Archive for September, 2009

yoga-by-the-beachIn this 4th and final installment (at least for now) in the series ‘the thing about stress’, I’ll finally be writing about how to manage stress. If you remember, in part I of this series, I mentioned that stress management is not exactly my favourite topic also because when it comes to managing stress, I think many students do know what would be ‘good for them’ i.e. exercise, sleep well, eat well, healthy social network, plan your time well etc. So I’m in a do and I’m doomed, don’t and I’m still doomed situation because if I go into the above, I risk sounding like a pathetic broken record but if I don’t, then what is left for me to talk about? So as I thoughtfully chewed on my preserved plums and considered the situation, I decided that there are articles out there which talks about exercise, relaxation and other stress managment techniques which would make good reads for those who want to know more about these areas. So click on the links below and see how you can translate it into something ‘doable’ for yourselves. 🙂

Let’s face it. A’levels is 6 weeks away, promos 2 weeks. Exercise? No time. Relaxation techniques? Doesn’t work. Do something fun? Not allowed. Study plan? Defunct. Talk to friends? They’re too busy. Meditate? Don’t know how to. These are some of the things students have been telling me when they come in saying they’re terribly stressed but nothing is helping.  Sometimes I ask students what usually helps when you’re feeling stressed? Often students will give an emphatic ‘nothing!!’ to that question but really if you sit yourself down I think you’d find that there’s something. The problem though is sometimes we don’t give ourselves the permission to do that ‘something’ that helps us because we think that the ONLY thing we should be doing is studying and everything else is only going to be taking away time from doing that ONE thing we should be doing which is studying because we absolutely have NO time left and if we don’t study EVERY single waking moment we have now we are going to screw up our lives for ETERNITY and we’re all going to end up selling chicken rice! chicken riceFor the record, the “selling chicken rice” part was not my original concoction because I don’t have anything against chicken rice sellers but it was something a student told me she’s afraid she would end up doing if she kept failing. I asked,’what’s wrong with selling chicken rice?’ and she said, ‘nothing. Except I don’t even know how to make chicken rice!’

In any case, my point is that I don’t think we need to be geniuses to figure out what the problem is with that line of reasoning, that we must absolutely not do anything else apart from studying during this period. Our brains are simply not wired to keep going on and on to perpetuity without a break or an alternative form of stimulation. It has a breaking point. So give yourself the permission to do that ONE thing which you know would help with your stress even if it’s just for 15 minutes. Sometimes that’s all you need.

Also, ask yourself what do you need from the people around you? I’ve learned that if I need something from someone and I’m not getting it, then I ask for it. So if my teacher criticizes my essay and says it lacks a certain amount of substance, I’ll say ‘thanks for the feedback. I understand. But could you also tell me what I did that was good?’ Of course we all wish that this kind of thing would be ‘automatic’, that people would give us a fair and balanced critique that includes the good and the bad. But sometimes when that doesn’t happen, we can ask for it and it’s not too ‘thick-skinned’ or ‘shameless’ to do so. Bearing the weight of a tilted sense of self can be very stressful. Celebrating our strengths and successes, however minute, can go some ways in helping us with our stress.

I hope this series and reading the accompanying articles in the links has helped with your stress management. It was not possible for me to cover every aspect of stress management and I’ll try to build more into this series in future. But where it is now, I think it’s time to move on to the next topic before this blog becomes stale…haha. Let me know if you have any comments or stuff you’d like to see that is not here yet that would help towards managing your stress.

emergency telephoneIf you noticed, I’ve strayed away from stress management for awhile and included a new page on the blog titled resources with information on different organizations and helplines students can refer to  should they want/need to. It’s more bare than I’ll like it now but I’ll try to add to it in future.

Now some of you might be asking “eh counsellor, didn’t you read the Straits Times article that youths don’t like to call helplines? That it’s wimpy if not somewhat strange to be asking for advice from a total stranger?” (see link below to refer to article). Well, the short answer is that I did read the article and I don’t agree with some of the stuff the youths interviewed were saying. In fact I’m a little irritated (which probably comes through as you read this article) so perhaps this was an act of rebellion on my part to have an opportunity to state where I come from when it comes to helplines and counselling for that matter.

In the article (see link below) one of the youths said and I quote,

“seeking help from a stranger through helplines would be the last thing I would do, as I am not prepared to accept advice from people who do not understand my personality”

I think it’s an erroneous view of how helplines work and in that sense how counselling works for that matter. It’s true that there are some counsellors who go into counselling because they think they’re real good at dishing out advice to an advice-hungry world. But the fact is that counselling is really not about giving advice or telling you what you should or should not do. It’s true that sometimes I do state my opinion because students asked for it directly. To me though, it’s really about empathic presence and space, unconditional acceptance and positive regard. Perhaps I hold lofty beliefs that people can and do find answers for themselves if they are given a space in which they are facilitated to do so.

Another youth said and again I quote,

“I do not see the need for an outsider to manage my life and emotions. I also have an impression that counsellors tend to act too righteous and ‘neutral’. I am sure we have heard enough advice from parents and adults throughout our lives. At the age of 20, am I not mature enough to deal with my own life?”

To me, seeking help through helplines or counselling is not about maturity or immaturity when it comes to dealing with one’s own life. And it’s also not about relinquishing control or management of your life to someone else either.

Of course it would be ideal if we all have family and friends who can listen to us, support us and accept us no matter what issues we go to them with. We would all like that. But sometimes there is too much pain and confusion in our lives and it is sad when one is in such a position that he/she is unable to confide in anyone else in their lives. That is when helplines and counsellors come in. I had a student who walked in a couple of weeks ago and said, “I am in so much pain but when I ran over in my mind who I could go to who would listen to me, I could only think of you”. And I’ve never even met that student before. When I hear things like that, it’s not an ego-boost to me as much as it re-affirms why I’m doing what I’m doing. And I think it’s the same thing for the helplines.

I guess I’m being rather emphatic here with the usual humour sorely missing because I think of how I was a screwed-up teenager once and I badly needed to talk to someone; anyone. Not family because they wouldn’t listen without criticism. Not friends because they would laugh it off or they would at best look at me with a pained expression and I loathed sympathy. But I didn’t know who I could call. Helplines were not as readily available then and I couldn’t google for a solution (internet didn’t even exist in a big way then!). The only number I knew was 999 which incidentally I did dial once but put down rather quickly.

Today, it’s different. So go on, reach out for help if you need to. Afterall, isn’t learning to reach out for help one of the ways in managing stress?

Youths shun helplines

*image above used with permission from

exam-anxietyI get that question sometimes. Students who wander into the counselling room confused and anxious, wondering what’s going on and whether what they’re feeling is attributed to stress. On a surface level, it might seem a rather strange and unnecessary question. Afterall, isn’t stress quite obvious? But if we think about it further, it’s really a very valid question. The word stress is bandied around rather loosely today and along the way we forget what we’re talking about.

It is important to recognize what stress means to each of us individually because if we don’t recognise it in our own lives then we can’t even begin to talk about managing it. Take me for an example. I’m a self-confessed claustrophobic nut and crowded places totally stress me out. The most crowded place I was last at was ION at Orchard Road just a couple of months ago. IONShu Uemura was launching its flagship store at ION and had invited Yuji Asano (international chief make-up artist) here for live demonstrations and my friend Pauline was interpreting for him. I like Japanese artist anything (well except the Japanese manga artists I’ve met who turned out to be real dorks) so I went along.  It was not so bad at first and then the crowds started pouring in and my breath started becoming shallow, heart rate went up, I felt light-headed and had recurring thoughts that I can’t breathe in this crowd and I’m going to drop dead there and then right next to Shu Uemura’s wonderful collection of fake eyelashes.  And I’m not even exaggerating but my point is I’ve come to be acquainted with stress triggers (the things that stress me out) and with my own stress symptoms. I know that I tend to organise and pack up the place when I’m stressed. I also go on a junk-food-only diet when I’m stressed. So when I catch myself doing the above, I know that I need to do something about the stress levels like hitting the gym, getting out of the stress situation, take long walks, play the piano etc.

What about you? What are your stress triggers? When you’re stressed, what do you notice in terms of your physical, emotional and behavioural reactions? What thoughts go through your head? Some people get aches and pains and tension headaches (physical), some become moody and irritable or feel overwhelmed (emotional), some change their eating or sleeping habits or become anti-social (behavioural) and some can’t concentrate or worry incessantly (cognitive). Everyone’s limits and stress tolerance levels are different. Learning to recognise our own stress triggers and stress reactions is the first step towards managing it.

Here’s a good article to read if you want to find out more.

In the next part, I’ll write more on managing stress.

Curiosity compels me to find out more about stress and where it originates from. I mean, everything comes from somewhere. Apples from a tree, grapes from a vine (I only recently found out it didn’t come from a bush…I would never survive as a farmer). Where does stress come from? What’s its story? So I dug deep…

*warning: the beauty of history is in the eyes of the beholder. If you can’t stand it, scroll down and click on the link to an interesting article in men’s health magazine on history of stress that has a more tarzan and jane feel to it.

claude bernardApparently the whole concept of stress can be attributed in origin to a French physiologist Claude Bernard who coined the term milieu interieur in describing the constancy of our inner environment. Which I suppose is the fancy way of saying we want things to be steady and stable and if something external threatens that stability then something inside will change or react to restore stability. Now what I found interesting about Claude Bernard was that he wanted to be a playwright and achieved much success writing comedies, but later his critics persuaded him to study medicine instead and wa lah! We have milieu interieur. Another interesting thing was that his wife’s dowry helped pay for his experiments and she was later so disgusted with his animal experiments that she sought an official separation from him in 1869 and later went on to become an animal rights activist!

mouse01Anyways, I’m digressing. Walter Cannon (also a scientist bloke) later expanded on this and developed the theory on homeostasis which I’m sure the Biology students are well acquainted with. I was a Bio student myself and enjoyed both the rat experiments (the ones which disgusted Claude Bernard’s wife) and the concept of homeostasis which I still incorporate in my daily conversations e.g. When I’m watching television and chomping on chips and feeling perfectly happy I tell my friends ‘I’m totally in homeostasis’. Walter Cannon also did rat experiments (where would we be without the sacrifices of our rat brothers) and demonstrated the fight or flight response endemic to all of us when we are introduced to stressors. Specifically, our body releases two neurotransmitters (basically chemicals that act like messengers in our brain) namely epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline) which are responsible for things like increased heart rate, shallow breath, heightened awareness etc.

Yousuf KARSH Dr. Hans SelyeHans Selye (yet another scientist that did one of them rat experiments) was the one who popularised the term stress in 1936 and his contributions were significant in that he found out that when exposed to stress, rats responded with a corresponding decrease in immunity, increase in gastrointestinal ulcers and increase in cortisol (the stress hormones that make us fat!!!). While these responses can be adaptive in terms of helping to ward off stress, it can also lead to illnesses with prolonged exposure to stress. That’s why it’s not so much stress per say but overstress that is harmful to the body and we would all do good in recognising the symptoms of overstress and then figuring out ways to combat it.

In Part III, we’ll talk about the different symptoms of stress.

History Of Stress – Men’s Health

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The thing about Stress Part I

Posted: September 10, 2009 in Stress Management

phil_joy-of-learningSometime in July and August this year, I went from class to class and gave a 30 minute talk on stress management to all JC2 students. Over this one week ‘break’ I’m preparing for an assembly talk on the same topic to all JC1s when the school term starts next week. I enjoyed my time of interaction with the JC2s and finding out that they were quite stressed about having to come for my talk on stress management. Talk about oxymoron. Haha. Thankfully most of them left feeling better about the whole thing (I hope!).

I must confess that stress management is not exactly my favourite topic and mostly it’s because I struggle in figuring out a way to talk about it in a fresh, engaging, relevant and interesting way when it’s been talked about over and over and over since the students entered the mainstream school system at the age of seven! I thought what do I have to say that they haven’t already heard already? Did I just say already twice? And no one wants to sound like a repetitive, boring old hag. Hence the struggle.

So I’ll use this blog to talk about stress management in a way which I couldn’t during the stress management sessions for the students in consideration of time and well…attention span. I titled this Part I more as an introduction to what’s to come but seriously I haven’t decided how many parts there would be. If your stress levels or curiosity can’t wait for this slow poke to finish writing and deciding how many parts there are gonna be , click on the video link below which is an interview with Gladeana McMahon, Co-director of Centre of Stress Management. Sorry can’t embed it here cos it seems I’ll have to pay wordpress for that service. She covers different topics pertinent to stress management in a clear, understandable fashion and I really like her accent. 🙂 More to come!

Spotting The Signs Of Stress (Health & Wellbeing: Preventing Stress)

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I recently attended the Singapore Problem Gambling Conference in August and this year’s focus was on pathological gambling in youths. I think off the cuff alot of people would think youth problem gambling is an incongruous topic because after all aren’t hardcore gamblers usually old uncles who queue up to buy 4D or the weekend pundits at the race course? What do youths gamble on anyway?

So I was surprised to find out that adolescent gamblers are more likely than adults to become problem or pathological gamblers and that most parents surveyed (80-90%*) report that they know their children are gambling with money but don’t see the need to object to it.


teen in debt commits suicideIn a recent June 6 article published in The Straits Times this year, an 18-year old  school dropout who was in debt on soccer betting fell 13 floors to his death after glue sniffing with his friend. His problems began in the middle of last year when he started online soccer betting and fell into debt. His mother had to help him pay back the $1000 he owed and he promised he would stop betting.

In other stories I heard at the conference, a youth as young as 13 years old owed $30,000 in gambling debt to loansharks. His parents didn’t even know he was gambling until the loansharks spray painted their front door.

No objective tests and the adolescent brain

Unlike drug or alcohol problems, there are no objective tests to test for a pathological gambler. The problem doesn’t show up in blood or urine tests, you can’t smell it on the breath and often the problem only surfaces when the youth is already mired in debt. Dr. Lori Rugle  who is a clinical psychologist presented the fact that the adolescent brain may be particularly vulnerable to risky decision making.

inside the adolescent brainNeurological maturation starts from the back of the brain and moves to the front. Judgment which is the key ingredient in making good decisions is located in the prefrontal cortex (located in the front of the brain) and is therefore the last to develop. This brain development and maturation is not complete until the age of 24 and sometimes may even stretch to the age of 30!!   I was quite astounded when I heard that. 30! The brain is surely taking its own sweet time to develop! Perhaps that would explain some of the not so wise decisions I made before…hmm…

So the contention is not so much against gambling per say, but against problem gambling and against youths engaging in regular gambling activity at least until their brains completely mature! Which for my students would mean another 12 years or so….

My own gambling experience

Before I risk sounding puritanical and dogmatic, let me get a little personal here with my own gambling experience. I grew up in a heartland Chinese family where gambling was the order of the day. It was the social glue that gelled the extended family over the weekends. It wasn’t uncommon to find 4 tables of people playing mahjong at the common corridor outside my grandfather’s house (poor thing the neighbor) and I would sit by my mum as I watch her do her red dragons, straight flush, pongs and 13 yaos. Sometimes she would give me some money and ask me to go inside and play blackjack with my cousins. I remember my uncle would be the ‘dong’ or the dealer and I would carefully fold my $2 note into quarters so I would essentially be betting just 50 cents. I lost all 4 quarters to my evil uncle and would retreat into a corner lamenting how many ice-creams I could have bought with that $2 note. I disliked gambling  then because it didn’t make any mathematical or economic sense to me, though it was the activity of choice in my family. It didn’t make any sense to them that I loathed gambling! It certainly didn’t make any sense to them that I preferred reading much to their chagrin since the chinese word for ‘books‘ is the phonetic equivalent of the word ‘lose‘ so I was quite suay to be around.

Getting help for problem gambling

I was lucky that I never got mired in gambling despite childhood ‘encouragement’. I can’t say the same for a couple of cousins and some aunties and uncles. You know there’s the whole thing about the IR opening and people being jittery that it would exacerbate the problem gambling issues in youths. I think the IR is just the icing on the cake. With internet, gambling has become even more accessible today. Youths are not so much playing 4D or gambling in casinos, but making online soccer bets and playing poker online. I understand the thrill of the occasional win. 81% of youths surveyed believe that gambling can make them rich! But there are times when it becomes a problem such as when you can’t stop thinking about it, you started lying about your gambling habits to your loved ones, it is straining your relationships, you’re chalking up credit card debt etc.

There are lots of help available in Singapore through the National Council on Problem Gambling ( and the National Addictions Management Services (NAMS). If you think you or your loved ones have a problem with gambling, you can also call the stop gambling hotline at 1800-6-668-668. More information on youth gambling can also be found on

*The statistics above are quoted from ‘Parental attitudes towards youth gambling: The results from a national Canadian study’ and ‘Adolescents and young adults’ perceived risks and benefits of gambling: How important is this an issue in the prevention of youth gambling problems’ by Jeffrey L. Derevensky, International Centre for Youth Gambling Problems and High-Risk Behaviors McGill University,