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Treating Trauma With Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR)

Treating Trauma With Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR)

Fear resulting from psychological trauma can be extremely deep-seated. The distress, feelings of helplessness and constant flashback of traumatic events can turn one’s world upside down, causing major problems with daily activities and quality of life. It may be easy for someone to say, “Well, why can’t you just get over it?” But in reality, we need to recognise that it is much easier said than done. In order to help people move past their traumatic experiences, researchers and psychologists have worked tirelessly, creating various therapeutic methods and tweaking them to achieve the optimal recovery outcome. In regards to the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), you may be familiar with an approach known as Dialectical Behavioural Therapy. In this article, we’ll be introducing you to an alternative psychotherapy technique, also known as Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR).

Developed by Francine Shapiro in 1987, EMDR therapy is an empirically validated treatment for trauma and other negative life experiences. While it is also increasingly applied for the treatment of other mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety or panic attacks, researchers have not found EMDR to be as effective as with trauma-related conditions. As its name suggests, EMDR isn’t all about talk therapy or medications. In a different vein from cognitive behavioural therapy, EMDR doesn’t focus on altering a client’s thought patterns or behaviours. Instead, it relies on one’s own rapid, rhythmic eye movements, allowing the brain to process memories and resume its natural healing process. 

What is the Basis of EMDR Therapy?

EMDR is fundamentally based on the Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) Model. A key tenet of this model is that the symptoms of PTSD are manifested due to memories that are dysfunctionally stored or not fully processed. Memories of disturbing experiences often string along negative emotions, thoughts, beliefs and even physical sensations that were associated with them at the time of occurrence. This can bring about a multitude of unpleasant symptoms that can be exceptionally detrimental to one’s mental health. 

When one is exposed to stress or trauma, the body’s automatic response would be to activate its Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). As an adaptive system, it controls our natural fight, flight or freeze instincts, which is critical in ensuring our survival. When the SNS is activated, the individual will undergo physical alterations such as increased heart and breathing rates, decreased blood flow to the digestive system and constricted blood vessels. In addition, hormone levels including those of adrenaline and cortisol will increase dramatically, causing hypervigilance. However, for someone who is under constant stress from traumatic flashbacks, the over-stimulation of the SNS will be greatly damaging to this person’s physical health. As such, EMDR therapy aims to process memories such that the experience is remembered, but the fight, flight or freeze response is eased. 

At this juncture, you may be wondering how clinician-directed eye movements could possibly alleviate trauma-induced stress. EMDR therapy involves guiding the client towards reliving triggering experiences in short phases while the clinician directs his eye movements. During the process, the client will be tasked to focus on trauma-related imagery and the relevant sensations. The clinician will then simultaneously move their finger across the client’s field of view, with each phase lasting approximately 20 to 30 seconds. This will then be repeated a couple of times. At some point, other forms of rhythmic left-right stimulation (for example, listening to tones that go back and forth between the left and right sides of your head) will also be incorporated into the therapeutic process. As distressing as it sounds, the process in fact allows for the vividness and emotional triggers of the memory to be reduced over time. When the client’s attention is diverted as they recall the traumatic event, this makes the exposure to negative thoughts and memories less upsetting, hence limiting a strong psychological response. After attending several EMDR therapy sessions (depending on the individual), the impact of the traumatic event is believed to be significantly reduced. 

How is EMDR Structured? 

Generally speaking, EMDR takes on an eight-phase approach. 

Stage 1: History Taking and Treatment Planning

For a start, the clinician will work hand-in-hand with the client to identify the traumatic experiences which require attention. Should the client have a problematic childhood, the initial stage of EMDR may focus on resolving childhood traumas before moving on to resolve adult onset stressors. Identifying targets for EMDR treatment is also crucial – this means looking further into the client’s past memories, their current emotional triggers, as well as what they hope to achieve by the end of the treatment phase.

Stage 2: Preparation

In this phase, the clinician introduces the client to a few emotion-coping strategies to ensure that the client is well able to manage their emotional distress whenever a trigger is brought up. It is important that the client is able to deal with overwhelming emotions even between EMDR sessions in daily life. The clinician may also familiarise the client with the eye movements or bilateral stimulations. 

Stage 3: Assessment

The clinician will then identify and assess the specific traumatic memories that need to be tackled. This also involves analysing the associated emotions and sensations triggered by the memories. 

Stages 4 to 7: Treatment Process

These intermediate stages focus on the process of desensitisation, installation, a body scan, and seeking closure. The client is asked to concentrate on the trauma-related imagery and memory while engaged in the directed eye movements or other bilateral stimulation. After each set of stimulation, the client will be asked to clear their mind and report what they feel, think, and the sensations they experience. Depending on the individual, the clinician may have the client refocus on the same memory, or move on to another. This process is repeated until the client reports no distress. 

Installation is where the clinician works with the client to increase the strength of positive cognition. This means focusing on the preferred positive beliefs, rather than negative ones. For example, an individual dealing with trauma arising from childhood domestic abuse may start off with a negative belief of “I am weak and powerless”. Installation aims to change that belief into one of “I am now in control.” Of course, EMDR does not force one to believe in something that is inappropriate or unsuitable for the situation. In the example brought up, allowing the client to realise that positive belief could mean encouraging them to take on self-defence training, or other skills that can provide them with a greater sense of security and control. 

A body scan is used in order to check for any residual somatic response that is linked to event-related tension or stress. Should any undesirable bodily sensations be present, the clinician will then target them specifically in subsequent sets. 

Stage 8: Evaluation

The next EMDR session begins with this phase. This stage is mainly for the re-evaluation of the client’s plight. More importantly, this step is to ensure that the necessary progress is made and to review the client’s psychological state. Further review will be carried out, and the relevant changes will be made to provide the optimal treatment effect. 

Although EMDR may be a relatively new technique as compared to other forms of therapy, it is nonetheless an extensively researched method proven to alleviate the stress symptoms of trauma survivors and other individuals who have had distressing life experiences. If you think that EMDR therapy is right for you, do seek help from a mental health professional.


References:

  1. https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/treatments/eye-movement-reprocessing (Accessed 18/03/2021)
  2. https://www.emdr.com/what-is-emdr/ (Accessed 18/03/2021)
  3. https://www.emdria.org/about-emdr-therapy/ (Accessed 19/03/2021)
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4467776/ (Accessed 20/03/2021)
  5. https://anxietyreleaseapp.com/what-is-bilateral-stimulation/ (Accessed 20/03/2021)
  6. https://hornsveldpsychologenpraktijk.files.wordpress.com/2019/01/full-8-phase-explanation.pdf (Accessed 20/03/2021)
The Science Behind Habit Formation : Change Your Habit, Change Your Mind

The Science Behind Habit Formation : Change Your Habit, Change Your Mind

Overspending your way into debt? Depending too much on sleeping pills or other sedatives? Snacking non-stop, even when you’re not hungry? Old habits die hard – as personal experience would reflect, we all know that it can be extremely challenging to break a habit, much so to maintain a good one. According to a rather appalling statistic, it was revealed that approximately 9 out of 10 individuals who have undergone heart bypass surgeries as a result of poor health were still unable to change their unhealthy lifestyle habits, even with their lives on the line. Whilst not all habits need to be broken, learning to overcome unproductive ones and replacing them with healthier habits can be vital towards a more fulfilling existence. 

As defined in the dictionary, a habit is “an acquired mode of behaviour that has become nearly or completely involuntary”. Some neuroscientists posit that the brain is fundamentally lazy, so where possible, it would program our thoughts, emotions and behaviours into circuits where they would be automated and turned into “shortcuts”. The process of habit formation essentially takes place in the basal ganglia, a group of structures embedded deep within the cerebral hemispheres of the brain. Apart from being responsible for motor control, emotions and behaviours, this region also plays a key role in reward and reinforcement, as well as addictive behaviours. 

What occurs in the brain when we try to form a new habit? Habit formation bases itself on neural pathways, involving countless nerve cells connected by extensions known as dendrites to form a larger network. As the frequency of a particular behaviour performed increases, so does the number of dendrites, and the connection between brain cells strengthen. Over time, neural pathways are developed and the messages sent through the same neural pathways are transmitted faster and faster, thus allowing for certain behaviours to become automated with enough repetition. In simpler terms, the more you perform a certain action, the more it gets wired into your brain. This adaptive quality of the brain is also known as neuroplasticity.

On the flip side, when you successfully quit a bad habit, synaptic pruning occurs. Synapses are small pockets of space between the neurons which allow for electrochemical messages to be sent through your neural pathways. Synaptic pruning can be likened to throwing out the old clothes in your closet to make space for new ones. When you no longer perform certain actions, these synaptic connections weaken. At the same time, more resources are allocated towards building the neural pathways of other important or prioritised habits, thereby strengthening them. This means that it is completely possible to rewire your brain to support healthier habits! 

 

How can I develop good habits?

It is not uncommon for people to be ambitious when it comes to seeking positive lifestyle changes. Especially when a new year begins, many of them would have prepared a long list of new year resolutions, such as wanting to make exercise a habit or to meditate on a daily basis. The problem is, how many of them would follow through with it? Enthusiasm is not the issue here, but commitment is. Keep in mind to take things one step at a time. In order to develop a good, sustainable habit, refrain from tiring yourself out even before it takes flight. It can be very effective to focus on just one clear goal at a time and to commit to it every day (or as per your ideal schedule), even if it means only doing it for 10 minutes each time. As you go along, you can then build on your habit according to your pace and your desired end goal. 

Another tip is to “stack” your habits. You probably already have a few strong daily habits that you never fail to execute, such as brewing a cup of morning coffee, taking a walk after lunch, or brushing your teeth at night. Leverage these strong connections and use them to your advantage to build on new ones. For example, if you’d like to pick up meditation, tell yourself, “After I brew my morning coffee, I’ll meditate for 5 minutes”. If you aim to cut down on screen time at night before bed for better sleep quality, tell yourself, “I’ll turn off my devices before I brush my teeth”. By creating a link between your new and old habits, you’ll find yourself more likely to stick to new changes and behaviour. 

Create frequent reminders of your goal if consistency is something you struggle with, or if you tend to be forgetful. Out of sight usually means out of mind, but that’s natural! You can easily put reminders on your calendars, set alarms on your mobile phones, or even have post-it notes around your house if you will. Sharing your goal with someone else can be an added source of motivation too. Be it a friend or a family member, working together with others who are also striving to pick up on the same habits will act as a catalyst and spur you on. If they aren’t keen on making the commitment, that’s fine too. Instead, let them serve as an accountability partner. Let them in on your goals and progress – when you are accountable to someone for doing what you said you aimed to do, you are more likely to stay committed.

Of course, identifying a goal is easy. But remember to stay mindful and have a clear understanding of what you want to achieve at the end of the day. Apart from asking yourself what you want to achieve, ask yourself how it will look like and how you will feel when you get to the end. Most importantly, remember to set your mind to your goal and take active steps towards it. Instead of merely browsing through tons of self-improvement posts or looking up “quick hacks” for golden tips on Google, focus on the actual tasks that need to be accomplished. It may be a rather mundane, time-tested process at first, but it will eventually bring success and satisfaction.


References:

  1. https://www.fastcompany.com/52717/change-or-die (Accessed 30/01/2021)
  2. https://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2017/11/20/how-neuroplasticity-can-help-you-get-rid-of-your-bad-habits_a_23283591/ (Accessed 30/01/2021
  3. https://healthtransformer.co/the-neuroscience-of-behavior-change-bcb567fa83c1 (Accessed 30/01/2021)
  4. https://www.themantic-education.com/ibpsych/2019/09/27/synaptic-pruning-and-neural-networks/ (Accessed 30/01/2021)
  5. https://medium.com/swlh/to-break-bad-habits-you-really-have-to-change-your-brain-the-neuroscience-of-change-da735de9afdf  (Accessed 30/01/2021)
Breaking Free from the Tentacles of Addiction as a Family Unit

Breaking Free from the Tentacles of Addiction as a Family Unit

Written by: Julianna Pang

Confronting the problem of addiction is almost always daunting and exhausting. The layers of complexities increase tenfold when the family system is also trying to preserve its stability and normal functioning despite the disruptions that addiction brings.

Family members are often exasperated that the usual admonishments of “how could you do this to…?”, “why can’t you see that you are hurting…?” or “how long do you think you can keep doing this…?” seem to bounce off the walls.  No amount of shaming, guilt-laying or threats seems to wake the affected person up to see the realities of the wreckage that has been inflicted on the family.

What is Addiction?

Fundamentally, this approach does not work due to a miscomprehension of what addiction is. Addiction is neither a moral issue nor is it a flawed character problem which can be corrected.

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine:

“Addiction is a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences. People with addiction use substances or engage in behaviours that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences.”

Addiction is a disease.  As a family member, it is important to recognise that “you did not cause the disease, you cannot cure it and you cannot control the outcome of the disease”.   The person affected needs to learn to manage their own recovery and family members need to learn effective responses towards the affected person to support the recovery of the family system.

Recovery is a life-long process that may and often include a series of relapses both on the part of the individual and on the family system.

How Does One Know When Addiction Strikes?

Symptoms of addiction are manifested by:

  • Compulsion – an absolute and overpowering urge towards substance use or behaviour.
  • Craving – an increase in usage and/or frequency to a point of necessity for survival.
  • Control – loss of ability to manage manner of use, to reduce or to stop.
  • Consequences – the use or behaviour continues despite relationship, work, school, legal and money problems.
How can Family Members get the Affected Person into Treatment?

The first step to bringing the affected person towards professional help can either motivate or unsettle the recovery process.

As professional therapists working in this field, we witnessed many instances where one of the first steps by family members would be to call the authorities.  This is a painful first step that often inflicts hurt on both the affected person and the family member.  The outcome could turn out to be a sharp wedge between family members which may take a long time for repair and reconciliation. Many a time, the affected person may attempt to run and hide, taking them even further away from the treatment help that they need.

The next most common first step is an intervention. This is a meeting convened to confront the person affected and interventionists may include family members, close friends and/or religious leaders.  Each member shares with the person about their observations of specific negative behaviours and how these behaviours have affected them.  The group then presents options to the target person and encourage the entry into rehab immediately.

An intervention is a double-edged sword. When done well, members expressed their love and care for the target person, while maintaining an uncompromising position about the person’s problem with addiction and need for treatment.  When executed poorly, the target person receives a shock and feels a deep sense of betrayal from the group. The feelings of bitterness and resentment towards the whole intervention experience wipe out the initial good intentions. This, in turn, makes for poor motivation to accept and adhere to treatment. Trust towards the family system is broken which would likely take a long time to mend.

A 3rd strategy is known as CRAFT – which advocates for positive communication, positive reinforcement and allowing for natural consequences to happen. This approach takes a longer time to implement and focus on identifying actions by the affected person which are helpful towards recovery, expressing empathy towards the person’s suffering and offering to work with the person to find a solution.  An example of positive reinforcement could be to engage the person in activities within the family system that the person still values. The 3rd aspect is counter-intuitive; to allow the person to bear the natural consequences of their actions, instead of covering up for them or trying to make everything “all right”.  In so doing, the realities of the consequences of the addiction is experienced fully by the affected person which can create the turning point to seek treatment.

Is the Family’s Job Done When They Ship Off the Affected Person?

Addiction is a life-long recovery process and parallel to the individual’s recovery is the family system’s rebalancing process.

In broad terms, the individual’s stages of recovery are as follows:

  • Withdrawal – Detoxing
  • Honeymoon – Addiction Stops
  • The Wall – Protracted Abstinence
  • Adjustment – Working through Underlying Issues
  • Resolution – Acceptance of lifelong Abstinence
What is the Parallel Journey for the Family System?
Pre-treatment and Withdrawal

At the initial stage, the affected person will test the limits of the system by engineering and re-engineering their way to get to their addiction.  A person in active addiction is usually not rational, nor are they conscious of the effect of their actions on others.  There may be many false promises made in order to get to the addiction or manipulation of family system dynamics to garner support for their continued addiction.

Here are a few pointers that family members can keep in mind at this stage:

  • Get an Accurate Understanding of Addiction.
  • Create Unison in the Family Approach.
  • Relinquish Control of Outcome of Addiction.
  • Self-Care and Emotional Coping for Shame, Anger and Blame.
  • Learn How to set and Communicate Boundaries.
  • Find Family Support Groups to Brainstorm Strategies – Link to Visions Programme.
Honeymoon

During this stage, the affected person would have stopped the active addiction. The person reverts to their pre-addiction persona that the family was used to and readily embraced.  There is a delusion that all is victorious, and the person is cured.  Some people would even deny that there was ever an addiction in the first place.  Family members and individual alike start to make wonderful plans for a new future, unaware of the undercurrent of the recovering person’s vulnerabilities to triggers, anxieties, and relapses.

Here are a few pointers that family members can keep in mind at this stage:

  • Maintain Boundaries.
  • Adjust Family Life to Reduce Triggers.
  • Rebuild Trust and Learn To Discern Through Observations.
  • Learn About Adjustment Process and Strategies with Other Families – Link to Visions Programme.
The Wall

By the time the recovering person reaches this stage, his/her body is trying very hard to stabilise and find its new baseline. The struggle without their past go-to coping mechanism manifests in depression, irritability, and inability to find pleasure in the usual activities.   Family members may take things personally when their overtures to reintegrate the person into their lives are rejected. Some family members may start to prefer the “happy” person who was previously addicted or start being highly suspicious that the person has relapsed.

Here are a few pointers that family members can keep in mind at this stage:

  • Maintain Unison in The Family Approach.
  • Learn Emotional Coping to Rejection, Anxieties and Tolerance for Uncertainty.
  • Share and Validate Family Experiences with Other Families – Link to Visions Programme.
Adjustment

When the recovery process reaches this stage, both the individual and the family have crossed some major milestones (It is typical that some 6 months would have passed from the start of journey.).  The most daunting challenges are now bubbling up in the horizon.  Family relationships, lifestyles and values may be examined at a fundamental level and permanent changes may need to be made for recovery to be sustainable over the long haul.  Past hurt and traumatic experiences would need to be resolved for both individual and family to move forward to a new way of interaction.

Here are a few pointers that family members can keep in mind at this stage:

  • Commit to Family Approach Without Complacency.
  • Address the Emotional Well-Being of Other Neglected Members.
  • Learn Emotional Coping on Forgiveness, Grieving, Acceptance and Letting Go.
  • Learn Goal Setting and Strategies to Create a New Family Life Experience with Other Families – Link to Visions Programme.
Resolution

The last stage is not a phase per-se but a continual process for the lifetime of the individual and for the family system that has learnt and grown alongside him/her.  The individual is practicing commitment to his/her sober life free from addiction every single day.  The family system has likely been permanently transformed by the recovery process and is now reintegrating the member into its new dynamics.

Here are a few pointers that family members can keep in mind at this stage:

  • Embrace the New Family System, Lifestyle, Values and Norms.
  • Celebrate Successes and All Learning Experiences as A Family Unit.
  • Offer to Be a Supportive Family System to Other Families – Link to Visions Programme.
Visions of Recovery

This article is not intended to be exhaustive in addressing all aspects of family system disruptions when addiction strikes.  Working with professional therapists at any point along the recovery pathway helps manage the diverse challenges and provide a sounding board to create more effective strategies.  The emotional and structural resilience of the family system and its members ultimately creates the critical strength to sustain all members in this marathon towards sobriety.

Write to visions@promises.com.sg to get in touch with an addictions specialist or for more resources and information, click on the relevant links:

 


  1. Asam.org. 2021. ASAM Definition of Addiction. Available at: https://www.asam.org/Quality-Science/definition-of-addiction
  2. Brown, R., Brown, M. and Brown, P., 2014. Families and addiction. Create Space Independent Publishing Platform. USA.

  3. This is notwithstanding a citizen’s duty to alert authorities in times of criminal activity. It is a consideration of how the process can be better executed.

  4. Hilary S. Connery. and Thomas F. Harrison., n.d. The Complete Family Guide to Addiction: Everything You Need to Know Now to Help Your Loved One and Yourself. The Guilford Press. London.

  5. Hilary S. Connery. and Thomas F. Harrison., n.d. The Complete Family Guide to Addiction: Everything You Need to Know Now to Help Your Loved One and Yourself. The Guilford Press. London.

  6. The exception to the rule is where the person is unsafe or at risk of seriously hurting themselves.

  7. Brown, R., Brown, M. and Brown, P., 2014. Families and addiction. Create Space Independent Publishing Platform. USA.

The Power of Happiness

The Power of Happiness

A sad soul can kill you quicker, far quicker, than a germ,” John Steinbeck, an American author, once wrote. True enough, regardless of the stage of life we’re in, everyone strives to seek gratification and success – and to many, that is what makes life worth living for. People often perceive happiness as the achievement of certain materialistic accomplishments (such as a nice house, a big salary, career advancement, etc). Work hard, become successful, earn lots of money, then you’ll be happy. At least, that’s how most of us think about happiness, with such a notion instilled upon us from young. Indeed, these achievements can make us feel great and happy at first, but the thrill often doesn’t last very long. The good news, however, is that researchers in the field of positive psychology have found that we can genuinely increase our happiness and overall satisfaction with life, and all that it takes is just an inner change of perspective and attitude. Happiness shouldn’t be seen as an end goal or a destination, but rather as a continuing practice. 

Importance of being happy in the workplace

According to studies conducted, researchers posit that happiness can in fact precede success, thereby highlighting its desirability. At the workplace, the optimism showcased by happy people often translates into increased self-confidence, as well as better task performance. Especially in the case of business transactions, happy people are more likely to make negotiations palatable and successful, as compared to their unhappy counterparts. In a sense, positive emotions brought to the table may just be the spoonful of sugar needed to nudge them towards mutually beneficial solutions and concessions. 

A person with a high positive affect is more likely to be associated with additional desirable traits as well. Subconsciously, people around him (both colleagues and superiors) may endow him with traits such as stronger job performance and social skills, since he already possesses a socially desirable trait (i.e happiness). In other words, a halo effect is created, where a favourable impression in one area influences opinion in another area. Happy people are also known to be more productive. They are less likely to skip work habitually, procrastinate or shirk their responsibilities. Due to this, happy people are likely to receive more encouraging peer and supervisor evaluations, hence further increasing their chances of success. 

In reality, the pressures of contemporary society can be enormous, and therefore it is completely understandable that the average person is inclined to live life in a mere “survival mode”. As with many other notions, there is no universal prescription for attaining total, authentic happiness. However, there are certain things we can take note of to make us happier. 

Social relationships 

One of the most important things that matters in life is relationships. Human beings are inherently social creatures, and forming deep meaningful connections with the people around us can greatly fulfil our basic need for belonging and social intimacy. Investing sufficient time and energy with family members, friends and romantic partners can hence be a central component of finding happiness. However, we also need to pay attention to the type of friendships we form. Finding the right birds to flock with can also be a stepping stone towards a greater sense of happiness. How we look for happiness may depend on where we look for it – and the key lies in surrounding yourself with happy people. Some of us may be biologically predisposed or prone to depression, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you are predestined to a life of negativity. Akin to how one’s bad mood may rub off on another, one’s sunny disposition can be contagious too. The emotional closeness you feel with these happy people and the effect it has on you has a positive correlation. Social contagion allows for positive emotions to pulse through social networks – just like a chain reaction – and interacting with happy people often will greatly boost your sense of well-being. 

Positive thinking

Our next tip may come off as rather cliché, but we cannot stress this enough. One of the most important steps to attaining happiness is to count your blessings and to express gratitude. Many a time, individuals would be left with feelings of dissatisfaction and wanting more, even after they have achieved their goals. However, regardless of how small your achievements may seem compared to others, it is essential that you remember to thank yourself for the effort you put in and for what you have. Express your gratitude to the people around you who have been ever so supportive, and while you make their day, you’ll make yours too.

Do good, feel good

Have you ever noticed that when you do something good, you feel happy? Studies have shown that helping others, along with other types of social interaction, is associated with positive mental  outcomes. To start small, you might want to offer help around the house, or to help your friends whenever you deem fit. Why would helping make you happy? It would seem that trading favours are important innate adaptive goals. By helping others, happiness is the psychological reward obtained upon the successful solving of an adaptive problem. Performing such acts of kindness  – even to strangers – boosts happiness and well-being. Increasing happiness all around you would undoubtedly make you a happier individual, and such a virtuous cycle is worth fostering.

By increasing your long-term happiness, you’ll find yourself achieving success with greater ease. A note of caution though, is to remember that this doesn’t mean avoiding negative emotions that may arise throughout your life. Happiness and inner peace can come from embracing the bad, and tackling any negative emotions head on. Whenever you find yourself struggling, don’t be afraid to turn to your support networks or a mental health professional. 


References:

  1. Walsh LC, Boehm JK, Lyubomirsky S., Does Happiness Promote Career Success? Revisiting the Evidence. Journal of Career Assessment. 2018;26(2):199-219. doi:10.1177/1069072717751441 (Accessed 03/01/2020)
  2. https://www.businessinsider.com/happiness-doesnt-follow-success-its-the-other-way-2019-5 (Accessed 03/01/2020)
  3. https://hms.harvard.edu/magazine/science-emotion/contagion-happiness (Accessed 03/01/2020)
  4. Oliver Scott Curry, Lee A. Rowland, Caspar J. Van Lissa, Sally Zlotowitz, John McAlaney, Harvey Whitehouse., Happy to help? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of performing acts of kindness on the well-being of the actor, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 76, 2018, Pages 320-329,ISSN 0022-1031, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2018.02.014. (Accessed 03/01/2020)

Photo by krakenimages on Unsplash

 

 

Stress – What It Really Is & How To Manage It.

Stress – What It Really Is & How To Manage It.

Stress is something we can never escape from, be it good (eustress) or bad (distress). From the small, tedious daily hassles to long-term occurrences that weigh on your mind, stress can impact us in different ways, and the experience varies for everyone. Just as how different individuals have differing levels of pain tolerance, the same applies for stress.

Stress comes in many forms, but they can be largely categorised under ‘environmental’ (e.g noise), ‘social’ (e.g family demands, friendship conflicts), ‘physiological’ (e.g sleep disturbance) and ‘cognitive’ stressors (e.g low self-esteem, high expectations of oneself). While a certain level of stress may be necessary to provide motivation and encourage positive growth, excessive and unhealthy levels of stress especially in the long-term may cause undesirable mental and physical health consequences:

Psychological Impacts Physical Impacts
Mood swings Disrupted sleep patterns / insomnia
Undue anxiety or fear Hyperventilating
Difficulty concentrating / forgetfulness High blood pressure
Disorientation Nervous behaviours such as teeth grinding or nail biting
Increased frustration and irritability Nausea
A racing mind / constant worrying Poor eating / digestive upsets
Poor decision-making processes Increased heart rate / rapid breathing
Low self-esteem Sweating / sweaty palms
Sense of helplessness Muscle tension
Apathy Restlessness / fatigue

 

When stress becomes chronic, physical health consequences can definitely worsen, and an individual may also develop depression or anxiety disorders. As such, while there is no one-size-fits-all, this article aims to provide useful tips and suggestions on how you can better manage your stress levels, and to avoid being overwhelmed and giving in to chronic stress.

To guide us along, there are two main types of stress-coping mechanisms – ‘Problem-focused’ and ‘Emotion-focused’ coping. These are possibly the most basic approaches to healthy stress-coping, and aim to reduce or eliminate the causes of stress, apart from merely alleviating its symptoms. 

Problem-focused Coping

Problem-focused coping is where action is taken to clarify and resolve the stressor directly, and hence addresses the demands of a given situation. An example of this method of coping is when a student who is worried over an upcoming examination copes by attending more review sessions and reading up on her course materials diligently. This serves to reduce her anxiety and increase her confidence to excel in her examination. A problem-focused mechanism is primarily used when one appraises a stressor to be within his capacity to change, and hence makes the appropriate adjustments and alterations to cope with the impending demands. As such, it is also important to learn how to identify the root cause of the direct stressor before responding to it accordingly. 

Emotion-focused Coping

Emotion-focused coping may be a concept that you find familiar. Unlike problem-focused coping, emotion-focused coping involves making efforts to regulate your emotional response to a stressor. This means identifying your feelings, focusing and working through them. According to Folkman and Lazarus (1980), such a mechanism can be extremely helpful especially when you need to work through your emotions before you can think clearly enough to act rationally. Emotion-focused coping can be done in various forms such as:

  • Venting or talking to a friend / close oneWhenever you feel stressed or overwhelmed, bottling up may not be the best way around. Talking to others about what’s bothering you could bring great relief, and perhaps they could also provide you with the constructive feedback or encouragement that you need.  Physical affection, such as hand-holding and hugs can help combat stress too. Just as how others may come to you whenever they need support, don’t be afraid to lean into your social circle and find comfort in your friends. Of course, do also remember to be mindful of your friends’ emotions and needs while you’re busy venting!

 

  • Journaling
    In this digital age, perhaps Journaling may come across as a rather old-fashioned way of coping with your emotions. Many a time, people would rather distract themselves and destress by playing mobile games or browsing through social media as and when they are feeling stressed. Although those can be a possible methods of destressing, the beauty of journaling shines through when you give yourself some time to reflect and balance yourself by creating your very own safe space. Writing in a journal can help you clear your mind by releasing any pent-up feelings, to let go of negative thoughts, as well as to enhance your self-awareness as you write about your progress.

 

  • Meditation
    Practising mindful meditation is an effective strategy to combat stress, for it can help you eliminate the stream of jumbled thoughts that are contributing to your heightened stress levels. Studies have shown that training in mindfulness can potentially increase your awareness of your thoughts, emotions, and maladaptive ways of responding to stress, therefore allowing one to cope with stress in a healthier and more effective way (Bishop et al, 2004, in Shapiro et al, 2005). With guided meditations that can easily be found online, all you need to do is to set aside some time for some mental self-care.

 

  • Reframing the situation and finding meaning in it
    When we are stressed, we often only focus on the bad and how much we dread a particular situation. However, it can be helpful to look on the bright side and to find the benefit and meaning in a stressful event. By doing so, we can make these experiences a little more tolerable, as well as to grow and build resilience as we go along.

 

Other Means of Coping with Stress

Last but not least, pay more attention to your diet and nutrition intake. For some of you, caffeine is a must-have on a daily basis, with some people having four to five cups of coffee per day. However, when you combine stress with the artificial boost in stress hormones from caffeine, this creates a significantly compounded effect. While caffeine can be particularly effective in providing you with the short-term energy boost and increased alertness, it can potentially heighten stress levels in the long-term. As such, it is always good to consume it in moderation and to be mindful of your caffeine intake. In addition, you may want to consume foods rich in vitamin B, which can help to reduce stress responses in your body.  

As previously mentioned, everyone experiences life events in their own unique way, and a strategy that works for you may not for others. With that said, we hope this article has helped you to understand the various ways to combat stress better, and that you find the strategy best suited for you. However, if you ever find yourself struggling to cope with stressful life events, do reach out to one of our psychotherapists or counsellors for help.


References:

  1. Zimbardo, P. G., Johnson, R. L., & McCann, V. (2017). Psychology: Core Concepts (8th ed.). Pearson. (Accessed 25/11/2020)
  2. Shapiro, S.L., Astin, J.A., Bishop, S.R., & Cordova, M. (2005). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for health care professionals: results from a randomised trial. International Journal of Stress Management, 12 (2), 164-176. (Accessed 25/11/2020)
  3. https://dictionary.apa.org/problem-focused-coping (Accessed 25/11/2020)
  4. Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash