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UNWITTING SERVANTS TO OUR MINDS

By: Hui Wen Tong

I was first introduced to the term ‘cognitive bias’ in my first lecture on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and that lecture taught me to reassess my perception of things, people, and myself.

Our brain has evolved to help us survive – it alerts us when there is danger, helps us think critically to solve problems and the like. To help it do this, our brain has certain predispositions to connect the dots or fill in the gaps in our thoughts, ideas, and experiences. It also magnifies the details we are familiar and comfortable with amid all the other information around us and under the constraints of time (Gilbert, 1998).

Like all things, it is far from perfect. Our brain seeks the means to encode, store, and retrieve the data we have encountered. With the brain constantly working to form connections to help us make sense of what is going on, what happened, and what is going to happen, our brains sometimes form connections even when there is no meaningful basis of relationship between the two dots. This is where cognitive biases might have crept in without us being conscious of them in our daily interactions, thoughts, and perspectives.

“The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.”

— Robertson Davies

‘Confirmation bias’ is one such bias. It is a tendency to be drawn to details that confirm our existing beliefs about ourselves and the world around us. This bias is thought to be an evolutionary adaptation to help us evaluate all the information we have and give us a sense of understanding over our experiences and important events in our lives. Living in this complex world, our brain understandably takes shortcuts to simplify the complexities of the world in order to give us a sense of control and a sense of knowing what is going on.

While this bias is a useful shortcut in simplifying a complex world, it comes at a price. Confirmation bias can give us a skewed perspective of things as we let unpalatable facts and evidence sweep past us just to justify our beliefs, feelings, and behaviour. Just because it reassures and complements our worldview, we cannot allow ourselves to take in whatever we hear on the grapevine, while disregarding facts and statistics.

Being cognizant about confirmation bias is a feat in itself but I think we can do better than this. Yes, it is mentally more satisfying and easier to accept information that validates what we think and feel, but do we want to be unwitting lackeys to our minds?

Keeping an open mind is not the extreme of questioning each and everything in our lives. I am sure our foresight and hindsight can be credible at certain times, but an open mind means an open mind. By having an open mind, it allows us to see things that we haven’t seen before, almost like reading the same book over and over again, and discovering parts of which we were not aware previously. By not presuming an outcome or assuming what others are thinking or doing, we can all be better learners and listeners.

SURVIVING TANTRUMS

Tips for dealing with tantrums and staying calm...

By: Yolande Ferguson

Parenting a young child can be a fun, exciting and joyful experience and yet it can also be challenging to manage tantrums.  Tantrums can exist in various forms and include behaviours such as crying, shouting, biting and hitting out.  Whilst it is natural to want to avoid tantrums happening and encouraging good behaviour can help, there is no certain way to stop tantrums from happening.  Tantrums are one of the ways young children express and manage feelings. It can be their way to try to understand or change what is happening around them. However, as their social and emotional skills are busy developing, toddlers and young children can feel frustrated if trying to express themselves and be understood.

If you are a parent of a young child, the likelihood is that you are facing the challenge of tantrums.  In managing tantrums, parents are trying to teach their children to be calm.  Parents can however only do this effectively if they themselves are also calm in their responses to tantrums.

It can be helpful to have some coping strategies in mind to tap into when tantrum moments arise.  Strategies for responding to the actual tantrum, as well as strategies to remain calm, can both be helpful.   

Tips for dealing with the tantrum:

  • Try to find out why the tantrum is happening: There are a host of reasons, for example hunger, tiredness, frustration or jealousy; that could be causing a tantrum. Understanding why the tantrum is happening can help parents identify a relevant way in which to respond, from ignoring the tantrum to giving love and attention.
  • Accept your child’s feelings: Acknowledging how your child’s emotions and how they feel shows your acceptance of their strong feelings of upset or anger. This can help prevent their behaviour escalating out of control and can give them a chance to ‘reset’ emotions.
  • Use distractions: Distracting your child’s attention to focus on something else can be helpful if you notice a tantrum is starting.
  • Wait it out: Once the tantrum has started it will not help to try to reason you’re your child, shout back or lose your temper. It is best to try to stay calm and stay close so your child knows you are still there.
  • Stay in charge and be consistent: In the long term giving in to a tantrum demand will not help as your child will think tantrums give them what they want. Being calm and consistent is important. 

Tips for staying calm:

  • Try to take the pressure off: It can be rather daunting and anxiety provoking as a parent to feel it is your job to prevent tantrums from happening. Accepting that tantrums will happen and are a normal part of your child’s development, can take the pressure off and reduce the ‘fear’ of a tantrum happening.  If we can accept tantrums will come, we may feel calmer when they do happen, and more able to focus on our response in the moment.
  • Limit words: It can be a lot more stressful trying to reason with or talk over a child who is screaming. It is not going to work as they cannot hear their parent, not in their emotional state or because of the noise.  Waiting until your child calms down to talk through the situation can help you both feel calmer.
  • Remove your child from the situation: If a child’s meltdown is in public, it may be hard to stay calm if it feels like everyone is watching. Your child may also be feeling watched and respectfully removing them can help them feel protected and accepted, and help you stay calm.
  • Remove yourself: If it is a struggle to remain calm, a moment away from the tantrum causing frustration or anger, may be needed. If it is safe for your child, try going into a different room as this can help you to calm down.  Taking some deep breaths can help slow thinking and bring calm.  (You may also find reading Dr Kavitha Dorairaj’s article, “3 Ways to Secretly Manage Your Anger
  • Considering what an observer might see: This is perhaps a more challenging tactic however I have had many parents acknowledge that they feel more in control when finding their child challenging, and motivated to stay calm and respond with love to their child, when other people are around and witnessing the moment. This seems to be attributed to seeing themselves as others will see them and this increases self-awareness.  When trying to stay calm, it may be helpful to try and pause and imagine what you would want an observer to see you do in response to a tantrum – this process can help visualise and follow our desired response.

I have never met a parent who finds dealing with tantrums easy - it is not an exact science and so keeping some helpful tips in mind can hopefully be helpful. I wish you well in your journey through tantrums and urge anyone struggling beyond their or their child’s coping capacity to seek further support through counselling or specialist intervention.


GOING WITH THE FLOW

Letting nature take its course to ease our anxieties. Learnings from martial arts.

By: Hui Wen Tong

I once had a client who described the feeling of anxiety as "worrying over an important exam that doesn't exist", and an anxiety attack as "trying to breathe but there isn't enough air in the room". 

Anxiety is said to manifest itself in a set of complex cognitive processes and behavioural responses to events or circumstances perceived as threatening (Chand and Marwaha, 2019). In my previous blog, I mentioned that fear was a fundamental contributor to anxiety. Everyone feels anxious from time to time when things do not go as planned or when our family members don’t not reciprocate in the way we think they should. Fear is indeed innate in all of us and it is meant to help us respond to danger. 

As in many things, when it goes beyond a certain threshold, feelings of anxiety and anticipation can go off the charts if left unchecked. We tend to draw a complete picture or a conclusion as to how things should unfold in our minds. When an outcome is unexpected and we are not prepared for it, we tend to feel that we are not in control. While some just adapt to unforeseen circumstances, others may feel like being on a rollercoaster that only goes up.


Going with the Flow

I was introduced to this term by my Ninjutsu teacher: uke-nagashi (收流). This term is used in most Japanese martial arts to describe a set of movements where one would receive an attack, without interfering with the flow or energy of the attack. Most attacks happen when we are mentally unprepared, as do impromptu quizzes at school or spot-checks at work. When we feel confronted unexpectedly, we are forced out of our comfort zone.

Worrying excessively over an unexpected comment from a friend or over a project presentation at work is mentally draining. It also limits one's potential to see the bigger picture of a problem or situation. Learning to go with the flow when the tides roll in, instead of staying fixated on what we are looking for, is a better way to manage our expectations of ourselves and of others. By adopting a more adaptive mindset, our scope becomes less myopic and it helps us explore and learn more about ourselves and other people.

We all have times when we are worried and worrying makes us feel restless. However, when we worry excessively and disproportionately about things that do not fall under our area of control, it impairs our ability to stay focused on our daily tasks. We can feel so overwhelmed that we lose sight of what is important at present and think too much about future or past events. It is not wrong to think or worry, but when unhelpful thoughts become so repetitive that we feel unnecessarily nervous with a sense of impending danger or doom, we may need help to cope with anxiety. 

Things can always go south or north without us knowing when or how. Letting nature take its course while we take what’s there would be a better strategy than being drowned by waves of unwanted thoughts. So, let’s grab our surf boards and go with the flow!

WHY DO I STRUGGLE TO SAY "NO"?

Reasons why it is hard to speak up for your own needs and how to overcome this

By: Jean Cheng

Do you struggle to say no?

Do you often feel that you have "no choice" but to say yes?

Do you say no, but carry a heavy sense of guilt or anxiety after (such that you wish you had said yes to begin with)?

Do you get angry whenever someone asks you for something because you feel that they are imposing onto you?

If you identify with the above, you likely carry a subjugation wound. These wounds are often formed when growing up with a domineering parent. This parent used anger, threats, shaming and withdrawal of affection in order to make us submit to their desires. Sadly, such methods work because it plays on a child's inherent desire for their parents' love and approval. To be separated from their parents' love is a child's greatest fear. A child would rather surrender their voice and intuitive wisdom, than to lose their parents' love.

The result is a painful emotional and relational captivity. As children, we learnt to bury our voices. We distrusted our feelings and opinions, thus couldn’t know what we wanted and sought other domineering personalities to "guide" us — perpetuating the cycle.

This made us more susceptible to low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, anger, fatigue, eating disorders, alcohol and drug problems, workaholism, and anything to mute our emotions. After all, our emotions contain our primal voice (e.g. babies cry to communicate needs). But if our family only had a dominating parent's voice, we would create ways (even self-damaging ones) to suppress our voices so as to ensure our survival.

As we grew and our worlds extended beyond our family, this was both liberating and terrifying. We were deprived of the nutrients needed for self-confidence to develop, how then could the world now ask us to show up confidently in our jobs, social interactions and romantic relationships? How could they ask us to speak with our voices and trust ourselves when we spent our entire lives denying these very processes from maturing? It is like asking someone to show up at an event wearing white when they have spent their entire lives wearing grey. They do not even know what white feels like on their bodies.

How do we heal?

1. become aware of your wound.

Feel the pain that your inner subjugated child has carried. Promise your inner child that you will end its captivity — for you (your adult self) will open the door for it to rage, cry, grieve, laugh and speak again. Whatever your inner child feels and tells you, you will not abandon, shame, reject and attack him/her. You can give your inner child the voice that their natural birthright deserved. You can be his/her new parent.

2. reconnect with yourself.

Ask yourself, “What do I feel, need and want?” Listen to your feelings and explore the underlying reasons behind them. For example, your exhaustion and resentment may be telling your that you need to also take care of yourself, and not just other people. Your anger may tell you that you are doing more than your fair share of work at home or at the office.

3. ask for what you need.

Start with some specific needs that others may be able to assist with. For example, you could say to your spouse, “I love to connect with you. At the same time, I often feel very tired as I struggle to manage the children and housework after a long day of work. Do you think you can help me out with the dishes?”

Remember that even if the other party is unable to assist you, you would have met your most important need – that of having a voice – when you speak up for yourself.

4. tolerate emotional backlash when you speak up for yourself

Most of us suppressed our voices because somewhere in us, we instinctively felt that our voice was a threat — a threat to receiving love, approval, affection and consequently, our self-worth. As a child, it was a no-brainer. Of course, we would surrender our voices if it meant losing our relational oxygen. Keep us in a cage and visit us with "love". Children would take that over running free and alone. 

But as we grew, the consequences of our cages became unbearable. To set ourselves free and speak up, we must be prepared that we will face the very monsters that we have spent our entire childhood running away from. Are you afraid of being called selfish? You will be called that. Are you afraid of guilt-trips? You will receive that. Why?

People who have not done their own healing work are spiritually blind in varying degrees. They will not be able to see you for all that you are. Their limited sight only allows them to view you as an object in relation to their own comfort and pleasure. To speak up would be to separate yourself from them. You would be saying, "I am not your object. I am an independent human being with my own opinions, values, needs, wants and goals." Asserting your independence would cause separation anxiety — the key is to tolerate this.

Remind your inner child that it is absolutely normal that he/she would feel terrified. Cry with your inner child for the times he/she contorted themselves to fit into cages just to be partially seen. Tell him/her that any difficult emotion you now experience is worth ending his/her captivity for. Over time, the anxiety, guilt, shame and self-doubt will reduce in intensity and frequency. New emotions of courage, self-love and self-gratitude will arise. This is the new world you will lead your inner child into. Your inner child will run freely here — this time, not alone, for you will be here.

If you find it difficult to stand up for yourself and speak up, please reach out for help with one of our psychologists or counsellors to support your healing. Your voice matters.  

TWO FUNDAMENTALS OF ANY HEALTHY RELATIONSHIP

By: Kavitha Dorairaj


As human beings, we are social beings. Romantic relationships, friendships and work relationships are all important to a life worth living. When these relationships are not healthy or strong, there may be adverse effects to our mental health. In fact, in my practice, I have noticed that many of the challenges that my clients face are related to relationships. Below, I have listed two fundamental ways to build, maintain and improve healthy relationships. I have also included a small exercise you can complete on your own to begin the path to healthy relationships.

1. Pay attention and interest

This is the most basic building block for every kind of relationship. Being present and showing interest in the other person is fundamental. This is not new information as we know this to be true at an intuitive level. In fact, I would go so far as to say that we already know how to do this and have done it at different points in our lives.

We have all paid attention and shown interest when we are consciously trying to build a relationship. Think about first dates or job interviews or when you are listening to your niece or nephew tell you about a character on Paw Patrol for the 10th time that day. All these scenarios have a few characteristics in common.

  • Facing the person and giving them appropriate eye contact
  • Nodding and changing facial expressions to suit the context
    • e.g. smile for positive statements and look concerned for something distressing
  • No multi-tasking
    • i.e. put down the phone
  • Verbally reflect to show that you understand
    • This could be in the form of “parroting” or repeating back what the person has said. Or being sensitive to non-verbal clues to understand what the person is not
  • Acting interested
    • This demonstrates respect for the other person and what they are trying to communicate, even if you may not be excited about the topic

Practice Makes Progress: This week, in one of your relationships, commit to facing the person and making appropriate eye contact when they speak. This might mean that you turn your chair away from your computer to face them, or put down your phone, or sit down to match their eye level when interacting with them.

2. Be respectful

It can be said that respect is the cornerstone of every healthy relationship. In Aretha Franklin’s famous song, it is all she asks for from her partner. Respect in any relationship refers to treating the other person as an equal, as a human being. If there is mutual respect, it allows for openness, validation, acceptance and trust. Respect in a healthy relationship looks like 

  • Valuing the other person’s opinions even if you might not agree with them
    • “Given who you are as a person, I understand where you are coming from”
  • Loyalty to your shared values and dreams
    • the opposite of this would be betrayal. In romantic relationships, this could be sexual in nature or siding one’s parents over your partner. In friendships or work relationships, this could look like passive aggressive behaviour, not putting in effort, or even sabotage.
  • Supporting the other person’s interests and goals
  • Honouring each other’s boundaries
    • This might mean giving space or not teasing them about something they are sensitive about.
  • Fighting “fair” (not trying to “one up” the other)
    • This refers to not doing something worse to demonstrate how hurt you are or to prove a point
  • Acknowledging the “kernel of truth” behind what the other person says or does
    • Seeing and understanding why they may say or do something.
  • Knowing when to make a point and when to keep mum
  • Build trust by doing what you say you’ll do

Practice Makes Progress: This week, do at least one thing that will build trust in a relationship. In any relationship, this could be offering to do something that would be meaningful to the other person and then doing it.

Keep these two fundamentals for healthy relationships at the back of your mind and put them into practice as often as you can. 

COPING WITH UNCERTAINTY

By: Hui Wen Tong

The recent outbreak of the new coronavirus, 2019-nCoV, has everyone on high alert. While we have faced pandemics such as the swine flu (H1N1) and the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) before, this new coronavirus seems to have shaken the world as it is thought to be able to spread before symptoms show up in an infected individual. 

Not knowing what is going to happen is scary, and it can make us feel like we are being thrown into quicksand. As curious humans, we also often seek to understand and to control in order to feel safe. When we are hit with an unknown unexpectedly, our innate survival alarm bells start to ring.

Amid this outbreak, with uncertainty looming over us, it is almost inevitable that we feel in danger and this feeds our worry and anxiety. Yes, it is paramount to be vigilant at times like this, but we also need to be aware of a potential compulsion in us to wash our hands again and again every ten minutes just to make sure they are clean and that we are safe as this may put us at risk of being unable to deal with uncertainties that are very much part of life. When we are unable to cope with the unpredictability life throws at us, we are also more inclined to feel defeated and depressed. 

Considering the nature of all things, and all the seemingly impossible possibilities, nothing is 100% absolute, and in this case, there is no guarantee how this virus outbreak could pan out. 

“What can we do then?”

This question reminds me of a quote from one of my favourite books, Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie:

“Don’t cling to things because everything is impermanent.”

Instead of clinging on to the feelings of helplessness during this difficult time, we need to trust the nature of ephemerality of such events. Just as we have endured previous plagues, this too shall pass.

Yes, it is hard not to give in to how we feel given that one of the main functions of our feelings is to help us detect danger and survive, but how we respond to fear plays an essential role in our mental health.  An inability to cope with the fear of the unknown can make us feel anxious and helpless, and before we become aware of it, we start catastrophising the situation with averse and unhelpful negative thoughts which constantly having a field day in our minds. It is even expounded that the fear of the unknown is the fundamental component of all anxiety disorders (Carleton, 2016). 

In cognitive behavioural therapy, we encourage clients to manage their intolerance to uncertainties by recognising and accepting that some things are just not in our area of control. While we cannot control the direction the wind is blowing and the evolution of the coronavirus, we could practise control and responsibility over our choices. We can choose to see a doctor when we are feeling unwell or have more servings of vegetables and fruits in our diet or we can watch comedies all day long and have a good laugh. 

If you feel that you need support and a listening ear, please feel free to contact us at Admin@Elephant.com.sg 

 2nd February 2020

TIPS ON HOW TO TACKLE PROCRASTINATION

By: Adriana Giotta

How many times have we heard ourselves or other people say things like: “I haven’t got time”, or: “I am too busy”, or: “Oh… I am just lazy”, or “I have got plenty time!” or: “this assignment is just too difficult”? We can easily find the most creative and brilliant excuses when it comes to avoiding certain tasks. Such an avoidance is what, in jargon, we, psychologists, call procrastination.

What is procrastination?

Procrastination is a coping behaviour characterised by the action of delaying or postponing emotionally triggering tasks, despite their relevance or burning deadlines. Its function is to avoid uncomfortable feelings underpinned by negative core beliefs.

In other words, people procrastinate due to their inability to regulate negative feelings around a – triggering – task (Fuschia, 2016), therefore effectively delaying the time to deal with uncomfortable feelings – such as shame, fear of failure, boredom, fear of being punished for being “imperfect”, fear of exposing oneself and being “found out” as a fraud/impostor – all driven by underpinning learned beliefs about oneself and/or trapped memories formed within the context of past experiences and conditioning.

Taking our inspiration from the start of the Lunar New Year and new decade, let us make sense of this disempowering pattern of behaviour in greater detail and see how we can understand, tackle and transform it, with the goal of thriving and flourishing in our lives (Recommended reading: Procrastination, health and wellbeing by M. S. Fuschia).

The other face of perfectionism?

When we feel we can’t meet our internal – perhaps unrelenting or unrealistic – standards and expectations (generally an internal expectation to deliver perfection linked to some form of ideal self, possibly underpinned by shame of the real self thus the consequent drive to atone, fix and perfect oneself) we may avoid and procrastinate. In so doing, anxiety increases progressively and opportunities are often lost. This is why procrastination has also been understood as a self-harming behaviour in literature (Steel, 2012). 

The perfectionistic part can be reduced through self-compassion, self-acceptance, increased leisure time and activities, as well as by accepting that there is no such thing as perfection (Recommended reading: The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown).

Impulsiveness and lack of discipline

Procrastination could be underpinned by the inability to tolerate discomfort and frustration, to delay immediate or short-term gratification, to persevere and tolerate the boredom of undertaking mundane tasks. Such a habit can also lead to significant lost opportunities in life and may result from lack of competent guidance, limit setting, structure, holding and boundaries growing up or from the internalisation of maladaptive coping behaviours displayed by relevant others (e.g. parents/caregivers) during the developmental age.

The lack of a regular, gentle routine and compassionate self-discipline, paired with a lack of tolerance to frustration and/or a wish for immediate gratification is a habit that can be transformed with perseverance and commitment by responding to one’s needs, in this case, the need for limit setting and progressive increases in one’s tolerance of discomfort and frustration (Recommended reading: Do/breathe/calm your mind. Find focus. Get stuff done by Michael Townsend Williams).

Fear of success?

A more hidden aspect underpinning procrastination may be an unconscious fear of success and the fear of other’s retaliation, or may be driven by an invisible loyalty to one – or more – relevant other/s (e.g. a parent/s or caregiver/s). If this is your case, be mindful and try to break through these invisible forces (tips below).

Transforming to thrive

Here are some helpful tips to tackle procrastination, whether driven by perfectionism, lack of self-discipline, low tolerance to frustration or other forces. Just choose the tips that you find helpful in your particular circumstances:

  1. Be a curious explorer of the negative feelings triggered by the task
  2. Remember these uncomfortable feelings will pass like clouds in the sky. Indeed they contain relevant information for you to know what is happening to you and assess what you actually need in the present moment
  3. Do the tasks you hate first – literally first thing in the morning – and get them out of the way
  4. Learn to tolerate discomfort and meet your challenges with total acceptance and kindness towards yourself
  5. Remind yourself it’s ok to make mistakes as from them, you can learn and grow 
  6. Remember you only have to produce work that’s good enough. It doesn’t have to be perfect!
  7. Reassure yourself that you are OK and lovable, regardless of your performance
  8. Remind yourself that your worthiness does not depend on your achievements
  9. Learn to discriminate between constructive and destructive criticism
  10. Be open to – and learn from – constructive criticism whilst not letting destructive criticism in
  11. Explore whether your fear is stemming from past experiences (e.g. being scolded or disapproved for a low grade) and, if so, do some tapping combined with positive affirmation (e.g. TFT Tapping http://tfttapping.com)
  12. Place 100% of your attention and effort on performing a given task, being fully absorbed. Each time you catch yourself drifting away, take a deep breath and gently bring your attention back to the task in hand fully absorbed. Repeat this again and again, as many times as you find yourself drifting away. This is a practice and it will get better through repetition and perseverance (albeit you will never be perfect!)
  13. By doing the task, you will soon discover it’s not as difficult or dreadful as you thought (what’s dreadful is the anxiety that progressively increases, whether consciously aware or not, as a result of procrastination itself, and the consequent guilt and lack of control/failure to achieve) so you will actually feel empowered
  14. If you slip (and procrastinate) – and you can indeed, as this is all new – forgive yourself and carry on. Keep going. When forging new habits, every baby step counts so don’t give up! 

Adriana Giotta is the founder of Elephant Therapy & Training and a senior Clinical Psychologist, integrative psychotherapist, executive in-depth and peak performance coach, writer and researcher. Sign up for Elephant’s weekly free tips emailing: Admin@Elephant.com.sg  

27th January 2020

COPING WITH TRAILING SPOUSE SYNDROME

By: Yolande Ferguson

Since entering expat life in Singapore I have become more aware of ‘Trailing Spouse Syndrome’.  A ‘trailing spouse’ is someone who has moved abroad with their spouse so the spouse can take up employment abroad.  The idea of a ‘trailing’ spouse is that this individual has followed their spouse for the spouse’s career and in effect has left behind their family, friends, social network and any other attachments to the home they have moved away from.  The affect of such a move, particularly for previous dual income or dual career couples, can be significant.  Some may already have been ambivalent about such a move but even for those who are enticed by the allure of adventure and excitement associated with living abroad, can often find the realities of expat life to be more challenging than anticipated.

Trailing Spouse Syndrome refers to someone experiencing feelings such as loneliness, isolation, loss of direction, loss of identity, being ‘homesick’, lack of worth and purpose.  This can be particularly daunting for individuals for whom such feelings are completely new, and they may find themselves seriously doubting whether expat life is worth it.  This can place pressure on relationships and family dynamics when children are involved, which in turn can also further exacerbate or add to trailing spouse symptoms.

There is a risk that a spouse struggling with this syndrome and who is feeling isolated without a support network of their own, may adopt less helpful ways to cope for example turning to alcohol and drinking too much, self-medicating, excessive spending beyond means or withdrawing and disengaging.  Such coping mechanisms can be a road towards depression.

If you are experiencing any symptoms of trailing spouse syndrome, it is important to know that 1) You are NOT ALONE! and 2) Many have gone through this and SURVIVED!  There are ways to move through this experience and come out the other side enjoying life abroad.  If you are experiencing any of the many symptoms associated with trailing spouse syndrome, here are some ideas and tips for coping:

  1. Joining a club or group of interest: It may be helpful to focus on finding groups or clubs that match your interests. While trying to settle in a new place finding connection with people who share your interests and/or who are like-minded may be comforting. Common interest may naturally lead to companionship and friendship evolving comfortably.
  2. Exercise: Exercise can be good for physical health and can also help counteract any possible weight gain that can come with lower mood and changing diet. Importantly, exercise also means that your body will release chemicals that can help improve mood and our mental health. Joining a gym or exercise class may also be a way of meeting new people and getting out into the community. Exercise need not feel daunting and can be as simple as going for a walk.  As well as the benefits noted above, this can be a way of exploring your new environment and finding new places of interest.
  3. Engaging social media: There are many forums on Facebook and other social sites where information is shared daily, or on which you can ask for recommendations, about every day things one needs to know when you move to a foreign country. From where to get a hair cut to best places to live and go out.  It can be hugely informative!  Social groups often have their own sites or forums advertised or referenced and may help you find a group to join.  Many expats have found meaningful friendship by being brave and joining one or more of the many groups or activities frequently advertised.  If you are looking for something in particular and ask, you may very well get some helpful recommendations or feedback.
  4. Finding time to be a couple: If you are a parent and have moved abroad with your spouse you may find yourself at a loss without practical childcare support from family and friends. You may miss going out together and ironically through times of such big change, it can be very important for your relationship, to have time together as a couple to reconnect.  If you do not employ full time help, there are numerous websites advertising childcare services and if you shop around it is possible to find someone you feel comfortable trusting with your child/ren.  You can ask neighbors for recommendations or there may also be expat teenagers around who could be enlisted for babysitting.
  5. Learning the language: If you are keen to ‘acclimatise’ and immerse yourself in your new environment, you may find going to a relevant foreign language course rather stimulating. Not only will it get you out, you will get to meet new people and feel intellectually stimulated which can help with confidence and developing a sense of purpose.  Learning the language may also improve job prospects as well as enable you to engage more with local people within the community, learn about local culture and feel more a part of the community. 
  6. Volunteering: Those struggling with symptoms of Trailing Spouse Syndrome often feel a lack of direction or purpose, which can affect self-worth and confidence. If you have the time and altruistic interest, becoming a volunteer can be a very positive use of your time. This can be a win-win situation as there are always charities and organisations in need of volunteers and your help can be hugely beneficial to them whilst the experience can also be stimulating, purposeful and enjoyable for you. 
  7. Self-awareness and seeking help: Times of significant change can be a trigger for feeling unsettled and unstable. Being aware of your own wellbeing and trying to recognise the signs of not being well can help you realise when you may need to try and make changes to have a happier life abroad.  If trying out tips or ideas such as the ones listed above does not prove helpful and you, your partner or you both as a couple; need further help to process the struggles and problems that come with Trailing Spouse Syndrome, please know that help is out there.  Depression or other problems affecting ability to cope is common within the expat community and seeking counselling can be of great support to get through such times. 

If you are experiencing symptoms of Trailing Spouse Syndrome and the struggle to cope feels beyond your emotional capacity, Elephant Therapy and Training have a range of therapists who can support individuals or couples struggling with Trailing Spouse Syndrome.  Please feel free to contact us for more information or consultation if this could benefit you.  I hope the ideas above may come as some sort of help for you in your journey. 

20th January 2020

HOW TO ENJOY SINFUL SNACKS DURING CNY?

A mindful eating exercise to discover the wisdom of “Eat Less, Enjoy More”

by: Joy Chen

Christmas and New Year is just over, Chinese New Year is around the corner. What first comes to your mind when you think about CNY? Besides visiting relatives and receiving (or giving) Ang Pao, what you can’t miss is the food. With all the sinful snacks…Bak Kua, pineapple tarts, mini spring rolls, and now comes popular salted egg fish skin and chips…how can you resist temptation to eat more? How to enjoy your favourite snacks without guilt? The secret is mindful eating.

Here are some tips for mindful eating:

1. Pause

If you are watching TV or talking to relatives, and realise your hand has automatically reached out to the food, or the food has almost reached your mouth, remember to pause and take a moment (a few seconds) to turn attention towards the snack, look at it mindfully, asking yourself: “is this what I really want to eat?”

Once you interrupt your automatic tendency to eat mindlessly, expand your awareness to glance at the whole range of snacks in front of you (I am sure there will be many), and see what options are available.

2. Exercise your power of choice

Exercise your power of choice by taking a slow breath, tuning into your body, and asking yourself: “which food is calling you right now?”, “what does my body feel like eating now?”, “sweet or savory?”. Pick the snack that is most appealing to you.

3. Eat mindfully

Even you’re busy watching TV or talking to relatives, you can still choose to spend a few moments with the food you’ve chosen and eat it mindfully with your five senses. You can choose to pay attention to all senses, or just some of the senses (if you got to quickly divert your attention to others during CNY gatherings):

  • See the food, investigating its shape, size, and color with curiosity, as if you are seeing it for the first time
  • Touch the food, feeling its texture (with hands and tongue)
  • Smell the food, fully enjoying the fragrance of the snack
  • Taste the food, taking small bits and chewing it slowly, and swallowing the food only when you’ve extracted every single flavor from the food, obvious or subtle.
  • Hear the food, paying attention to the sound when you eat or slowly chew the snack, e.g., crispy sound when you eat chips, and chewy sound when you eat Bah Kua.

4. Savour the experience

After you finish eating the first piece, take some time to savor the whole experience of eating that one piece of snack. Notice the aftertaste in the mouth, how satisfied your stomach and the whole body feels after taking in this small piece of your favorite snack. Also take some time to appreciate and express gratitude to whoever made the snack available to you.

5. Repeat steps 1-4 for your next bite (second piece of snack).

You may choose the same snack, or a different snack, and notice how it is same or different from your first bite (first piece of snack). Soon you may realise you reach peak satisfaction much faster than you expected, with much smaller amount of snacks. Your wisdom will also tell you when to stop, as with conscious awareness and power of choice, you are no longer munching food mindlessly.

Try this mindful eating exercise, discover the wisdom of “Eat Less, Enjoy More”.

Book recommendation:

<The Joy of Half a Cookie – using mindfulness to lose weight and end the struggle with food> by Jean Kristeller, PhD with Alisa Bowman

13th January 2020

SURVIVING CHINESE NEW YEAR

Tips for those who dread this occasion!

by: Dr Jean Cheng

Chinese New Year (CNY) is one of the biggest cultural celebrations in our country. Some people view it as a precious occasion to get together with people they care about. They consider it a time to bless the young and elderly with monetary blessing (“red packets”). They love the CNY decorations and communal festive atmosphere shared by most people in the country.

At the same time, there are also many who dread CNY. They feel forced to meet relatives that they do not have a personal relationship with. They find it meaningless to sit in front of a television and consume a wide range of CNY snacks, just so that they are present. They do not find the family motto of “showing face” personally inspiring. Underneath their dread, they desire deeper connection and meaningful conversations, which these annual meet-ups do not often provide. It is especially difficult when they also feel that they need to hide parts of themselves that may be less acceptable to their family culture. These include hiding their irritation when asked about their relationship status, children’s grades, etc. Donning a “smiling mask”, they censor their emotional responses. They are physically present, but feel incredibly disconnected with others and themselves.

If this describes your experience of CNY, Dr. Jean offers 4 suggestions that may help below:

Tip 1: Show up for visits in whatever way you wish to, while keeping your inner child/inner self in mind.
This means that you may wear a mask because that make you feel safe at the moment, or remove that mask because being authentic is your way of feeling even safer with yourself (even if not with the other). Either way, tell your inner child (i.e., the part of you that desires authenticity and connection) that you see him/her and they are important to you. Tell them that you value who they are and that YOU see them. Keep him/her in mind and speak to them privately to reassure them of their worth.

Tip 2: Excuse yourself from conversations that you do not wish to engage in.

This includes gossips, unkind discriminatory talk, complaints, etc. You are not obliged to listen to anything that you do not wish to. Give yourself permission to excuse yourself from anything that is not aligned with your values.

Tip 3: Decide which gatherings are important to attend and which you can practice saying no to.

Some people manage their parents’ expectations by going overseas. Another way of managing parental expectations is having a chat beforehand on who is a priority to visit (for your parents and yourself). Then, personally make your own decision on who you will visit and not visit this year. Communicate this clearly, calmly, and non-apologetically. For example, you could say, “I will only visit so and so this year. I know that this is not our usual family visiting schedule. This year, this will be my schedule to balance both the family values and my personal needs”. Remind yourself (i.e., your inner child) that you are worth protecting and bearing others’ possible displeasure for. Others are free to have an emotional reaction – you are not responsible for orchestrating the most comfortable emotional experience for them.

Tip 4: Create a new CNY tradition you find meaningful or enjoy for yourself.
This may include factoring in time for rest (e.g., a nap), for a hobby (e.g., recreational activity), and for meaningful connection (e.g., meeting someone you feel safe to be yourself with for a coffee).

As children we were powerless in needing to follow our parents to every relative’s home. But as adults, we don’t have to live with the same default powerlessness regarding CNY. If you’re finding it difficult to set some boundaries in order to protect your emotional health, consider seeking a professional clinical psychologist’s help to do so. Your wellbeing matters.

Finally, here are some books that Dr. Jean recommends as helpful for learning to speak to your inner child and setting boundaries:

  • Homecoming: Reclaiming and healing your inner child. (by John Bradshaw)
  • Affirmations for the Inner Child (by Rokelle Lerner)
  • Boundaries: When to say yes, how to say no to take control of your life (by Henry Cloud)

6th January 2020

3 WAYS TO SECRETLY MANAGE YOUR ANGER

Push Pause on the "React" to get to the "Respond"

by: Dr Kavitha Dorairaj

You feel your neck and ears get hot, you notice a change in your breathing and feel an urge to attack (verbally or physically). You are experiencing anger, frustration, indignation, annoyance, fury or even vengefulness. You or someone you are about may have been threatened or attacked or disrespected. An important goal may gave been blocked. Something may not have gone your way.

There are many reasons why we may frustrated or angry, however, we may not always be in a context to express it effectively. For example, at a work meeting or at a family gathering. The challenge in these contexts is that you may feel a rise in anger that is valid but your urge to react not be appropriate for the setting. Verbally attacking your boss or insensitive family member or spouse will feel good in the moment but will not be effective in the long-run. So, how do we Pause the React to get to the Respond? 

Here are three ways:

  1. Willing Hands

Willing Hands is a deceptively simple way to bring down feelings of anger. It is a Dialectical Behaviour Therapy skill with Eastern philosophical roots. The technique’s premise is simple: change your body to change your emotions.

How:

  • Face your palms up
  • Relax your fingers
  • Place your open hands on your lap or facing forwards by your side
  • Hold the position until you begin to notice a change in your emotions

The open position of your hands signals your mind to bring the anger down. It is simple yet works extremely effectively.

Dr Kavitha’s tip: Practice this skill with minor irritations when out and about so you are primed to use it when bigger feelings of anger arise.

  1. Dragon Breathing

Breathing techniques are very useful in managing emotions and distress. This particular technique can be helpful to quell the rage and “fire” within us when we feel like we might explode.

How:

  • Sit up straight
  • Breathe in through your nose (feel your chest expand)
  • Breathe out very slowly through your mouth while imagining fire or smoke being released (if appropriate, whisper a roar)
  • repeat 3-5 times

Dr Kavitha’s tip: Commit to a long exhale. This will activate the parasympathetic nervous system to trigger relaxation.

  1. Distract Yourself

You have probably used this skill many times when feeling distressed. For example, turning on some music, scrolling through social media or calling a friend. When we engage in a distraction, we disengage from the emotion. However, in a world where with many distractions, it is a skill to harness it effectively.

How:

  • Pick something appropriately distracting for the context you are in. For example, consciously doodling on a notepad when you are in a meeting; turning to a cousin to ask about their weekend plans when at a family gathering; flicking through social media if you are a passenger in a car.
  • Engage in the activity completely and mindfully.
  • Continue until you notice the physical feelings of anger begin to subside.

Dr Kavitha’s tip: Keep bringing your mind back to the activity if you notice it wandering back to the incident that made you angry. Full and complete engagement in the activity is the most effective.

The three skills listed above are effective in Pausing the React to help you Respond effectively. Remember, these skills are not designed to cease the anger. They are used to bring down the feelings of anger and manage the urges to do something you may later regret. Once you have hit Pause on the React, use your problem-solving and effective communication skills to Respond appropriately and effectively.