Online Counselling - not just for expats

Category: mental health (Page 1 of 2)

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.

The new normal?

We may not know when, or how, but we do know that life will eventually return to normal. This doesn’t necessarily mean that things will continue as before, but routines will establish themselves, economies will recover and kids will go back to school, in some form or other. There will be a new ‘normal’.

This episode will never be forgotten, nor should it be. As with any trauma – and yes, this is a traumatic experience – people tend to rise to the occasion and ‘bear it out’. As with any trauma, the long-terms effects may well surface once the initial period of difficulty has passed.

With children returning to school, it is going to be vitally important that they get emotional support as they reflect on and assimilate this experience. Many schools have Counsellors, but some do not. Many School Counsellors have duties including timetabling, careers advice, curriculum delivery and day-to-day ‘putting out fires’ as incidents crop up in school. For students requiring a systematic, multi-session support programme, most school counsellors are simply unable to provide the support required.

With the rapid growth of online services precipitated by this crisis, there is a growing awareness that online support can work. It isn’t just a stop-gap whilst we are confined to our homes. It is something that can continue, not to replace what schools currently offer, but to complement it.

For more details about the support on offer from ExpatCounsellingNow for returning students, see here.

Self-help – Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction

MBSR is a thing. And has been for a long time. But today, it is perhaps a ‘thing’ that you could turn to if isolation is stressful for you and you’d like to figure out how to be more at ease with this new paradigm.

“Mindfulness is about being fully awake in our lives. It is about perceiving the exquisite vividness of each moment.”    – Jon Kabat-Zinn

Palouse Mindfulness is offering a FREE 8 week MSBR course online. I’ve paid for similar courses in the past, so this is an absolute bargain. Find more about it HERE. It is completely free and can even be done anonymously (though I’m not sure why anyone would want to….).

As a response to the crisis, you may have seen on this site that I will offer consultations for free. If you need to talk about your situation, please do get in touch.

. And remember, reaching out for help is not a sign of weakness. Suffering in stoic silence is never the best option.

Need to talk to someone?

So you have to isolate physically. You don’t have to isolate socially and emotionally. In fact, you shouldn’t.

This is from the HeySigmund! website:

Yes, we need to physically isolate ourselves, but let’s not isolate ourselves socially or emotionally. We need each other more than ever – not only to get to the other side of this on a global scale, but individually. Let’s be more like the people we need to be, and the people we were called to be. Let’s leave judgement and comparison and righteousness well behind. They have nothing for us anyway. They never did. And let’s replace them with radical kindness, compassion, and open-heartedness. Let’s do that.

In this time when we are keeping our physical distance, don’t underestimate what the little things might mean to the ones in your life who might be missing you, or who might be feeling more separate from the world, or maybe more anxious than usual – phone calls, messages, video chats, social media tags with ‘this reminded me of you’ in the message. Let’s not take the little things for granted. They matter. As it turns out, the little things will be the big things that will get us through this.

On this site you’ll find information for regular counselling, if that is what you require.
However, if you are finding yourself overly anxious, panicked or simply need someone to talk to in order to feel heard, to vent, or to get some perspective on your situation, you thoughts, your feelings, please do get in touch. I’m home (obviously!) and at a computer most of the time. I can use Skype confidential or Whereby (see here) and will happily give you twenty minutes or so. For free. No obligations or expectations. There’s only one of me, so it’ll be first come first served… Please use the contact page here or if you have my other contact info through work or personal networks, feel free to use those.

I am on Central European Time (CET), currently GMT +1, so do bear that in mind.

Staying healthy whilst self-isolating

During these unprecedented times, hundreds of thousands of people are self-isolating and experiencing an entirely new mode of life. It is of the utmost importance to stay healthy and positive, so here are some basic tips for both physical and mental health.

Physical health:

The number one piece of advice is still hand-washing. Especially if you are isolating with family members. Think particularly of bathroom use and handling food. If you can’t recall the last time you washed you hands, you should probably go and wash them now!

Eat well. Don’t forget a regular dose of fruits and vegetables, and drink plenty (1.5 – 2 litres) of water per day, even if you do not feel thirsty.

Get creative about exercise. There is plenty of advice online and you really don’t need much space to do basic exercise routines. Download a new exercise app and follow that. Write out a daily routine and be sure to follow it as best you can.

Get some fresh air. Ideally that would be walking in the countryside, but that may not be possible for you. Even having windows open for a regular time each day will make a difference to your health.

Mental well-being:

Research shows that more mental health issues will surface during next stages of self-isolation and quarantine. Feelings of frustration, boredom, fear or a lack of control will come to the fore in the extra downtime that people have in which to ruminate and introspect. Here are some things you can do to protect your mental health:

Social media can help you stay in touch with people, but it can also make you feel anxious, especially if people are sharing sensational news stories or posting their particular concerns and worries. Think about taking a break or limiting your use of social media. You might decide to view only particular groups or pages and not scroll through timelines.

The virus is likely to affect people from many different cultures and countries. The WHO says to avoid attaching the disease to any particular ethnicity or nationality. It’s important to have empathy with those who are infected and remember that they haven’t done anything wrong.

Build in some achievement moments into each day. Set goals that you can tick off each day so that you avoid falling into a negative spiral. These could be reading that book you’ve never quite gotten around to reading (set yourself a chapter a day), learning a new skill online or from a book, exercise, Skyping a friend or family member, writing an email or tackling DIY jobs at home.

You do not need 24/7 news updates from around the globe. If news stories make you feel anxious, confused or not in control, consider switching off or limiting what you look at for a while. Think about limiting your news consumption to a regular time each day and then don’t ‘check’ it all throughout the day.

Routine, routine, routine! It’s easily to slip into binge watch TV, getting up at noon, staying up into the small hours and letting personal hygiene standards fall. Establish a routine of getting up, getting dressed, having a healthy breakfast and setting a sensible bedtime. If you are isolating with family, establish a regular family mealtime.

Connect with nature. If you can’t get out, listen to natural sounds, like recordings or apps that play birdsong, ocean waves or rainfall. Get as much natural light as you can. Spend time in your garden if you have one, or open your front or back door and sit on the doorstep. Go for walks if permitted and you are able to. There is more and more evidence linking regular contact with nature and positive mental health.

Be positive! Advice from the WHO states that when possible we should try and share positive or helpful coronavirus stories. Do you know someone who has recovered? Is it bringing people in your community closer together? It’s normal to overthink things when we’re alone and self-isolation could be the perfect breeding ground for negative thoughts. Try not to use your extra time picking apart every aspect of your job, relationships, friendships and life in general.

Stay in touch with people. Self-isolation does not meet solitary confinement! Make plans to video chat with people or groups you’d normally see in person. Arrange regular phone calls or send messages or texts. If you’re worried that you might run out of things to talk about, make a plan with a friend to watch something or read a book separately so that you can discuss it when you get in touch. 

Finally, if you find that you are struggling, if confinement is troubling you and you are losing focus in daily life, do make sure to talk to someone. Counselling online exists, and there are resources out there for everyone.

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