremendous effects on your reaction to stress. Breathing practices, yoga, physical movement, humming or singing, grounding exercises or working with temperature changes can all be valuable tools to help regulate your body when you catch yourself in a fight, flight or freeze response.

There is a wealth of information available for a more in-depth explanation of polyvagal theory and methods you can use to improve emotional well-being. Deb Dana has written an informative and helpful book on the subject, called “The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy.” Irene Lydon runs an exceptional YouTube channel outlining methods for improving mental health.

Using subcortical processing to overcome performance blockages

Addressing emotional blockages is key to personal and professional change. Neurobiological techniques that target subcortical processing are effective in accessing what is hidden from our conscious minds. Embedding these focused treatments into the safe space of coaching and counselling provides significant transformational momentum. Here are three simple steps I follow with my clients:

  1. Becoming aware of the impact your childhood still has on your adult behaviour
  2. Recognising your signature triggers in order to process what you are stuck with
  3. Tapping into subcortical areas of your brain, you can unshackle your mind and body for good

Note: The actual processing of a blockage or trauma can be done in silence and without disclosure of any details.

Assessment using structured questionnaires

Some people are surprised to discover that the childhood they thought was happy had elements of neglect or smothering and even abuse. Questions like “Were you hugged as a child?”, “Did your caretakers tell you they loved of you?”, “Did your parents implement punishments such as slapping or spanking, denying food, or silent treatments?” can help you understand what was going on in your childhood and what was missing.

This process aims not to blame, accuse or condemn our parents for what happened to us. Instead, we are working to gain a much clearer understanding through observation and reflection. Sometimes, what was going on is what hurt us – parents who were violent, unpredictable, or anxious and smothering. Other times, it is the lack that can be hard to name, yet still has a crucial role in who we developed to be. It is often helpful to resist the temptation to confront your caretakers, siblings or childhood bullies to demand acknowledgment and apologies.

Often, we don’t have many memories of what happened during our childhood. As we start the healing process, we are tempted to dive in with full force. We may begin therapy, buy five different books about the different types of childhood trauma, and work to recover these buried memories. Remember that your body has its own intelligence. If a memory is buried or repressed, respect that. Memories may come up when you feel safe and ready – don’t push! Respect the healing process and the time it takes. Taking on too much at once carries the risk of re-traumatizing ourselves.

Key Areas to strengthen: self-nurturing and self-guidance

With the awareness of how our childhood wounds manifest today, we are better equipped to raise self-esteem, improve self-image (including body image), quiet the inner critic and heal from shame. 

Many people in my practice struggle with self-nurturing, which can be seen as feminine or mothering energy. Clients often find deficits remembering their own mother. Note that the nurturing part is not really missing, as many can take on a nurturing and care taking role with their own children, friends or colleagues but find it difficult to care for themselves. This tendency can show up in codependency, overworking, and inability to say no to others. 

Others tend to struggle more with the fathering side or masculine energy like setting effective limits and being disciplined in self-care. One common way this shows up in our lives is self-sabotaging bedtime procrastination which often manifests as overconsumption of news, alcohol, TV, online shopping or gaming. Staying up late despite sleep deprivation negatively impacts performance, mood and health. A lack of self-discipline may also show as setting unrealistic goals for one-self not being able or ever feeling ok with what was achieved.

No matter how your childhood wounds show up in your daily life, you can learn practical tools to manage them.

Healing can be done in silence and does not require exposure or talking

Part of the healing process is creating a sense of safety in your body and the world around you. It’s essential to tailor your healing journey individually in a way that gives you a sense of agency, independence and acceptance. A common misunderstanding persists that therapy requires the explicit purging of a patients inner experience – memories, images, thoughts, … It does not!

Breathing exercises like tai chi and yoga are popular ways of developing the mind-body connection and teaching your body to ground and stabilise. You can build a sense of safety with a therapist. This process can be done in silence, without the need to share the content of your past that you are not ready to share.

Subcortical Processing can help with trauma, work performance and sport blockades

While talking interventions like coaching and therapy aim to give a conscious understanding of the past are, it may be beneficial to explore tapping into the brain through other non-talking pathways. Trauma can sit deep in our body inaccessible to our rational (neo-cortical) brain.

EMDR is a popular intervention for PTSD based on using eye movements to help the brain reprocess traumatic memories. Randomised trials support the effectiveness of EMDR in treating emotional trauma and find that it can be a more rapid and effective treatment than cognitive therapy.

Neurofeedback and brainspotting are two additional treatments that target the subcortical or subconscious processing systems. These methods have a growing body of research that supports their effectiveness in treating trauma, but also support people with performance blocks in sport and leadership.

While both EMDR and brainspotting utilize vision in the sessions. EMDR uses eye movements while in brainspotting the gaze is in a fixed position. Neurofeedback often uses vision as a means to train the brain. Neurofeedback uses EEG to measure brain waves and provides feedback to teach the brain to produce the desired results.

All three methods can be highly effective as add-ons to counselling and coaching. In my practice I integrate Brainspotting in a comprehensive way with approaches that activate other areas of the brain in order to leverage full healing potential. Clients report great success with rewarding experiences, deep insights and liberating effects on their lives.

Far from over: How your upbringing impairs your work performance

As children many of my now adult clients were exposed to suboptimal parenting. What happened – and oftentimes what not happened – in the interaction with primary caregivers during childhood has left psychological marks. Childhood is the longest phase in life as is impacts who we are as professionals and how with think and operate at work.

Your childhood is past, but the effects are far from over

Many adults fail to see the true results of suboptimal parenting on their behaviour today. There are many reasons for this. One is that we often minimise our past. Even in cases of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, people often say: “It wasn’t that bad. Other people have it worse.”

People frequently tend to believe that they are fine unless things are really bad. “If I can function, if I don’t have a mental disorder, if I have a job and relationships – I am fine”. In fact, suboptimal parenting can actually lead us to be outwardly successful. A child who has learned to perform – for love – can grow up to be a workaholic who doesn’t know how to rest. The adult might be outwardly successful with their strategies of adaptation, even when they suffer internally.

Emotional Neglect

This denial is particularly true in cases of emotional neglect. In these cases, there often aren’t “bad memories”. However, parents who never hit or yelled can still have left lasting emotional scares. It’s what was not there, that causes problems to the work performance. Children are not only harmed by receiving what is bad for them, but also by not receiving what they need: appreciation, playfulness, joy, carefree being (often traded in for a rigid focus on grades, discipline and performance). Emotional abandonment is just as damaging as physical abandonment.

Smothering / Possessiveness

The flip side of emotional neglect is smothering. Parents who do not give their child freedom, who are overly protective and oftentimes intruding into their lives. Damage is done to the sense of Self when the opportunities to explore skills and boundaries are limited by an overpowering parent. The child’s individual experience of emotions is frequently taken out of hand, twisted, amplified or muted – replaced or overwritten by the parent’s or desired experience.

Typical challenges at work

Many people have a mixture of abuse, neglect, and enmeshment/smothering in their childhood. At work and in private, the adult can struggle with boundaries, discipline, balance, and self-care:

  • Not recognizing red flags in work relationships – being unclear about professional boundaries
  • Being perfectionistic, setting unrealistically high standards, investing too much time to reach an optimal outcome, doing too much and doing it too diligently
  • Catering for everybody’s needs but your own
  • Finding yourself being caught in the middle – feeling unable to assert yourself, voiceless, powerless
  • Always carrying GUILT, wherever you go, whatever you do

52% of the participants in a Nottingham Business School study that was cited in People Management Magazine agreed that their individual productivity had been affected by their trauma. The majority in the study reported that their employers were not able to respond to their needs helpfully.

  • Dealing with authority figures: either being afraid of authority figures or resistant to being controlled
  • Chronic emptiness can lead to difficulty in finding fulfilment at work
  • Catering to everyone else’s needs, people-pleasing, or an inability to say no
  • Procrastinating and struggling to start new projects as well as under-performance

Upside of Perfectionism

Some of the traumatic long-term effects actually manifest as benefits at first: People pleasing, perfectionism, and over-performing can be highly valued by managers. Colleagues will appreciate the person who is always helping out, often excelling every task and unknowingly engaging beyond boundaries.

In these cases, it may seem like there is no downside. But our bodies and minds are paying the price. Seemingly unrelated issues such as back pain, skin problem, digestive issues, blood pressure, and even injuries that are taking forever to heal can all be tied to the effects of stress and repressed emotions.

The Body Says No

The physician Dr. Gabor Mate wrote When The Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress, merging his experience with his patients and scientific data. He says: “When we have been prevented from learning how to say no, our bodies may end up saying it for us.”

Recognising the role our own developmental trauma plays in our lives is paramount. The parenting we have been exposed to is not our fault. The aim is not to blame, accuse or condemn what we have lived through. The aim must be to regain the power to observe, learn and grow. 

Our trauma does not need to control us. Instead, we can get to a place where we can emerge as an embodied, present adult who responds to situations with insight, knowledge and wisdom.

Happy Birthday Pandemic! One year of mental health struggles

Happy Birthday Pandemic! You brought us one year of mental health challenges and the stress of just wanting to make it through somehow – knowing that this is the least empowered mindset to be in.

Congratulations, you grew bigger and already developed a real character full of surprises. With only one year of existence you keep everyone on their feet. You manage to draw attention 24hrs a day and need a whole new infrastructure just to cater for your needs. Unfortunately you also caused a majority of us a steep decline in mental and physical well-being.

Several surveys confirm that your birth of COVID-19 caused “postpartum” stresses like breakdowns, burnout, anxiety, low mood, depression, insomnia for many. Your unpredictable and sleepless nature required us to redefine our caring responsibilities. And believe me, we would not always agree and oftentimes slip. We had to rearrange work, cancel play, socially distance and adapt new standards of hygiene only for you.

A recent free article in the FT highlights a survey on the effects of the pandemic on office workers’ mental well-being around the globe. The UK and Hong Kong ranking top and second on mental health being most negatively affected. Financial Services and media being represented industries amongst others.

While for many participants flexible work arrangements also brought upsides like reduced time to commute, the possibility to workout during daytime and engaging more with family, the same circumstances of “flexible” arrangements led to physical stress and emotional and mental imbalance.

Negative effects showed in unhealthy lifestyle choices, overworking and the dissolution of boundaries regarding time, space and social environment. Moreover, restrictions to public life and leisure activities contributed heavily to the feeling of being trapped at home, limited in self-care choices and the pursuit of hobbies.

My experience with clients mainly in Hong Kong, but also via Zoom from Australia, Japan, Singapore, India, Europe and Central America goes hand in hand with the findings of the survey. However, a few big stressors have to be added from my professional perspective. Many struggle with:

  • Worrying, anxiety and sadness about the impossibility to see and involve their family and friends. Zoom does not help to look after children or to accompany someone to the hospital or a doctors visit. Stress is often exacerbated when we have not heard from loved ones in a while or can’t reach them. Leaving us helpless and powerless.
  • The lack of support from educators and employers regarding the setup and proper management of working and learning remotely with proper parental control and at times always-on expectations – Sunday like Monday. An avalanche of adjustments to life has to be dealt with and often within the shortest timeframe.
  • Long distance relationship being emotionally tested by the uncertainty of travel restrictions, tough cash-flow decisions when considering to move or to stay and the nightmare of literally feeling out of touch. Spontaneity is a concept long gone, the zest of life often losing the battle with mechanically functioning along the scheduled tasks lined up from morning to nighttime.
  • Short distance relationships being tested by simply having nowhere to go, for example when one partner takes a few days off – at home. The unfulfilled longing for a few hours of solitude and creative expression. But also the unfulfilled longing for being able to miss our partners and our craving for romance.

A healthier mindset

It is all too easy being absorbed by a one year old, in particular if the baby is a superhuman pandemic. This birthday also marks one year of great and skilful adjustment. Discovering energy and the ability to deal with problems we did not know we possessed. Here is to not forgetting ourselves, our self-care and dignity!! Here is to celebrate one year of upholding, growth and wisdom. Cheers to having been able to adjust to the great challenges, to newly found strengths and to rediscovery of our true priorities like family and friendship.

Men’s Mental Health: Don’t suffer in silence!

The COVID-19 pandemic and its response measures have had severe consequences for the mental health of people worldwide.

Depression, and particularly male depression, has gone up all over the world. Parents with young children have had to juggle watching young children and working from home as daycares worldwide shut down. Travel restrictions meant that some haven’t seen their family, friends and partners for months.

For people who are living home, lockdown measures have meant little to no social interaction. The result is increased stress, loneliness, anxiety and depression. Coupled with anxiety regarding the health of ourselves and our loved ones, reductions or loss of income, and the state of the world,  and we have a recipe for a mental health disaster.

Download free MENS MENTAL HEALTH pdf-one-pager here

Loneliness

Many men have learned to rely on relationships based on “doing”: bonding with coworkers or sports with friends. While women are traditionally more comfortable talking on the phone, texting, and having video calls, many men reserve these communication forms for family and partners – at best. When this becomes the main or only form of communication, many men struggle.

Stress

Hong Konger’s livelihood has been tested for a while, not only by the restrictions due to the pandemic. While both men and women suffer from this consequences, many men tend to over-identify with their jobs. Not being able to earn, to provide or simply being busy invokes feelings of failure. Cathay’s mass lay-offs and the like will affect the economical landscape mid-term.

Anxiety

While men and women both suffer from stress, depression, and anxiety, men are traditionally conditioned to repress their feelings. While these attitudes are shifting, it’s not easy to unlearn lifelong habits. When men feel anxious asking for help or being vulnerable, their stresses pile up. The result can be severe and debilitating anxiety. 

Depression

Men’s depression or anxiety often go hand-in-hand and can go undiagnosed. On the surface, we may see irritability or self-medication with substances, alcohol or sex. Physical symptoms of depression such as fatigue or body pain (back pain, tooth aches, …) are also common in men.

The way male depression manifests is poorly recognized by our current diagnostic criteria and approaches. Traditional concepts of masculinity deter men from seeking help, making the problem worse. It’s evident that while reducing mental stigma is essential, it’s not enough. We must also understand that men and women require different solutions and tailor treatment options accordingly.

Getting well versus Staying well

As a society, we like quick and easy solutions. With men, this tendency can be even more pronounced. Stereotypically, men are more solution-oriented, while women might prefer to give more space for emotions and understanding. And if the problem is that we’re feeling bad, we need to find a solution towards feeling good, right? Reality is a little more complicated than that. While external conditions significantly influence our internal state, we can’t expect our mental health to depend on them.

The good news is that the common mental health issues in men can be treated and that we can apply many successful measures of prevention. Depression and Anxiety as well as Stress and Loneliness are manageable and treatable. Learning coping strategies can make future episodes shorter and less intense. Treatments can help you reduce negative thinking, create strategies to tackle problems and improve relationships.

Getting Well

  • Educate yourself
    • Understand what you’re dealing with can help you come up with the best coping mechanisms for you
    • There are many good videos, podcasts, and blogs that you can find online for free
  • Start noticing and open your awareness
    • Work on challenging your negative thinking
    • We all have stories and core beliefs that we picked up early in life that may be no longer serving us
    • Picking up a mindfulness practice can help you become more aware of negative thinking patterns. As you do so, you’ll learn to let go instead of becoming attached to them
    • Practicing CBT (Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy) sheets can help you change these thoughts at the core
  • Connection is King
    • Connect with yourself – remember The Matrix “…do you believe that my being stronger or faster has anything to do with my muscles in this place?…”
    • Connect with others – remember Along Came Polly when Mr Feffer speaks the truth: “…it’s not about what happened in the past or what you think might happen in the future – it’s about the ride! There is no point going through all this, if you not gonna enjoy the ride…”
  • Turn to a professional
    • Many men have a lot of resistance to going to therapy. It’s worth examing to see why that is. Are you ashamed of admitting you have a problem? Or is it that you’re afraid that if you talk about your pain, you will be overwhelmed by it?
    • A good therapist will make you feel heard and understood. They’ll also help you learn to solve your own challenges through new tools and coping strategies. 
  • Medication
    • Remember that medication takes time to work and isn’t a permanent all-encompassing solution
    • Medication can help you feel more stable so that you can build a stronger foundation for your mental health with therapy and other solutions.

Download free MENS MENTAL HEALTH pdf-one-pager here

Staying well

Remember that good mental health requires maintenance. While it may be tempting to drop all your new habits once you start feeling better again, this can backfire. Think of it as a diet: you can lose the weight, but if you start drinking soda and eating friend and sugary food all the time, you’re likely to gain the weight back. The same goes for depression and emotional wellbeing in general. Living a balanced, healthy lifestyle is just as important when you’re feeling good as it is when you’re struggling. 

  • Monitor your early warning signs
    • As you become more familiar with your inner world, you’ll learn to recognize warning signs before things get bad
      • Less reading, more Netflix? Less Sport, more deep fried Food?
      • Recurring thoughts like “No one understands me.” or “I am a failure.”
      • And you might begin to pay attention to physical symptoms of fatigue, heaviness, tension or shallow breath.
  • Keep Social with friends, family or in a group of likeminded
    • Any group of common interest can provide a safe space where you can learn to be emotionally vulnerable while receiving support from others facing similar challenges.
    • Join a men’s group. There can be something profoundly healing about sharing openly in a group of men – precisely because it’s so unfamiliar to many of us. In a study of older men (usually considered non-responsive to therapy), the men’s group was a valuable tool in treating depression.
  • Make time for Self-Care
    • It’s crucial to find the strategies that work for you. In a study of 465 Australian men, eating healthy, keeping busy, exercising, humour and helping others were their top strategies for preventing depression. Other successful methods included spending time with a pet and self-reward.
    • Most of the things mentioned in this article can be forms of self-care: support groups, physical exercise, counselling & therapy, eating healthy
    • Self-care can be making sure you get some quality-time with your Self. Outdoors beats indoors, Walking meets Talking.  

 

Singaporeans’ struggle with wellbeing and the need to find a counsellor

Why it is important to find an English speaking counsellor in Singapore and how to do it.

According to an article published by the WHO in 2018, mental health is defined as, ‘a state of well- being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her own community.’

As per the latest studies conducted in Singapore, 1 in 7 people has been shown to have suffered a mental disorder in their lifetime. Statistics show that in Singapore, the three most common challenges with mental health are: obsessive-compulsive tendencies, depression & low mood and unhealthy lifestyle choices. 

According to my experience with Singapore-based clients, the most common issues are relationship skills and maintaining mental and physical sanity in the midst of career adjustments and family drama – often with family abroad and difficult to stay connected with in times of travel restrictions due to the pandemic.

Face- to- face therapy sessions have become slightly challenging owing to the fact that individuals are encouraged to socially distance themselves from one another. This has resulted in an increase in telehealth services, i.e. the delivery of health services via online video conferencing.

These services have an array of advantages such as; having access to a therapist from the comfort of your house. Having access to a therapist without having to leave the house has made it that much easier to seek the services of therapists.

The ability to access mental health services without leaving the house has also been advantageous in that most patients and doctors/ therapists are able to practice social distancing and keep themselves safe from contracting Covid- 19. This period of life has been difficult for most individuals since it’s brought about loss of jobs, financial insecurity, loss of loved ones and a lot of instability. Online therapy services have made counselling sessions accessible.

Steps to take

Counselling and online therapy can be tailor-made. It is up to the individual and his/her counselor to decide what type of intervention works for the individual. Some of the approaches include;

  • See a therapist / counselor – there are several types of therapy sessions available such as individual therapy, group therapy, family therapy and support groups.
  • Expressing gratitude – enables one to keep track of even the tiniest things that go well in one’s life and thus gives an individual the opportunity to shift their focus onto their agency: moving, shifting and placing attention.
  • Journaling – writing down helps to reflect and reappraise situations, feelings and experiences.  My tip is to try to write your observations in third person in order to take a step back from your own mind and the drama that it unfolds around the SELF / EGO.
  • Maintaining a supportive network – family, friends and colleagues can support you. It is important to identify a few – not many – people you feel safe to confide in.  Past trauma and adverse experiences can make it difficult to trust – that’s ok. Counsellors are an alternative as they have to adhere to ethical and professional standards of confidentiality and care.
  • Self-care – all to refresh the brain or in other words the connection of the mind and the body
    • Body – sleep!!!, physical exercise such as running, cycling, swimming, yoga or tai chi
    • Diet – less sugar, less fat (no deep fried), plant-based protein, experiment with ways of fasting
    • Meditation – focus attention or/and open awareness, be present – moment to moment, recognise your judgements

REFERENCES 

  1. IN FOCUS: the challenges young people face while seeking mental health help https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/in-focus-young-people-mental-health-singapore-treatment-13002934 
  2. Mental health, strengthening our response https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-health-strengthening-our-response#:~:text=Mental%20health%20is%20a%20state,to%20his%20or%20her%20community
  3. Depression https://www.healthhub.sg/a-z/diseases-and-conditions/101/topics_depression 
  4. Depression https://www.singhealth.com.sg/patient-care/conditions-treatments/depression/overview 
  5. Teenage depression; signs, causes and treatment https://www.healthxchange.sg/wellness/mental-health/teenage-depression-signs-causes-treatment 
  6. IMH; wellness https://www.imh.com.sg/wellness/ 
  7. The state of mental wellness in Singapore https://adelphipsych.sg/the-state-of-mental-wellness-in-singapore/ 
  8. Types of mental health treatments https://www.psychguides.com/mental-health-disorders/treatments/types/ 

Lovingkindness – The neuroscience of wishing well

In this blog you will learn what Lovingkindness is and how evidence-based science demonstrates the psychological benefits for your well-being.

Added bonus: Understand what’s in for you to wish people well that you don’t like that much or let’s say would not vote for.

What is Lovingkindness?

Lovingkindness is the practice of wishing well. It is typically done as a guided meditation in feelings of goodwill and benevolence. The practice uses a set of phrases (such as “may you be at peace. May you be healthy.”) that we imagine saying to ourselves, loved ones, strangers, and even people we find difficult.

As we imagine saying these sentences, the goal is to connect with the positive emotions that arise. We’re not trying to manifest any reality (we’re not going to make anyone healthy by wishing that they are), but rather seeing how it feels to say these words to another person and genuinely mean it.

Lovingkindness is the translation of the Pali word “metta.” It is one of the four Brahmaviharas in Buddhism – the others are compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity.

Academic interest in lovingkindness meditation keeps growing. Researchers are conducting experiments regarding the benefits of lovingkindness for various disorders, including depression and anxiety and everyday issues like anger and relational conflict. The studies appear promising, showing a positive effect on happiness, self-compassion, and general wellbeing.

What are the benefits?

When we practice lovingkindness consistently, we might find that our positive feelings multiply in our day-to-day life. In turn, it can serve as an antidote for difficult emotions such as anger, depression, anxiety, and self-criticism. Note that practicing lovingkindness doesn’t mean that we are trying to hide our “bad” emotions or plastering a bandaid of positivity over them. Instead, we are trying to water and nurture the seeds of love, joy, kindness, and acceptance. We learn to divert our attention to the positive and expand those emotions.

Stephen Hofmann calls lovingkindness a practice that “leads to the path of happiness.” He notes that psychology has focused on trying to reduce negative emotions rather than increasing the positive. In a literature review, he and Paul Grossman and Devon E.Hinton conclude that lovingkindness can help treat social anxiety, marital conflict, and anger.

A randomized experiment on 38 individuals high in self-criticism showed the effects of lovingkindness in practice. The participants showed increases in positive emotion and self-compassion and reduced depression and self-criticism (Shahar et al. 2015). The effects lasted three months after the intervention. 

Another study on the long-term effects of lovingkindness meditation on PTSD and depression found similar benefits. After three months, there was a significant reduction in PTSD symptoms as well as depressive symptoms (Kearney et al., 2013). Similar benefits have been found in individuals dealing with Borderline Personality Disorder.

It’s becoming apparent that lovingkindness practice can be a powerful intervention.

Lovingkindness changes the brain

Practicing lovingkindness meditation doesn’t just make us feel good. It can have significant and long-lasting impacts on the brain. 

One brain imaging study examined expert and novice meditators as they engaged in lovingkindness meditation. The researchers introduced emotional and neutral sounds during meditation and found that the expert meditators had increased activation in brain areas associated with empathy and theory of mind (Lutz, Brefcynski, Johnstone, Davidson 2008). 

A 2012 experiment by Lee et al. went further and looked at the differences in brain activity when practicing lovingkindness meditation as opposed to concentration meditation. They found that experts in lovingkindness meditation showed a distinct neural response to sad pictures that was more in line with empathy and emotional regulation. That means that when we practice lovingkindness meditation consistently, we’re training our brain to be more compassionate in the future. 

Imagine what can happen when we train our brains to react with kindness instead of judgment and fear. Implications can include less conflict with our friends, family, and partner; fewer instances of road rage; more measured responses when a coworker annoys us. We can instinctively offer better emotional support. As our self-compassion grows, we learn to make healthier choices and forgive ourselves for making mistakes. A lovingkindness presence can feel like magic.

How to practice lovingkindness in daily life? 

There are several ways to practice lovingkindness meditation. The primary way they differ is by the first object of lovingkindness. Some people start by sending lovingkindness to a loved one, then moving on to themselves, and then turning to a difficult person. Others say that we should always begin with sending lovingkindness to ourselves. 

Both types of practice start by sitting in an upright but comfortable position. You can also practice lying down if that’s more comfortable for you. You can close your eyes or leave them open. Take a few deep breaths to calm down the body. Then, let go of trying to control your breath. 

Starting With Yourself

If you want to start with yourself, imagine that you were sitting across from yourself. As you do, repeat sentences such as “may I be well. May I be safe. May I accept myself just as I am.”

There are many phrases you can use, but try not to pick too many. Keep it simple. Stay with this feeling for a while. If you find that it is too difficult, try to imagine yourself as a young child.

After a few minutes of this, you can choose to practice sending your lovingkindness feelings to a benefactor, an acquaintance, a stranger, or someone you find difficult.

Starting With a Loved One

Some people find it too challenging to start with sending lovingkindness to themselves. An excellent way to change this is to begin by imagining a good friend, benefactor or loved one. You can picture your pet or anyone else whose presence inspires feelings of warmth in you. Repeat the phrases as you imagine your loved one in front of you (“may you be at peace…”). After several minutes, try to turn the warm feelings you’ve gathered towards yourself and then towards a challenging person.

As you will see, different people practice lovingkindness differently. You might focus on one or two people at a time or try to send out lovingkindness towards the world. Some people find this to be a very emotional practice, but it’s OK if you don’t feel anything in particular. It can be helpful to use a guided recording in the beginning. You can find a 20-minute Lovingkindness meditation guided by Sharon Salzberg here.

Bonus: Turning towards the difficult – wishing your enemy well

Some people report difficulty to wish others well, whom they deem not worthy or deserving. I can very well relate to this attitude and was grappling with it for long time – even questioning my capacity for compassion. However, it became clear to me that I can find the ability to wish well to actually everyone. Here the rational:

  1. If others – liked or not liked people – live healthier, live with more peace, find ease or may be with calm, the world in total will be healthier, more at peace and more calm and at ease. I am certain of that.
  2. If others – liked or not liked people – live happier, that does not mean that I lose part of my happiness or really that I lose anything at all. It’s not a trade off. If I wish you good health, then I will not be more ill due to my wish. It’s not a give and take situation. It truly is a win-win.
  3. If you want to be skilfully wishing well, first you need consider what actually moves and motivates malice, violence and wrong doing. Then you can counter the driving energy with your tailored wish. For example: aiming at narcissism would sound a bit like this perhaps: “May you live with ease, may you find happiness, may you find confidence (in someone else), …”

Note: here we must assume that this is a question of true, genuine, authentic happiness to be found and not a shallow “happiness” that some wear in disguise.