Life Transitions: Relocations

Life Transitions: Relocations

Exploring the challenges of moving from one country to another.

Following on from last month’s focus on life transitions, this month we turn our attention to a particular transition undertaken by many Hong Kong and expat families in increasing numbers over the past 5 years. Various issues have contributed to an unprecedented number of families relocating out of Asia – with a significant number going from Hong Kong to the UK.  Many of these families have deep ties and connections with where they’ve been living and the transition, for many, involved challenging and unsettling emotions. These intense emotions have been described as a grieving process, as we close one chapter of our life and transition into the next chapter.

Having relocated to the UK with my family after almost 20 years in Hong Kong, I have experienced my share of homesickness for the country I had called home for so long and grieved for a chapter in my life that was now closing. It is an experience I have seen replicated in many others, both friends and clients. We can find ourselves grieving for our former lifestyles, for a persona of ourselves, career and all the myriad reasons we fell in love with  Asia in the first place.  For some of us, our lives in  Asia allowed us to ‘reinvent’ ourselves: either in our careers, friendships, hobbies etc. With domestic help, endless international travel and lower tax, life can be pretty glamorous in Asia. Places like Hong Kong offer a diversity of food, restaurants, convenience and experiences which are hard to match elsewhere in the world.  

Relocating back to our country of origin, or moving to a new country can stir up all manner of feelings; reintegrating into old social circles can be more difficult than expected, friends and family may not seem as welcoming as you hoped or you might be moving to an entirely new area and need to create a social framework from scratch. In the short term, we lose our sense of ‘belonging’ which can make us feel sad, alone and isolated. 

For some, the grief they feel in leaving their old lives compounds issues that may have been ‘bubbling’ under the surface. Isolation and loneliness can trigger anxieties and depression. Marriages and relationships can be tested with the new reality of life in a different country. The cost-of-living crisis, the fallout from Covid and the war in Ukraine can make the reality of life feel pretty hard.  

So what can help? 

Firstly, acknowledging that you might be going through a grieving process will help bring an awareness of your feelings. As with anyone grieving, give yourself the space and understanding to deal with your emotions. Grief is a deeply personal and complex emotion. It doesn’t have a set timeframe and can come and go, sometimes triggered by an unexpected event or memory.  You may even find yourself experiencing the different stages of grief such as denial, anger, bargaining, sadness and finally acceptance.  Awareness and understanding are key, being kind to yourself and taking some action can help. The good news is that, with time, grief and homesickness can and will fade. That journey may be smooth or rocky but there are certain attitudes and behaviours that may help:

Let’s take a look at some of the key issues which may have the biggest impact when relocating and how you might employ some basic psychology (problem solving, reframing and addressing unhelpful negative thoughts) to make the situation a little smoother: 

  • Change of lifestyle:  Does the impact of losing the domestic help enjoyed by so many families in  Asia mean that you find yourself struggling with housework, childcare and work/life balance?  This is probably the most consistent life adjustment I have heard from friends and clients.  Whether you are a stay-at-home parent, trailing spouse or working parent, the transition to life without all the help most of us enjoyed in Asia is a tough one. It can represent a curtailment of ‘freedom’ for families with younger children and a change in the dynamics in most couples. Add on a longer work commute and dull weather and the stage is set for resentment and fireworks (no, not the fun type!)

Try practical problem solving:  sit down with your spouse and children and explain how the adjustment is affecting you.  Allocate a fair split of housework with everyone in the house, including the children (a friend of mine made sure she negotiated these terms with her family before their move!). Relax your expectations of cleanliness/ tidiness around the house.  Can your resources stretch to a cleaner a few hours a week? Set times for the whole family to help clean on the weekends; cut corners with food preparation and ironing (i.e. don’t).  Allocate set times and limits for housework so that you can get a break. If you are feeling overwhelmed, take a break and try and check in with someone who can understand.  You will not be alone!

  • Losing your sense of belonging.   This is a key issue.  Losing the familiarity of your surroundings and the sense of ‘belonging’ can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness.  You may begin to feel disconnected, adrift from your old life and not yet settled into your new reality.   This can lead to sadness and low mood.   You might become fixated on the past, looking backwards and unable to move on with your new life.  Take action and engage:  it is vital that you make the effort in your new circumstances to make friends and establish a new social network. Get to know your neighbours, volunteer at your children’s school, sign up for an exercise class at the local community centre. Many community centres provide a wide range of accessible fitness and leisure courses.  Join a walking club, take up a new hobby. 

Use technology to your advantage – remain in regular contact with your old  Asia friends – wherever they might find themselves, set up regular Zoom calls and stay connected and interested in each other’s lives. Hunt out your local Hong Kong or  expat groups – either in person or on Facebook. I guarantee there is someone nearby who would love to catch up for a coffee!  

 

  • Friendships and relationships – revisiting old friendships can be an interesting exercise.  Hopefully, it’s a positive experience, but many people report that it can be tough to ‘reintegrate’ into their old lives and social circles. This isn’t so surprising – just as your life experiences have no doubt changed you, your old friends and family will have settled into a new way of life.  Logistics of socialising with young children can simply make  regular contact too hard. It’s important to accept that ‘slotting’ back into your old life might not happen and that’s ok – don’t take it personally.  Try not to fall into a negative thought pattern of “I don’t belong here” or “no one will like me”.   Challenge these unhelpful negative assumptions and give people a chance.  Ultimately, you will find your new tribe in this transition and that can be part of the adventure.
  • Culture shock: settling into a new culture or re-integrating can be challenging. Conversations can be nuanced and misinterpreted. Be aware of what is culturally important to you and your immediate family. Your values and traditions are important and you will find it comforting to take time to recreate the rituals and traditions you enjoyed in your previous life. We still adore celebrating Chinese New Year and putting up all the decorations up in our house!

 

Practice elements of Positive Psychology:

Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes humans happy and creates a sense of wellbeing.
Try some of these proven mood boosters:  

  • Be in the moment – avoid spiralling and thinking excessively about what you have left behind (or perhaps limit your focus on your old life to one hour a day).  Mindfulness and mediation can help ground you in the ‘here and now’.  There are many free resources online to get you started. 
  • Practice gratitude – list all the things about your life that you are grateful for.  Get into the habit of writing down three new things a day. 
  • Connect with your community – volunteering and joining clubs is a great way to give back while growing your social network.
  • Exercise and get out into nature:  I know that sunlight is limited in Europe but try to expose yourself to natural sunshine at every opportunity. Gather the kids and explore the many trails, coastal paths and National Trust properties that are within reach of you. 
  • Stay connected with your friends and family: Even though you might feel down, staying connected will always help the tough moments pass. 
  • Limit mindless scrolling on social media: Flicking through endless photos of junks, hikes and plates of steaming dim sum will not make you feel better.  Limit these to a set time daily or weekly.  
  • Positive thinking:  Look at this transition as a new chapter of your life and make it an adventure! Reframe your thinking into a more positive mindset. Instead of thinking about what was different back home – focus on all the great things at your disposal now.  
  • Humour!  If all else fails – remember to laugh.

 

Helping your children with the integration: 

Part of the anxiety in moving for parents is the impact on their children.   Asia might have been all they knew – other than trips back during the holidays,  Asia represents their friends, school, identity, and social structure. A relocation can be every bit as tough on them as it is on us.  Integrating into the local school environment can be an exhilarating experience (more sports facilities; new friends; new adventures) but it can also be a scary and isolating experience for others. Children (and teenagers, in particular), may feel that they have had little say in the move and feel a sense of powerlessness.  Try and include them in the decision making and involve them when making choices. Help them cultivate new friends, interests and gently steer them towards joining clubs that will interest them and help broaden their social network. We found that engaging with the Duke of Edinburgh Awards soon took care of any spare time on the weekends for our teens. Technology has made it easier than ever to keep in touch after a move – encourage weekly or monthly Zoom calls with their friends ‘back home’ or get together with other ‘returnees’ who can empathise with their situation. Ultimately, children can be extremely resilient but look out for signs of homesickness and an unwillingness to integrate into their new surroundings. Keep the lines of communication open!

Finally, and above all, be kind to yourself and allow yourself to grieve for your past life. Time is a healer, and the pangs of homesickness will eventually fade and you will look back on your previous life with affection and pride. Take control of the narrative for your latest adventure!

If you find that you or a member of your family is finding it hard with this transition, talking to a professional may help. Always take depression and anxiety seriously and seek help.  

Laurence Munoz

MoC

Laurence is our counsellor in the UK team. Find out more about Laurence here.

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Executive Functions and Child Development

Executive Functions and Child Development

Executive Functions and Child Development

Why is it so Important for Academic Achievement & Good Health

Executive functions are a set of high-level cognitive processes that allow us to plan, initiate, monitor, and adjust our behaviour in order to achieve our goals. These functions are often referred to as frontal lobe functions because many of the brain regions involved in executive functions are located in the frontal lobes of the brain. The prefrontal cortex, which is located at the front of the frontal lobes, is particularly important for executive functions (Figure 1). It is involved in many aspects of executive functions, including planning, decision-making, working memory, and inhibitory control. Other brain regions, such as the anterior cingulate cortex and the basal ganglia, are also involved in executive functions and are located in or near the frontal lobes (Figure 2). These processes include working memory, cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control, and planning ability. While important for people of all ages, executive functions are particularly critical for children’s development.

 

Figure 1. Frontal lobe and its components.

 

Figure 2. Basal Ganglia and Anterior Cingulate Cortex.

Why are Executive Functions Important for Children’s Development?

Executive functions play a critical role in children’s development, particularly in their ability to learn, solve problems, and regulate their emotions and behaviour. Here are some of the key reasons why executive functions are so important for children’s development:

  1. Learning and Academic Achievement: Research has shown executive functions are closely linked to academic achievement, particularly in domains such as reading, writing, and math. Children with strong executive functions are better able to focus their attention, process information efficiently, and use cognitive strategies to solve problems. As a result, they are more likely to perform well in school and achieve academic success.
  2. Social and Emotional Development: Executive functions also play a crucial role in children’s social and emotional development. For example, children with strong inhibitory control are better able to regulate their emotions and behaviour, which can help them form positive relationships with others. Similarly, children with strong cognitive flexibility are better able to show empathy, e.g., understand others from their perspectives and adapt to new situations, which it can help them navigate social interactions more effectively.
  3. Health and Well-Being: Executive functions are also linked to children’s physical health and well-being. For example, children with strong attentional control are better able to focus on health-promoting behaviours, such as exercise and healthy eating. Similarly, children with strong inhibitory control are better able to resist unhealthy temptations, such as smoking and drug use.

Given the importance of executive functions for children’s development, it is not surprising that many researchers and educators are interested in finding ways to train and enhance these processes.

How Can Training Benefit Children’s Executive Functions?

Here are some of the ways in which training can benefit children’s executive functions:

  1. Cognitive Training: Cognitive training involves engaging in structured exercises that are designed to enhance specific executive functions, such as working memory or inhibitory control. These exercises may involve tasks such as remembering sequences of numbers or resisting distractions. Research has shown that cognitive training can lead to improvements in executive functions, particularly in children with weaker initial abilities.
  2. Mindfulness Training: Mindfulness involves paying attention to the present moment in a non-judgmental way. Mindfulness training has been shown to improve executive functions in both children and adults. For example, studies have found that children participating in mindfulness training led to improvements in working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility in children.
  3. Play-Based Interventions: Play-based interventions involve engaging children in games and activities that are designed to promote executive functions. These interventions may involve games such as Simon Says or Red Light, Green Light, which require children to inhibit their behaviour and follow instructions. Research has shown that play-based interventions can lead to improvements in executive functions, particularly in younger children.

In conclusion, executive functions are critical for children’s development in a wide range of domains, including academic achievement, social and emotional development, and health and well-being. Given their importance, it is not surprising that many researchers and educators are interested in finding ways to train and enhance these processes. Whether through cognitive training, mindfulness, or play-based interventions, there are many opportunities to promote the development of these critical cognitive processes. By investing in these training opportunities, we can help to ensure that all children have the cognitive skills they need to succeed in life.

If you would like to speak with a counsellor about how we can support you, please contact us.

Find out more about Nicolson here.

 

Removing the Mask

Removing the Mask

I arrived at my gym for an appointment with my trainer.  “Are you going to Lan Kwai Fong tonight?” he asked enthusiastically.  As a busy (and middle-aged) professional who’d been up since 5 am and still had several work obligations after this gym session, I figured the probability of hanging out in LKF on a school night was pretty low.  “Why on Earth would I do that?” I asked.  He responded, “Everyone’s going there at midnight to burn all their masks!  Can’t wait to see the bonfire!”.  While the thought of such a sight was pretty attractive after 945 days of mask-wearing, I immediately thought of the toxic fumes that would soon travel through central Hong Kong – fumes we could avoid breathing through a mask.  The irony was not lost on me.

I do not know if the LKF mask-burning event occurred, but the sentiment resonated.  It also prompted me to wonder how the people of Hong Kong would feel as they prepared for this change.  No doubt everyone considered what it meant for them and their loved ones.  And as I’ve been listening to friends and colleagues over the last 48 hours, I’ve come to the view that regardless of whether removing the mask mandate is “good” or ‘bad”,  it allows for personal choice, which empowers us all.

Let’s consider kids, for example.  As of Wednesday, millions of five-to-eight-year-olds will (strangely, after showing a negative RAT test to attend school in the first place) be seeing their teachers’ full faces, perhaps for the first time.  Children three years old or under do not know the world without masks.  It will be interesting to see how they interact with their friends now that they can see their whole faces.  It’s difficult enough as an adult to recognize people when they see them without a mask for the first time.  How we look at people and recognize their faces is different with masks on than with masks off.  Also, these little children have learned to read people’s emotions just by looking at their eyes.  What will it be like for them to see a full facial expression?  How will they interpret what they see? Ongoing research at places like the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London links facial expression to healthy social interactions. Within a social context decoding facial expressions is an essential foundation for stable emotional relationships. It is a skill that helps to reduce anxiety.

And just as kids are not used to seeing their teachers’ full faces, the same is valid for teachers with their students.  One teacher shared a story of playing “guess the child” with her peers:  When the kids took their masks off to eat, the teachers tried to figure out who they were.  It wasn’t easy to recognize them, as the teachers had a mental image of the children’s faces, which was inaccurate.  They almost had to re-learn who Nancy, Tom, Millie, or James were, as they were unrecognizable without the masks.  Imagine the child who bounds up to her teacher with a big “HELLO!” and the teacher isn’t sure who she is.  This experience could result in children losing identity or sense of place, as the teachers they’ve become comfortable with don’t seem to know who they are anymore. How disempowering would that appear to the child that a person who is essential in their lives fails to recognize them?

And what about vulnerable people or those in hospital environments?  Most medical clinics allow their staff to choose whether or not to wear masks at work.  Patients with respiratory illness symptoms are still requested to wear masks. 

The mask mandate may have been removed, but does this mean we should no longer consider the needs of others?  A diverse city of 7.6 million people like ours does not thrive without the goodwill and tolerance of its people.  It’s worth remembering that Hong Kong people commonly wore masks when sick – well before any mandate and well before the rest of the world – out of consideration for others.  Perhaps there’s no need to burn all our masks, and we might instead choose to keep a few around for the greater good. As mentioned earlier, it is a choice, and being able to make choices is positive for our mental health.

Today, I also heard another example of two brothers – the younger one thrilled to see his friends’ faces, and the older one worried about his facial acne.   Female colleagues are talking about needing to spend money on makeup now that their whole faces are “on display” again.  Jokes about teeth whitening products selling like hotcakes and dentists being completely booked out.  For the last three years, the beauty ‘playing field’ was somewhat even, and the eyes were all that mattered.  Now our whole faces are back in the limelight. Face masks eased the anxiety of people with body dysmorphia or those anxious about their appearance. This anxiety will have to be dealt with by many people.

And another friend told me she was thrilled to see the mandate go for the simple reason that she’d be able toread lips again – a helpful skill when seeking assistance at various customer service counters around the city.  It was hard enough before trying to understand what the customer service agent was saying behind the plate glass window with tiny holes and poor quality intercom – add mask-wearing into the equation. This friend has said, “sorry, can you please repeat that?” about 17,000 times over the last three years.  These are six words that she’s delighted to remove from her vocabulary.

 

There are so many stories about the effect of mask-wearing, but that is enough for now. Hong Kong is finally free from HAVING to wear a mask, now is the time for people to appreciate they have choices, and it is up to them what they choose to do.

Perhaps the take-home point is that we in HK must celebrate our adaptability and resilience – we kept masks on for 945 days, the most extended period of mask-wearing in the world.   Now they are no longer mandatory, and we can decide for ourselves.  I can choose to wear it or not, just as I can decide to go to Lan Kwai Fong on a Tuesday at midnight or go home to bed.  Free will and choice are empowering, and as you read this, make a choice for yourself and be empowered in the process of having that choice.

By the Team at AMindset

If you would like to speak with a counsellor about how we can support you, please contact us.

Other Articles by AMindset Counsellors:

The Mental Health Impact of Hong Kong’s Mask-Free Policy on Children, Anoush Davies

Re-entering the Outside World, Kelly Hutchison

Christmas Alone, Elise Phillipson 

Talking About Eating Disorders, Megan Chang 

No Bad Parts

No Bad Parts

I really enjoy watching the Disney movie “Inside Out,” and I often recommend the film to my clients. The protagonist of the movie is a little girl named Riley and her emotions – Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear. These emotional characters help Riley face her daily trials and tribulations. For instance when Anger takes over the console of the mind, Riley starts throwing temper tantrums. Our emotions are similar to having these characters inside us, when different Parts become dominant, different thoughts and beliefs, carried by their perspective Parts, may have control over our behaviours. The modality called the Internal Family Systems (IFS) refers to our inner characters as Parts, which are like family members within us, who interact or argue with each other as our family members sometimes will do in real life.

In the book “No Bad Parts”, Dr. Richard Schwartz, the creator of IFS, talks about how Parts can be divided into the three main categories below:

Exiles: Exiles take on the painful emotions of past traumatic events. They often act like a wounded child, being exiled deep inside our psyche, feeling unloved, worthless, shame, and emptiness. In order to ensure that the Exiles are hidden from our consciousness, the Parts that are called Managers and Firefighters are forced to be generated.

Managers: Managers are protectors who try to control everything in our lives, ensuring that we don’t come in contact with our vulnerable or traumatic experiences, and avoiding emotions that we don’t want to experience again. The Critic is a common type of Manager that only sees mistakes and uses criticism as a means to help, thereby motivating us to attain higher job achievements, greater wealth, and positive affirmations. There are also other types of Managers such as Workaholics, Perfectionists, and the Highly Educated one to name a few, but no matter how hard these managers try, they can never heal their Exiled inner child.

Firefighters: Firefighters are a different kind of protector. If the Manager is there to prevent any incentives that can trigger the Exile, the Firefighters mission is to put out the fires at any cost when the Exile’s pain is triggered. The Firefighters will numb or escape painful feelings with more aggressive actions than what the Managers use, such as addictive behaviours with alcohol or drug use, eating disorders, sex, self-harm or even suicide, in extreme cases.

Now let’s pause for a moment and examine our different Parts. I may have a Part that wants to lose weight, while at the same time, I have another Part that tells me I must dine at a buffet. It is also possible when a Part wants to take a good rest, but another Part suddenly tells us not to relax in order to achieve success in our pursuits. I have a client who has several internal Parts and are working very hard every day. For example, when the Hard Working Part is writing a business proposal, Anxiety might interfere by saying, “Are you sure you can meet the deadline? Will the client like this proposal?” Meanwhile the Critic Part also might say, “Why are you so stupid? You can’t do anything well.” When facing the discomfort caused by Anxiety, Play might suggest watching TV, swiping the phone or playing video games. Then Smoking may invite you to enjoy a cigarette, and Binge Eating may start ordering lots of takeout. These Parts appear just to divert attention and escape to face anxiety.

Many psychology modalities try to correct these so-called negative behaviours or thoughts in different ways, but IFS believes that we do not need to push away these emotions or behaviours that might be dragging our lives down, nor is it necessary to beg these Parts to change. Just like the Movie “Inside out”, Joy tries to push Sadness away from Riley’s life, but in the end, she accepts Sadness for who she is, understanding that she serves an important purpose in Riley’s life. Joy is only one element of true happiness, Sadness and other painful emotions make life more meaningful. 

IFS believes that every Part is there with good intentions, and even with extreme, sometimes seemingly unhelpful or destructive actions like Managers and Firefighters, they are doing their best to protect us. Through listening, understanding, and discovering the purpose of each inner Part, we can improve their mutual relationships. When we find our true self (Self) who is caring, curious, empathic, and compassionate, as the leader of the internal family, the healing journey begins. 

​If you would like to speak with a counsellor about how we can support you, please contact us.

Articles by Cecilia:

Retrain the Brain, Change the Habits

Retrain the Brain, Change the Habits

Have you ever wondered why habits are so hard to break, especially the bad ones?

The habits that human beings follow might have a positive impact on behaviours, but they can have a negative effect on social relations. Human habits are complex, and the significance of habits has been demonstrated in various behaviours across all domains; for example, our work or exercise routine, our morning walks, our route to work, our eating habits, our favourite restaurants and how we interact in our environment. Changing habits to retrain the brain can be challenging since our behaviours are not only hardwired in our physical activity. The repetition of these behaviours has a significant effect on our brains.

The Brain

As neuroscience is discovering, the brain’s ability is greater than the best computer invented by man. The brain is a complex piece of machinery, and the approximately eighty-six billion neurons in the brain are eager little individuals that create their little habits based on our repeated thoughts, feelings, and actions. The brain operates using chemicals, and different behaviours result in the production of the various chemicals that are released into the brain. The feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine is well known, but dopamine is also a neurotransmitter involved in reinforcement and plays a part in developing and reinforcing our habits. How we feel is a result of the chemicals in our brain. Antidepressants work through balancing neurotransmitters, the chemicals that affect mood and emotions. An individual with depression has a lower level of the serotonin neurotransmitter. Serotonin is a multifaceted and complex neurotransmitter that is known to affect mood and cognition. Our actions and environment can impact our mood because of these brain chemicals and the neurons and their synaptic connections. The synapses connect the eighty-six billion neurons in the brain throughout the nervous system to other neurons in the body.

Repeat Behaviours

The more we repeat a behaviour, the more synaptic connections we associate with that behaviour, and this affects specific parts of the brain. The repeated behaviour results in stronger synaptic connections, which gives the neurons enough ‘juice’ to create an action potential. The release of an action potential plays a crucial role in carrying messages from the brain to other parts of the body. The voltage of the action potential allows the neuron to fire from the neurons’ pre-synapse membrane to the post-synapse, with neurotransmitters being released in the space between. The neural networks become more substantial when we repeat a behaviour or thought. The behaviour or thinking develops into a habit, providing a strong stimulus to cause the cells to work together, becoming bigger and better. This explains why with repetition, new information eventually becomes memorised and long-lasting, resulting in the brain having more synaptic connections in the relevant area.

The Synapse

Four Major Brain Lobes

And just to refresh your memory, the four major lobes of the brain are:

The Frontal Lobe – includes the neocortex and controls voluntary movement, expressive language, and higher-level executive functions. Executive functions are cognitive skills that include planning, organising, self-monitoring and managing responses to achieve a goal.

The Parietal Lobe – is essential for sensory perception, including taste, hearing, sight, touch, and smell. It is an area that interprets input from other regions of the body.

The Occipital Lobe is for visual processing, including visuospatial processing, distance, and depth perception, determining colours, object and face recognition and memory formation.

The Temporal Lobe processes auditory information, memory encoding (learning from previous experiences) and the processing of affect/emotions, language, and some visual perceptions.

Brain Lobes retrain brain

Brain Associations – Shape our Thinking

The input of sensory impressions affects many areas of the brain, and their associations affect the neural network of our experiences. And it is not as if one experience is isolated; when we think, we often associate multiple inputs, which can affect our mood. For example, a mother may enjoy the scenery and fantastic weather walking in a park. She feels good, but then she hears a mother shouting at a child, and this causes her to remember the time she was depressed after a baby was born and how she used to yell at the older sibling. The child in the park starts crying and holding onto his mother’s skirt, apologising and looking distressed. The mother remembers a blue dress she wore one day and how her son made it dirty by holding onto it whilst sobbing and saying sorry for upsetting her. She can see her 2-year-old son’s large blue eyes staring at her with tears streaming down his cheeks. She gets angry with herself for being such a horrible mother, and she regrets her son’s upbringing and knows it is why she is estranged from him now. She feels miserable and, looking at the present scene of the mother and child, she believes she is the worst mother in the world and deserves to be lonely and alone; this is her life now.

How did this mother go from having a lovely walk in the park to feeling sad, unloved, alone and wanting to cry?

Neural Networks

We can thank our habits, episodic memory, and brain associations for this change in mood. The brain responds to input by activating a neural net to the sensory organs and triggers thoughts associated with that memory. The mind is activated and reconnects to that memory. Any event or people related to that neural net of the experience will trigger the part of the brain where those old circuits are lurking, waiting to be woken up by our episodic memory. As we remember, our consciousness will activate the cluster of neurons associated with the memory. The brain’s neurons will fire in a particular sequence and chemical combinations, and we are consciously reminded of a memory hiding in the unconscious, and our mood is affected.

How the Past affects the Present

How we respond to daily stimuli is affected by past interactions. We navigate our environment using a combination of semantic (language or logic) knowledge. The more often we use the same information, the more solid that data is hardwired into the brain. As we repeat the same thoughts daily, the same neural networks will become more potent, automatic, unconscious, familiar and habitual. We start to automatically think of ourselves in a certain habitual way. The neural networks result in an unconscious response caused by the environment and the memories it awakens. We start to operate unconsciously on an autopilot created by the chronic neural networks we have developed. Once a thought activates a particular neural circuit, it causes an automatic sequence of thought forms, and we are no longer living in the present but instead are feeling and thinking from past events. And the more we live from past habitual thinking, the more those associative neural networks will be strengthened. The power of these neural networks is why it is so hard to change behaviours or negative thoughts. We have spent a lifetime developing and maintaining these neural networks, and they are hardwired into our thought processes. When we decide to attempt change, we are strongly resisted by billions of neurons and their associated neural pathways.

How can the mother stop thinking she is the worst mother in the world?

She must change her thinking by retraining her brain to create positive networks and associations, which takes time and a lot of effort. She must also be willing to develop a different personality which may require her to change her behaviour, values, beliefs, attitudes, and perceptions of her environment. Some of the genetic predispositions from her parents and upbringing may need to be challenged as she chooses to form a new identity and image of herself. She may focus instead on the positive memories, even using photographs that show happier times with her son. She may repeat and use a daily strategy to focus on these positive memories, so they take precedence over the negative ones. She may decide to contact her son and ask if she may see him as she wants to apologise or discuss the past. There are many possibilities. But, it is up to her to make that change while accepting that the habits and the associated brain networks created over a lifetime will take some time to transform.

To Sum Up

Associations and repeat behaviours form neural networks that create habits of thought and behaviour. But we could retrain the brain if we introduced new and more positive neural networks and their associated memories into the brain. Our synapse may be formed by genetics and what we have learned over a lifetime, but that is not the end of development. Neuroscience has shown the brain can change; the brain and the mind are not static; they are forever changing. An individual can decide on which type of circuits they want to be in action. Suppose we repeat positive behaviours and are vigilant and control negative thoughts and even transfigure them into positive thoughts and associations. The new neural networks thus created will be associated with positivity and empowerment. The more we develop these types of networks, the more these positive patterns will become our habitual way of thinking and living.

Liz McCaughey

MC, MSc 

If you would like to speak with a counsellor about how we can support you, please contact us.

“Doing” Leadership

“Doing” Leadership

“DOING” LEADERSHIP by KELLY HUTCHISON

As a long-time leader of teams, I often get asked for my thoughts on how to “do” leadership.  Just recently, I was talking with a bright, early-career entrepreneur who said, “My business is growing like crazy and I’m starting to hire people.  I don’t know how to manage and lead others.  What training course would you recommend? Or are there some books I can read?”

These questions are more common than I’d like them to be.  While they are well-intended, and it’s great that people who seek leadership responsibility actually want to do it well, the assumption (or perhaps hope) beneath the question is that if you read the right books, and/or take the right training course, you will be able to lead.

The question I asked this poor soul in return was, “regardless of the training course or the books – how will you know when you can manage and lead other people?  Does reading the books and attending the training mean you’re done?  Tick, you’re a good leader? Cross it off the list of things to do?”

The truth (like it or not) is that managing and leading others is not a destination.  It’s a practice.  Kind of like yoga.  In fact, yoga can teach us a lot about leadership.  No matter how good you get at yoga, there’s always something more to learn.  There’s more to practice.  You never FINISH working at yoga.  And if you’ve practiced yoga, you’ll know that some days are great – you nail the pose, you go deeper, you balance longer.  Some days are terrible.  You fall over, or you can’t hold even the most basic version of the pose you held for 10 minutes yesterday.  It requires focus, getting back into the pose even when you’ve fallen out of it six times already, and tuning in to your thoughts and feelings. Perhaps most importantly, it requires a willingness to push beyond your comfort zone – taking your pose just a bit further, without a guarantee that you’ll nail it the first time (knowing, in fact, that you’ll probably fall over).

The same is true for leadership.  This is because leadership exists within a human system.  One set of leadership behaviours which works perfectly well with one group of people may completely backfire with another.  Or a style of leadership that works when times are good, fails when times are difficult.  Some days are great – the team is humming, people are happy.  Others stink – business is underperforming, there’s tension between people, tough decisions to be made, and politics to manage.  Pesky human beings – they are so unpredictable.  

So what is this achievement-oriented entrepreneur to do, as the company grows and leadership becomes a necessity and requirement?  While I do not endorse the concept of a “checklist for good leadership”, in the spirit of helping these shooting stars along the journey, I offer the below as a non-linear process.

First: understand the baseline.  Look for clues.  Do you lose people from recruitment processes after they interview with you?  What’s your voluntary employee turnover rate?  If you use an employee engagement survey, what does the data tell you about how people feel about their manager and/or senior leaders?  You should also look inward.  Who’s been your favorite or most respected leader over the course of your career and why?  Who do you emulate as a leader?  

Second: ask your people what they need from you  – what motivates them to perform at their best.  Again, these pesky human beings are all slightly different.  But one thing remains consistent – people join great companies and leave bad managers..  The trick is to find out what “bad manager” means to your people – and practice behaving differently.

On the note of PRACTICE…this is a critical third (and ongoing) step. Just as you don’t become a star tennis player on day 1, and you can’t learn to play the piano with one lesson, leadership is a practice.  Remember that feeling of trying something new when you were a kid?  It’s frustrating and uncomfortable.  Get used to this feeling – in fact, seek it out in your workplace.  It means you’re learning – and learning is supposed to feel uncomfortable.  Try new behaviours.  Refine.  Try again.  Try again.  

Fourth – ask your people how you’re doing.  And “your people” should include those below you, above you, and beside you.  If you’re heading a start-up, maybe there’s no one technically above you.  Whose opinion do you respect and admire?  Do you have a board of directors? An investor or business partner?  Importantly, consider this guide for soliciting feedback (and ignore it at your peril).

Fifth (and arguably the most important element to include in your practice): Reflect on the feedback and use it as a source of data to improve your practice.  Extending the “learning to play the piano” analogy, consider how listening to a recording of your practice can shine a light on areas where you need more practice.  You listen, you think about what you want to work on, and then you work on it.  The same is true in leadership.  What can you learn from the feedback you received?  What should you try differently?

What can you learn?  What can you try?  

Sixth (or maybe first!) – ask for help. What professional athlete does not have a coach? What opera singer doesn’t study under another professional?  It can be very lonely at the top.  Cultivate your network, join leadership forums or communities, and consider a psychotherapist, counsellor or performance coach to help you reflect, learn, and grow.  As someone who has been practicing leadership for decades and advising others who are doing the same, I firmly subscribe to the view that every leader needs a therapist and coach.  

Finally – Repeat steps 1-6.  Often, and for as long as you hold a leadership role.  In doing so, you will exceed your own expectations and you will make a difference to your team, your company and potentially by extension, the world around you.  

After all – isn’t this why you became an entrepreneur in the first place?

Kelly Hutchison

Kelly Hutchison is a psychotherapist, counsellor and executive coach with aMindset, based in Hong Kong. 

To book an individual consultation or discuss mental health & wellness initiatives for your organization, contact Kelly on +852 9179 4454 or kellyamindset@gmail.com 

Other Articles by Kelly:

Find out more about Kelly here

Qualifications:

  • Master of Counselling, Monash University, Australia
  • Master of Applied Science (Innovation & Organisation Dynamics), RMIT University, Australia
  • Bachelor of Arts (Liberal Arts/Music), Florida State University, USA
  • Executive Coaching – Level Two Coach, Institute of Executive Coaching & Leadership, Australia
  • Member, Hong Kong Society of Counselling & Psychology
  • Member, Australian Counselling Association
  • Member, Hong Kong Professional Counselling Association

If you would like to speak with a counsellor about how Kelly or AMindset can support you, please contact us.

 



The Benefit of Laughter

The Benefit of Laughter

Did you know that healthy children can laugh 400 times in a day but adults only average 15 times? It seems that we all need more laughter in our lives. But, does it really matter? Is laughter the best medicine?

The Benefit of Laughter

Well, research indicates that laughter is beneficial for our stress levels and our overall wellbeing. There are immediate short-term benefits and there are great long-term effects:

Short Term:

  1. Reduce stress: Laughter changes the perspective of stressful events and we can view them more as challenges and therefore less threatening. The relaxation of your muscles makes you less tense which reduces the symptoms of stress.
  2. Stimulation: Laughter increases your breathing and the oxygen boost stimulates your heart, lungs and muscles. And, the brain releases more endorphins.
  3. Exercise: Laughing is an exercise for the diaphragm, abs and shoulders and also leaves them more relaxed.
  4. Contagious: Laughter is contagious. It effects the others around you and brings increased benefits to a group. You will laugh more at a comedy with a group than on your own.

Long Term:

  1. Immune system: The positive thoughts that accompany laughter releases neuropeptides that help fight stress and general illnesses. While you have banished the negative thoughts that would otherwise flood your body with harmful and stress producing chemicals.
  2. Pain: Laughter is believed to produce natural painkillers to ease pain.
  3. Depression: Laughter provides a long term and beneficial effect by reducing the symptoms of depression.
  4. Fake it: Research indicates that the positive effects of laughter are not dependant on whether it is real or faked. Like many things, faking it works and, as a bonus, usually leads to it becoming real over the long term.
  5. Social: As in ‘contagious’ above, the group benefits of laughter can lead to an improvement in the quality of your social life.

You don’t find that much is funny in life? Just give it a try and try to find the funny side. Laugh at your bloopers instead of cursing. Enjoy a good comedy – live is often best. Observe yourself after a good laugh. Feeling good and relaxed? That’s laughter at work.

Befriend your Nervous System

Befriend your Nervous System

 

Our brain is wired to constantly scan for potential dangers and safety in our surroundings, even if we do so without realizing it. We read thousands of social cues when we interact with others, such as facial expressions, voice tones, body language, and more. Dr Stephen Porgers developed the Polyvagal Theory which describes the process of the neural circuits assessing whether the situations are dangerous or safe. He called it neuroception. This ability to distinguish cues of safety, danger, life-threatening situations, or people in a split second is learned throughout our early childhood development stages by observing our caregivers and from life experiences.

In Polyvagal Theory, there are three stages of the autonomic nervous system: Immobilization, Mobilization, and Social Engagement. Deb Dana, a US social worker and expert in Polyvagal theory, describes these three responses as an autonomic ladder. When we are at the top of the ladder there is a state of social engagement. We feel calm and want to connect or interact with others. When our bodies sense signs of danger, we move to the middle of the ladder. At this Mobilization stage, our heart rate speeds up, our breath is short, and our body will release adrenaline to prepare us for harm. We might ruminate with negative thoughts, feel anxious, and want to run away or lash out. While we continue to encounter extreme life-threatening danger, our nervous system starts to perform intensely. When all else fails, we will fall to the bottom of the ladder to the Immobilization mode causing us to become frozen, numb, dissociated, shut down, or collapse. You might describe ourselves as hopeless, helpless, abandoned, lonely, or too tired to think or act.

We shift up and down on different levels of the Polyvagal “ladder” every day. By being aware of what ladder level we are on at any given moment and understanding how we move between levels, we can be in control to move up if we are on a lower part of the ladder. We can set a specific time-out moment to check our status according to the schedule. When we notice that we are in the middle or bottom of the ladder we can say to ourselves, “Thank you, nervous system, for trying to protect me from danger. I am safe now.” Then we can do the activities that help us move up to the top of the ladder such as taking a break, going for a walk, doing some exercise, or having something to eat or drink. Social engagement behaviours will occur when the neuroception is feeling safe. 

Here is an example of shifting through different states of the ladder. I was enjoying a conversation with my close friends, feeling happy and connected (top of the ladder). The conversation turned to the current COVID situation and I started comparing my life to their friend’s life overseas. I started to feel frustrated that I haven’t seen my family for over two years or even been able to travel abroad (moving down the ladder). I disconnected from the conversation and was not able to pay attention to what my friend was saying (shutting down and moving to the bottom of the ladder). After dinner, I took a walk with my friend and felt more relaxed (beginning to move up the ladder). I started to tune in to the conversation again. I talked about the possibility of travelling and goals for the future (back to the top of the ladder). 

When we befriend our autonomic nervous system, we can then begin to understand our internal response patterns. When we are aware of our movement on the Polyvagal “ladder,” we can successfully manoeuvre to safety and connection. 

​If you would like to speak with a counsellor about how we can support you, please contact us.

By Cecilia Yu

Find out more about Cecilia here

Other Articles Written by Cecilia Yu:

Say No to Emotional Blackmail

Negative Emotions Can Be Good for You

Trauma & EMDR Therapy

Nonviolent Communication

Related Articles:

Dealing with Negative Emotions

Re-entering the Outside World

Re-entering the Outside World

Travelling post-Covid

In the 2015 movie “Room”, based on the novel by Emma Donoghue, a mother and her son Jack are held captive in a single-room outbuilding for nearly seven years.  During this time, “Ma” works to keep her son healthy and happy by structuring their days with physical and mental exercises, keeping a healthy diet, limiting TV-watching time, and a strict regime of body and oral hygiene. Because it is all he has ever known, Jack believes that only the things in his immediate world are “real.” Ma, unwilling to disappoint Jack with a life she cannot give him, allows him to believe that the rest of the world exists only on television.  When they eventually escape, Ma must begin the process of relearning how to interact with the larger world, and Jack, who is overwhelmed by new experiences and people (and the realisation that the world actually exists beyond TV), wants only to return to the safety of the world he knows – the world of his Room.

I recently ventured out of Hong Kong for the first time in two years.  My husband and I planned the trip in order to bring our son home – he’d been delayed in Australia because of Hong Kong’s ban on flights from “high risk” countries.  We intended to meet him in Thailand, do a 14-day “wash out”, and then fly back to Hong Kong together.  The trip was functional in nature, with the goal of getting him back to Hong Kong and regular school.  It took weeks of organising, securing various approvals, passes, and certificates, and an off-the-charts level of patience.

About a week before we were set to travel, the HK government rescinded the flight ban, which meant we could potentially fly our son straight back to the city.  This prompted a debate:  Should we still go?  Was it necessary? Should we spend the money?  Would we rather wait and take an actual holiday later?  What if we got Covid while overseas?  Would we be able to get proper medical attention?  Would we be able to get back into Hong Kong?  And on, and on.

Eventually, having reminded ourselves that we both loved Thailand and we hadn’t been outside of Hong Kong for what felt like ages, we decided to go. Being effectively ‘grounded’ (or as some of our friends described it, “imprisoned”) for the last two years had taught us two things:  first, that life is short, and it is richer with travel; second, that we’d taken for granted our ability to see friends and family whenever we wanted.  Like most Hong Kong people, we were used to hopping on a plane at a moment’s notice, and living away from our families had not precluded us from seeing them.  We saw an opportunity to reconnect through this trip.  We decided to turn it into a long-awaited holiday, and invited the rest of our family and some friends to join us.  With the decision made, we felt a surge of joy and anticipation.  We had something to look forward to.

While we fully expected that travel in a post-Covid world would be a logistical hassle, what we didn’t anticipate was how it would feel to be out in the world again.  We experienced walking mask-free down public streets and entering restaurants without checking in.  We went to bars that were packed wall-to-wall with people (again, no masks).  We saw people shaking hands and hugging again.  We made plans and reservations for meals and activities, without having to check whether venues were open.  We were able to go out without carrying our phones.

How did it feel?  Honestly, it was a strange sensation, which led us to reflect on how we’d coped with the last two years.  We felt happy, sad, frustrated, regretful, guilty, optimistic, and resigned all at the same time.  The joy and appreciation of rejoining the outside world sat very uncomfortably against a sense of grief at having missed two years with people we love.  Had we done the right thing in avoiding travelling to see our family and friends, simply because of government restrictions?  Should we have pushed ourselves harder to just cope with multiple periods (and the expense) of hotel quarantine, for the reward of spending precious time with loved ones?  What if something had happened to them (as it did for so many families) and we weren’t there?  This was an experience of simultaneous celebration and self-flagellation.  Being with our family and friends again filled our hearts, and also reminded us of how much we’d missed.  In addition, it highlighted how much we’d gotten used to life with Covid – mask-wearing, contact tracing, vaccination discussions, rapid antigen testing, and avoiding coughing in public all felt normal to us.  The absence of these things felt uncomfortable and foreign.

There is something in this for me that connects back to Ma’s experience of escaping the Room.  She’s been isolated for so long, and the narrow world she’s inhabited for the last seven years has suddenly widened beyond comprehension.  She does not remember how to exist in that world. What was an effective coping mechanism – creating structure, routine, and stories for herself and Jack to deal with a lack of freedom – is no longer needed.  The prison no longer exists.  But she also feels guilt at not preparing Jack for the real world.  Anger for being imprisoned for so long and missing out on life. Uncertainty about how to relate to people other than her son.  Regret at not having been able to escape sooner.  Grief at the loss of time and the experiences she and Jack have missed.  Fear and discomfort at re-entering a world that has been lost to her for seven years.

The tight restrictions in Hong Kong were nothing compared to what Ma and Jack had to endure.  I am not suggesting for a second that travel restrictions are anywhere close to being imprisoned and traumatised on a daily basis for seven years.  What does strike me is the wide range and similarity of feelings that bubble up once a fuller amount of freedom is available to us, whether that freedom comes in the form of post-Covid travel or a release from captivity.

Our ability to adapt to our surroundings has ensured our survival over time.   Covid led governments around the world to implement restrictions on daily living which none of us could have imagined.  And we’ve coped with those restrictions by getting used to not travelling, by learning to be more still, and by adapting our daily routines to fill the void.  Ma coped with her lack of freedom much in the same way – by creating routines to foster a sense of normalcy for her and her son.  We humans have the capacity for profound resilience in the face of adversity.

As our world begins to open up, a new range of choices becomes available to us.  What will we do with that freedom?  We can stay home, avoid the complexity of travel and the risk of getting sick, and remain comfortable in the routines we’ve built for ourselves.  The trade-off is, perhaps, a greater richness in life.  Alternatively, we can start travelling and stepping back out into the world, accepting that we don’t know what will happen when we do, and we don’t know how it’ll affect us.

Regardless of whether you stay put, or step back into travel, you can expect to “feel all of the feels”.  The challenge is to stay in the present and allow the full range of emotions to wash through us.  Nothing can be done to change the past or to control the future.  

What choice will you make?  

Kelly Hutchison

Kelly Hutchison is a psychotherapist, counsellor and executive coach with aMindset, based in Hong Kong. 

To book an individual consultation or discuss mental health & wellness initiatives for your organization, contact Kelly on +852 9179 4454 or kellyamindset@gmail.com 

Other Articles by Kelly:

Find out more about Kelly here

Qualifications:

  • Master of Counselling, Monash University, Australia
  • Master of Applied Science (Innovation & Organisation Dynamics), RMIT University, Australia
  • Bachelor of Arts (Liberal Arts/Music), Florida State University, USA
  • Executive Coaching – Level Two Coach, Institute of Executive Coaching & Leadership, Australia
  • Member, Hong Kong Society of Counselling & Psychology
  • Member, Australian Counselling Association
  • Member, Hong Kong Professional Counselling Association

If you would like to speak with a counsellor about how Kelly or AMindset can support you, please contact us.



Nonviolent Communication

Nonviolent Communication

 

Healthy, productive communication is crucial to keep any relationship strong. Dr. John Gottman, the renowned psychologist and relationship researcher, determined that there are four kinds of communication habits that are the most destructive and biggest predictors of relationship demise. Dr. Gottman referred to those four traits as the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” and they are Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling. Based on the “Four Horsemen,” Dr. Gottman and his research team can predict the probability of a divorce with over 90% accuracy within 15 minutes of observing the communications patterns of a couple during conflicts.

Conflicts, in any kind of relationship, are inevitable, normal, and even necessary. Having conflict is not the problem, but rather dealing with those conflicts is the key to defining the quality of the relationship. Each disagreement can be seen as an opportunity for couples to either achieve deeper connections or the possibility to tear their relationship apart. When conflicts happen, please ask yourself, do you want to argue for a win or want to connect and be heard? If you choose to connect, then we need to practice expressing our thoughts and needs with healthier communications skills. 

One of my favourite models of communication for solving personal conflicts is Dr. Marshall Rosenberg’s theory of Nonviolent Communication (NVC). The objective of NVC is to have a sincere and frank conversation while paying attention with empathy and handling potential disputes with respect and thoughtfulness. The basis of Nonviolent Communication is being ready to recognize and proceed towards matters in a non-judgemental way.

Following four fundamental steps can help us to master the art of NVC. The steps are Observations, Feelings, Needs, and Requests, from the book, “Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life,” by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg. Let’s examine each one individually. 

Observations: Making observations is the act of describing factual information about what happened without judgments or interpretations. For example, instead of saying “He is a bad player,” you can say, “He did not make any goals in the past two games.” Or instead of saying, “You are so sloppy,” a person can say, “You did not change your clothes for three days.” Without emotional or judgmental words, the listener will most likely understand the detail being illustrated.

Feelings: Express your emotions not your thoughts. For example, instead of saying, “I feel misunderstood,” which includes an interpretation of behaviour, one could simply say, “I feel frustrated.” The key is to focus on words that describe our inner emotions. Sentences starting with, “I feel like,” or “I feel that,” usually end with describing our thoughts or interpretations of another person’s feelings or actions.

Needs: Negative feelings are caused by unfulfilled needs. State your needs rather than the other person’s actions as the cause. The key is to connect our inner values and focus on words that describe shared human experiences. For example, one can say, “I feel annoyed because I need more support,” rather than, “I feel annoyed because you don’t do the laundry.” 

Requests: Ask clearly in positive action language. The request must be doable and specific. The key is to focus on what we want instead of what we don’t want. For example, instead of saying, “Please don’t invade my privacy,” one could say, “Would you knock on my door before coming in?”

Here is another example of a wife using NVC to express her concerns. 

“This is the third weekend in a row that you worked during the weekend (OBSERVATION). I feel sad because we don’t have the chance to spend some time together (FEELINGS). It is important for me to feel connected with you (NEEDS). Would you please come home earlier and we can have dinner together (REQUESTS)?”

Nonviolent Communication is a process for us to understand and take responsibility for our own feelings, needs, and inner experiences before communicating with others. It begins with observing the situation, recognizing our feelings, followed by connecting with our needs, and finally proposing the request specifically. Hopefully, the listener will empathize with us, fostering understanding and creating a connection that leads to meeting everyone’s needs. Learning NVC is similar to learning a new language. With practice, a person can speak fluently in Nonviolent Communication in no time. 

​If you would like to speak with a counsellor about how we can support you, please contact us.

By Cecilia Yu

Find out more about Cecilia here

Other Articles Written by Cecilia Yu:

Befriend your Nervous System

Say No to Emotional Blackmail

Negative Emotions Can Be Good for You

Trauma & EMDR Therapy

Related Articles:

Dealing with Negative Emotions