Online Counselling - not just for expats

Category: mental health (Page 1 of 2)

Give yourself a break

The new normal?

I’m hearing a lot of guilt. A lot of anxiety tainted by guilt about anxiety.

I’m hearing “I don’t know why I feel so bad’ and ‘I’m normally stronger than this’ over and over again from clients.

Folk feeling impotent. Powerless. Scared.

Well, guess what? It’s normal to be scared. The war in Ukraine is scary – and not just because it’s close to home for many or because, as many news outlets have claimed, because ‘they look like us.’ It’s scary because of its potential to escalate. And if you are a child of the 80s, you’ll be triggered by talk of nuclear war. Kids -and adults- were genuinely afraid during the Cold War. You’ll perhaps remember government advice about storing canned food and water in the cupboard-under-the-stairs .

It’s normal to feel scared. It’s normal to feel anxious. And in normal times, you’d have reserves of confidence and resilience to dig into. But wait – we’ve used those up on two years of COVID fears and uncertainty. So, now, when you need those resources to buoy yourself up, they’re not there.

These are not normal times. Maybe stop holding yourself to your ‘normal’ standards. Normal isn’t normal right now. Give yourself a break.

Photo by Kayla Koss on Unsplash


International School Teacher Recruitment season

It’s that time of year again.

No, I’m not referring to the Christmas/End of Year celebrations. I’m talking about international school recruitment. For thousands of teachers in International Schools around the world, now is the time to dust off CVs, reach out to ex-colleagues, sign up with recruitment agencies and book places at (online) Job Fairs. It can be a stressful as well as an exciting time.

I’m not offering advice on getting hired, but I am offering advice on dealing with the whole process from a wellbeing perspective. You invest a lot of energy in making a complete application – crafting your cover letter to be specific to that school, proof-reading it a hundred times, meticulously picking through the school website, perhaps contacting people you know who work there or used to, or know someone who does. That investment of time and effort translates quickly into expectation. You convince yourself you are in with a shout. Maybe you’ve even had that first video ‘chat’ (or a second or a third – in COVID times, online has become so comfortable that some schools will have you Zoom four or five times with different people or groups of people). Maybe you felt you had established a good rapport, you left the last interview with a strong feeling that this was the one. And you’ve researched the country and the city extensively – you can now see yourself living there.

And then comes the email, thanking you for you time, explaining that they are going to keep looking, and wishing you well on your continued job search. Or maybe there’s no email, just a ‘if you haven’t heard from us by such-and-such a date, please consider that you have been unsuccessful on this occasion’. (I’ve personally never understood that approach – even a cut and paste email with your name on it is better than nothing, and it takes seconds to do. Yes, even if you are getting hundreds of applications – it’s an admin/HR task and is simply polite.)

We can rationalise after the event – it’s what humans are good at. But it still hurts when we get rejected. Thinking logically about why you didn’t get that job can help you recentre and move on.

Photo by Hans-Peter Gauster on Unsplash

Every school has a jigsaw puzzle to complete with influencing factors that you probably couldn’t even guess at.

Maybe they have an internal candidate and just have to advertise the position for ‘form’. (It does happen.) Perhaps they have teaching couples being interviewed and really need to fill that counsellor/admin/secondary science/early years position and so the teaching partner will get the position you were hoping for. Perhaps they are looking for something they are not allowed to openly advertise for – age, ethnicity, gender: schools can’t openly say that they are looking for over 40’s, or for a male Primary teacher, or a female science teacher, but that might be the reason you don’t get the job. Perhaps it’s just down to a feeling from one of the interviewers – something they can’t explain but feel they have to listen to. Maybe they know, for reasons that you can’t see, that you would struggle in their community…

The list is endless and at the end of the day it’s perhaps pointless to second guess. Nobody, but nobody, applies for one job only and gets it. This is a numbers game, and whilst you may well have criteria of your own, you are going to be applying for multiple positions, and will, statistically, get turned down more times than you are offered a position. Many more times.

If you do feel you had a good rapport over one or two interviews, there’s nothing wrong with politely replying to that rejection email, thanking them for their time in considering your application and asking if they would be prepared to give you some feedback on the interview process. Maybe asking if there was a stand out problem on your CV or cover letter. Often, schools won’t want to get into protracted correspondence over this – they have moved on, clearly (and it may even be policy not to offer feedback) – but you may get some helpful information. They may even tell you they appointed internally in the end, or they had a teaching spouse to place and so the position was filled that way. And if you get blanked, then maybe, just maybe, you’ve actually had a lucky escape.

Just bear in mind that’s not necessarily – in fact most probably not – about you as a teacher. It’s about fit. Chalk it up to experience, check out your recruiters’ websites, open up that CV and try again. Best of luck.

Harry Enfield’s ‘Kevin’ is still relevant today

I have been doing some reflection on my own teens’ behaviour and how it seems to fluctuate with increased contact with their peers. I had a thoroughly self-indulgent re-visit to Kevin and Perry in Harry Enfield’s hilarious take on the teenage years. It was, at the time, described as preposterously exaggerated and extreme. I don’t think it is. I think it’s right on the money, which is why it resonated so strongly and is why they are still being watch on YouTube despite being very dated in some respects. Kevin never had the added hassles of social media to content with, for example, or had to be confined for long periods with his parents (although I would now pay good money to see those episodes!). If you’ve never seen these characters, then I’d recommend the first episode where we see Kevin morph, Jekyll and Hyde-like, into a teenager and the last, where we see him emerge into responsible adulthood (which is admittedly very, very exaggerated for comic effect). The links can be found below.

Looking up the research on teen behaviour and peer influence, I found a wonderful study from 2020 by Block and Heyes, entitled Sharing the load: Contagion and tolerance of mood in social networks.

The upshot of their research was that adolescents ‘became reciprocally more similar in mood to their interaction partners’. They adjust their moods to suit the prevailing mood of those around them. The authors also found that this contagion effect was stronger for negative than for positive moods – in other words, teens readily become more low and ‘stroppy’ when around those behaviours. It is probably part of the intricate dance of social acceptance. Interestingly, ‘although one may catch a friend’s bad mood, the friend may feel less negative in the process.’

It doesn’t help that misery is easier to catch than happiness. This is an actual a known fact from the human sciences, supported by numerous studies. At its most basic, this is a throwback to hunter-gatherer times when recognising bad mood meant survival – stay away from angry individuals, recognise the mood arriving etc – whereas good moods, whilst nice, weren’t as immediately threatening or rewarding. This – together with the hormonal turmoil of adolescence – can be a powerful influence on our teens. The WHO identify that half of all mental health issues have their origins by the age of 14. See here for details of that report.

So once again, we are perhaps forced to conclude ‘it’s not their fault’. And whilst we are dealing with a Kevin in the throws of an ‘it’s not BLOODY FAIR’ episode, we can look forward to the beauty and depth which emerges at the other end of the process. (Which may or may not include a willing shopping partner… watch the last episode if you don’t get the reference.)

Kevin becomes a teenager

Kevin grows up   (Bear in mind that this is comedy, as a psychologist I’m not suggesting that having sex helps teens to grow up, far from it!)

Block, P., & Burnett Heyes, S. (2020). Sharing the load: Contagion and tolerance of mood in social networks. Emotion. Advance online publication.

Can listening to music improve your well-being?

Can listening to music really make significant (i.e. scientifically verifiable) changes in mood?

In short, yes it can.

There’s much anecdotal evidence for this. Some swear by Mozart for studying effectively, mood music clearly affects temperament in mindfulness meditation, for example. And we are probably all familiar with the adolescent ‘choosing to feel down’ choices of sad songs.

But where is the science on this?

In 2019 a randomised controlled study took two groups of participants in their research on adult ADHD. The first group listened to Mozart’s music (KV 448) for 10 min while the second group remained in a silent room for 10 min (silence group). The researchers assessed subjective arousal and mood in participant before and after the intervention and showed that music listening led to a decrease in negative mood (sadness and hopelessness) in the ADHD group as well as in healthy controls. (Zimmermann et al., 2019)

Listening to music before, during, or after surgery significantly decreased patients’ pain and anxiety and reduced their use of pain medications subsequent to surgery. (Mayor, 2015)

In looked into the effects of music on rats which had been heavily treated with simvastatin ( which is used to lower cholesterol for those diagnosed with high blood cholesterol. It’s also taken to prevent heart disease, including heart attacks and strokes). Rats exposed to music (Mozart’s piano sonata, KV361 in this case) 24 hours before a stress-induing maze exercise showed reduced anxiety levels compared to control groups (da Cruz et al., 2001). Of course, we can’t be certain that this transfers to human experience, but we can hypothesise that it probably would.

Another interesting study in 2020 considered the effects of music on pregnant women. Their research concluded that ‘Music combination between murotal and music kitaro has a significant effect on reducing anxiety of third trimester pregnant women.’ (Sumaningsih et al., 2020)

Another recent study specifically researching undergraduates’ responses to music listening found that music provided regulation in preparation for stressful events and that music listening increases mindfulness following a stressor. (Groarke et al., 2019)

This is a far from comprehensive review of the current literature, just 5 studies. There are hundreds. The renowned neurologist Dr. Michael Schneck has shown that classical music helps relieve anxiety. Other studies have found that it also increases blood flow by 26%, laughter by 16% and relaxation by 11%.

How does the science translate actions you can take to reduce anxiety and stress?

We know that connecting with other people who are going through the same things we are – think support groups – is a very effective way to get over any mental health challenge. Similarly, sad and melancholic music can achieve the same thing. Sad music validates our own emotions of sorrow, grief or loneliness and permits us to feel them more fully.

You can try simple experiments yourself, with your own choices of music, journalling your responses and finding your own very personal cocktail for well-being. Sitting and intentionally listening to music can be a powerful way of re-centering yourself and connecting to the present moment.

Why not build ten minutes of music into your daily routines and see what happens?



da Cruz, J. G. P., Dal Magro, D. D., de Lima, D. D., & da Cruz, J. N. (2001). The Power of Classic Music to Reduce Anxiety in Rats Treated with Simvastatin. Basic and Clinical Neuroscience, 2(4), 5–11. Iran University of Medical Sciences.

Groarke, J. M., Groarke, A., Hogan, M. J., Costello, L., & Lynch, D. (2019). Does Listening to Music Regulate Negative Affect in a Stressful Situation? Examining the Effects of Self‐Selected and Researcher‐Selected Music Using Both Silent and Active Controls. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being.

Mayor, S. (2015). Listening to music helps reduce pain and anxiety after surgery, review shows: BMJ, h4398.

Sumaningsih, R. `, Rahayu, T. P., & Santosa, B. J. (2020). Effects of Classical Music, Natural and Murottal Music on Fetal Well-Being. Health Notions, 4(7), 222–225.

Zimmermann, M. B., Diers, K., Strunz, L., Scherbaum, N., & Mette, C. (2019). Listening to Mozart Improves Current Mood in Adult ADHD – A Randomized Controlled Pilot Study. Frontiers in Psychology, 10.

Is the news bad for you?

Back in March, on another blog, I wrote that I was done with the news. I was aware that even reading tweets about UK politics, US elections and the aftermath, Afghanistan…(the list is endless), left me feeling anxious, frustrated, impotent. So I stopped. My mood and sense of self improved dramatically.

So it worked for me. Later, whilst counselling with Bob who suffers from PTSD (clearly not his real name, though he has given me permission to share the essence of the story) I shared my experience. And he bought into it wholesale. No more TV news. No more Twitter or Facebook on his phone. He even asked colleagues to avoid the subject around him and found himself instead discussing family, hobbies and reading with them. He changed a lifelong habit of listening the radio in favour of curated playlists (a later post will address music and wellbeing). And the reported drop in anxiety and negative self-talk was impressive.

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

So much for anecdotal evidence

So I began to wonder what research was out there on the subject. Perhaps not surprisingly most recent research relates specifically to anxiety and COVID19 news. In a 2021 paper, Jain found that, ‘High levels of news exposure led to lower levels of trust that led to low satisfaction and happiness.’ Stainback et al (2020) reported, from a survey of over 11,500 participants, ‘that greater COVID-19 media consumption is associated with greater psychological distress and that approximately two thirds of this effect operates indirectly through increased perceptions of COVID-19 threats.’ Neill et al. (2021) conclude that ‘Evidence suggests that frequent media exposure is related to a higher prevalence of mental health problems, especially anxiety and depression.’ Similar research produces similar results for other specific news events as well as for the more generalised consumption of news (Holman et al., 2019; Thompson et al., 2017; Thompson et al., 2019).

Bad is stronger than good

Whilst the Hollywood culture teaches us that good prevails, in fact it’s bad news that intrigues and draws us in. This goes back to hunter-gather times when your entire world was the 30 or 40 people you knew and gossip was a means of survival. Knowing who did what to whom, who could be trusted etc, was crucial. Fast forward to 24/7 news coverage and this evolutionary survival trait backfires on itself. News outlets claim that the increasingly negative bent of the news is consumer driven. Trussler & Soroka (2014) concur – in their randomised controlled lab study ‘regardless of what participants say, they exhibit a preference for negative news content.’ More generally, we are programmed to pay more attention to ‘bad’ – again, back to our hunter-gathering roots, ‘good’ could mean an extra meal, ‘bad’ probably meant death. (A study into psychological preference found that ‘Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones.’ (Baumeister et al., 2001))

How to avoid the ‘news blues’

‘Numerous studies have shown that too much negative news can affect your mental health, promoting anxiety and depression, and even acute stress reactions in some extreme cases,’ says David Mischoulon, MD, PhD, Director of the Depression Clinical and Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital.

He suggests some tactics to protect mental health and avoid ‘news blues’.

Like dieting, think smaller portions. Some news is good, being aware of whats going on the world is good. Too much of the same diet however, is bad. Limit your news exposure to certain periods of time during the day and avoid ‘catching up’ just before sleep.

Self-monitor. If a news item is making you feel agitated, turn it off. Walk away. Breathe. Do something else and return to it late if you feel you need to.

Don’t watch the same news over and over again. News channels recycle their stories, producing ‘updates’ hourly or more often throughout the day. Usually nothing has changed, except one more ‘commentator’ adds their own opinion. News becomes views about news and spirals off into infinite regress.

If you can, take a day off now and then. A whole day. The world won’t stop just because you aren’t watching it. Take some time to watch yourself.


“How to Avoid the ‘News Blues’ While Still Staying Connected to the World: Limiting your news consumption and being more selective about your news sources can help.” Mind, Mood & Memory, vol. 17, no. 9, Sept. 2021, p. 3. 

Academic References

Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5(4), 323–370.

Holman, E. A., Garfin, D. R., Lubens, P., & Silver, R. C. (2019). Media Exposure to Collective Trauma, Mental Health, and Functioning: Does It Matter What You See? Clinical Psychological Science, 8(1), 111–124.

Jain, P. (2021). The COVID-19 Pandemic and Positive Psychology: The Role of News and Trust in News on Mental Health and Well-Being. Journal of Health Communication, 26(5), 317–327.

Neill, R. D., Blair, C., Best, P., McGlinchey, E., & Armour, C. (2021). Media consumption and mental health during COVID-19 lockdown: a UK cross-sectional study across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Journal of Public Health.

Stainback, K., Hearne, B. N., & Trieu, M. M. (2020). COVID-19 and the 24/7 News Cycle: Does COVID-19 News Exposure Affect Mental Health? Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World, 6, 237802312096933.

Thompson, R. R., Garfin, D. R., Holman, E. A., & Silver, R. C. (2017). Distress, Worry, and Functioning Following a Global Health Crisis: A National Study of Americans’ Responses to Ebola. Clinical Psychological Science, 5(3), 513–521.

Thompson, R. R., Jones, N. M., Holman, E. A., & Silver, R. C. (2019). Media exposure to mass violence events can fuel a cycle of distress. Science Advances, 5(4), eaav3502.

Trussler, M., & Soroka, S. (2014). Consumer Demand for Cynical and Negative News Frames. The International Journal of Press/Politics, 19(3), 360–379.

Can you eat your way out of depression?

We know diet is important, but increasingly research is showing that specific foods, in specific combinations, have a measurable effect on mental health.

Let’s be clear, a lot of studies show correlation, not causality. But the evidence is mounting.

Multiple studies point to a strong correlation between decreased serotonin and the food we eat. Another way of considering this is that we can eat foods to boost serotonin and possibly effect our mood.

Photo by Pablo Merchán Montes on Unsplash

Francis et al. (2019) found that young adults with elevated depression symptoms can engage in and adhere to a diet intervention, and that this can reduce symptoms of depression. Firth et al. (2019) conclude their systematic review of 16 peer-reviewed studies including over 45000 participants saying, ‘Dietary interventions hold promise as a novel intervention for reducing symptoms of depression across the population.’

A minor bit of the science

Tryptophan is an amino acid known to increase serotonin production in the brain. Serotonin is a mood stabilizing neurotransmitter – its the one targetted by the group of antidepressants called SSRIs. They essentially block the brain’s natural process of sweeping up unused serotonin so that it hangs around in the brain for longer, aiding synapses in firing their messages across the gaps between brain cells. So eating foods with high tryptophan levels should, in theory, boost serotonin production. It’s not that simple, of course. There’s a blood/brain barrier to overcome, which limits what can cross from your bloodstream directly into the brain. It appears, though, that eating complex carbs together with high tryptophan content foods helps the amino acid to make it’s way to the brain and rev up serotonin production.

Complex carbs would be fruits and vegatables. So that bit’s easy. High tryptophan content foods include nuts and seeds, particularly pumpkin seeds and chia seeds which have a higher content and are more easily accessible than tryptophan contained in meat and dairy products. Dark chocolate and bananas are also good options. So that bit’s actually easy too.

Don’t take my word for it and gorge yourself on pumpkins seeds as a self-medication for depression – that’s not what this post is about! It’s food for thought though. Check out the academic references, talk to your doctor, do your own research.

It’s certainly no surprise that healthy foods effect your mental state as well as your physical. And it’s probably not unconnected that many people suffering from depression have a very poor diet, which becomes a vicious circle of cause and effect.

I hope that this brief post has been interesting and prompted you to find out more yourself.

The research

Adan, R. A. H., van der Beek, E. M., Buitelaar, J. K., Cryan, J. F., Hebebrand, J., Higgs, S., Schellekens, H., & Dickson, S. L. (2019). Nutritional psychiatry: Towards improving mental health by what you eat. European Neuropsychopharmacology, 29(12), 1321–1332.

Firth, J., Marx, W., Dash, S., Carney, R., Teasdale, S. B., Solmi, M., Stubbs, B., Schuch, F. B., Carvalho, A. F., Jacka, F., & Sarris, J. (2019). The Effects of Dietary Improvement on Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety. Psychosomatic Medicine, 81(3), 265–280.

Francis, H. M., Stevenson, R. J., Chambers, J. R., Gupta, D., Newey, B., & Lim, C. K. (2019). A brief diet intervention can reduce symptoms of depression in young adults – A randomised controlled trial. PLOS ONE, 14(10), e0222768.

Counselling the Counsellor

I just completed my M.Sc. Psychology degree with a year-long research project entitled:

Counselling the counsellor – a phenomenological analysis of how Professional International School Counsellors view their own wellbeing

It was a rewarding and eye-opening process.

Here is the abstract from that report, outlining the approach and the findings:

“This study is concerned with Professional International School Counsellors and their wellbeing. The primary objective of this study was to investigate how Professional International School Counsellors maintained their wellbeing within the context of the school they worked in and the wider international environment. The research used Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis applied to semi-structured interviews, allowing for wide-ranging discussion and follow-up questions exploring issues arising from initial responses. Eight participants were selected for the research, drawn from social media advertisements within international school counsellor groups. The analysis revealed three themes: workload and role definition, the nature of support available and maintaining a balanced lifestyle. The results of the study showed that Professional International School Counsellors often have ill-defined roles and incomplete or non-existent job descriptions, leading to role confusion and work overload. The results also established that personal relationships were a key factor in counsellors’ wellbeing, together with professional online support. A third finding was the effectiveness of routine physical exercise and mindfulness activities on maintaining counsellor wellbeing. In conclusion, the study suggests that specific and systematic provision should be in place for supporting counsellors’ wellbeing within international schools, which should include independent clinical supervision.”

If you are interested in finding out more about clinical supervision, you can do so here.

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