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We all have issues.. what helps and who can you talk to?

Long term expat, Verne Maree, understands that while some personal problems are ‘generic’ there are issues that you wouldn’t have to face if you’d stayed at home! She explores various options for self-help, understanding meditation and mindfulness, understanding the danger zones and knowing when to call a counsellor.

I should have been a psychologist. In fact, I probably would have been a psychologist if I’d had slightly more aptitude for maths. (All right, a lot more.)

For one thing, I’ve always been a sucker for any sort of pop psychology. If you don’t remember those compulsive quizzes in Cosmopolitan magazine in the nineties – “Are You a Team Player?”, “How Good Are You in Bed?” or the classic “How Much Do You Really Know About Vaginas?” – not to worry, they’re still churning them out.

I’ve wallowed in favourites such as Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese?, Allan Pease and Barbara Pease’s Why Men Don’t Listen & Women Can’t Read Maps and Steven D Levitt’s Freakonomics. Everyone should read the great standards, including Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and Susan Jeffers’ Feel the Fear … and Do It Anyway. I also really like the sound of The F*ck It List! – All the Things You Can Skip Before You Die (Kevin Pryslak).


These days, you can’t talk about psychology or mental health without talking about mindfulness, or its kissing cousins “living in the now” and “being present”. Both mindfulness and meditation have gone mainstream – and I’m a full-fledged fan of all this stuff, despite the populistic hype. (Note: If at this point you’ve zoned out, glazed over and are ready to flip to the recipe page, I won’t take it personally.)

I first came across the concept in Eckhart Tolle’s mega-bestselling The Power of Now and A New Earth, both of which I’ve read numerous times, gleaning more with each reading.

Here’s just a bit of it:

Mindfulness is the art of paying intentional and active attention to what’s going on right now. It can last for seconds, minutes or longer. Like any skill, it can be practised and learnt.

Life happens in the present. But all too often we ignore the present and allow life to pass unnoticed and unappreciated while we brood on past events or worry about the future. Much of our unhappiness is caused by dwelling on past events that were embarrassing, sad or hurtful. Much of our stress and worry, on the other hand, comes from focusing on possible future events and situations that are beyond our control.

All we can control is how we act right now. In the words of another of my favourite gurus, Jon Kabat-Zinn: “The only time you ever have in which to learn anything or see anything or feel anything, or express any feeling or emotion, or respond to an event, or grow, or heal, is this moment, because this is the only moment any of us ever gets. You’re only here now; you’re only alive in this moment.”

You are not your thoughts. That truth becomes clear when you find yourself observing your own thoughts – ideally non judgmentally and without criticism.

Mindfulness vs Meditation

Psychotherapist Philip Kolba reminds us that mindfulness and meditation are not at all the same thing. Meditation, which comes to us from various religious and secular traditions, encompasses techniques for training the mind or reaching altered states of consciousness.

Mindfulness he describes as a practice that was adopted by Western psychology from Buddhism. Within Buddhism, it is part of a rich historical tradition; but in the context of psychology it’s been pared down to a technique to improve mental functioning. “Mindfulness is often practised as a type of meditation, but with experience it can be conditioned as a regular habit,” he notes encouragingly

Benefits of practising mindfulness and other meditative practices include:

  • Increased awareness of your mind and body
  • Improved cognition, memory and mood
  • Less stress, pain and fatigue
  • Greater happiness.

“I’m not in the business of telling people what to do,” says Philip. “But with all these benefits and no risk, why wouldn’t you practise mindfulness?”

For more inspiration, check out: Wherever You Go, There You Are, by Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindful.org and mindfulnet.org

Counseling in Singapore
“People may act in ways they would never consider acting in their home country, as they feel a sense of anonymity and entitlement”


As an expatriate, you may be more likely to need counselling than someone who stays put in their home town, surrounded by the support of long-time friends and family, confirms MARIA LUEDEKE of Aspire Counselling. She herself uses a collaborative approach, she says, to help her clients develop self-efficacy, resilience and self-empowerment through their innate strength and abilities.

“Expats are in a constant state of transition and adaptation as we are continually moving in and out of each other’s lives, changing social groups and establishing different norms,” she says. While this can be exciting, continuous change in the absence of traditional support structures can make expats more vulnerable to loneliness and isolation, creating distressful situations and triggering mental issues.

Some Danger Areas

  • Worries about ageing parents are intensified when thousands of miles separate us from them; the same goes for our own adult children who may be going through difficult times.
  • A sense of impermanence and instability can arise from the unpredictability of expat assignments. “Expecting to stay only for two or three years, they simply exist in their adopted home, instead of fully investing in it and creating meaningful connections,” explains Maria. Anxiety about the future can make us reluctant to engage with others, so we end up isolated and depressed.
  • Pressure to perform can lead to excessive stress, especially for high-achieving expats whose companies have brought them here for their valuable skills. As a result, they sometimes neglect themselves and their families, or turn to problematic coping mechanisms such as drinking, drugs or unhealthy relationships. “People may act in ways they would never consider acting in their home country, as they feel a sense of anonymity and entitlement.”
  • Family structures can be strained by school changes, work changes, social changes and extended separations between parents and children and spouses, be they for work or leisure. Be aware, too, of the possible consequence of replacing parental supervision with that of domestic helpers.
  • Marital issues can develop or worsen as you adapt to new environments, new roles and different cultural expectations. Long hours, excessive travel, the frustrations inherent in setting up life in a new country, and perhaps the loss of a former career, can lead to loneliness, to temptation, to anger and to resentment.

Seeking Help

It’s commonplace for expats to ask one another for referrals to dentists, hairdressers, tutors and such – “but there is still a degree of taboo when it comes to asking for the name of a good mental health practitioner,” says Maria.

“Don’t be afraid to talk about mental health and share information and knowledge,” she urges, and don’t suffer in silence. “Reaching out for help – be it face-to-face counselling or video-conference-based online counselling – can make all the difference in successfully navigating the challenges of expat life.”


Counseling in Singapore

Now based in Portland, Oregon, in the US, Sydney-born psychotherapist PHILIP KOLBA of Philip Kolba & Associates Mental Health Counselors specialises in counselling expats online. Describing his approach as client-centred and solutions-focused, he provides individual, couple and alternative relationship counselling to both LGBTQ and hetero clients.

How does video-counselling work?

In my practice, I have sessions with my clients over video-conferencing, phone and instant messenger. I sometimes incorporate psychology apps for tracking progress and practising skills between sessions.

Video counselling resembles in-person psychotherapy, except that instead of coming to my office, my clients see me from the comfort of their own homes. One of the best predictors of the effectiveness of psychotherapy is the quality of the relationship between the client and the mental health provider, and studies show that this relationship develops more easily in an environment where the client is already comfortable.

Tell us more about your approach.

My clients are experts on themselves, and I’m an expert on psychology; so my role is not to tell people what to do but to help them figure out the kind of life they want to live and how to accomplish it. Customising my counselling for each client, I use a combination of techniques such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), dialectical-behaviour therapy (DBT), emotion-focused therapy (EFT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), and eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing therapy (EMDR).

What makes video counselling ideal for expats like us?

Being away from their usual support system, it can be helpful to have access to professional counselling from abroad. What’s more, effective counselling depends on a shared cultural understanding between the provider and the client, which an expat may not be able to find locally. And for expats who change locations multiple times, online counselling means they can keep their counsellor throughout their travels, ensuring consistent mental health care.


Counseling in Singapore
“Each night when I fall asleep, I die. Every morning when I wake up, I am reborn” – Mahatma Gandhi

Getting a good night’s sleep is one of the best things we can do for both our physical and mental health. So, how do we manage sleep apnoea, irregular body clocks and other threats to a well-deserved eight hours of blissful slumber? Here’s what JILLIAN BROMLEY, director of Fernhill Psychology and Counselling, has to say.

Different sleeping patterns in the family are often a source of misunderstandings, stress and even conflict, says Jillian. “The wife wants to go to bed at 10 and have time for a quiet chat and intimacy. Her husband finds he can do his best work after midnight. Their teenager can’t get to sleep, so does some more reading, raids the fridge (again) and can’t get up in the morning.”

Interestingly, it used to be common practice to sleep in two sessions – an early sleep and a late sleep. The Industrial Revolution forced the change to one long sleep, but eight hours straight doesn’t work for everyone.

Apart from sleep apnoea – a common and treatable cause of sleeping difficulties, according to Jillian – there are many other possibilities to consider.

Tick, tock

Irregular sleep behaviours can often be explained by investigating the individual’s circadian rhythm, or body clock. We’ve all experienced short-term upsets to our body clock after travelling across time zones, during periods of anxiety, because of work demands or because there’s a new baby in the house.

“But when someone has a long-term pattern of failing to fit into their cultural norms of bed time and work time,” says Jillian, “it might be because they have a Circadian Rhythm Sleep Disorder (CRSD).”

Assessment of someone’s circadian rhythm involves tracking, for at least 24 hours, their body temperature and alertness, through observing their brain activity and naturally occurring patterns of sleeping, dreaming and waking.

CRSD can vary from being a mild annoyance to posing a serious threat to our work or school performance and to our relationships, notes Jillian. “Across the years, the sleep-disturbed will often a hear a frustrated voice saying, ‘Why can’t you just sleep when everyone else sleeps?’

Recognising problematic sleep patterns, talking to someone about them, and going for an assessment in a hospital or university sleep clinic is a good starting point for a better night’s sleep.


Maria Luedeke Aspire Counselling Orchard Parade Hotel, Offices #03-03 1 Tanglin Road 6570 2781 | aspirecounselling.net

Jillian Bromley Fernhill Psychology and Counselling 27 Woking Road, Wessex Estate 9623 4461 | fernhill.com.sg Philip

Kolba Philip  Kolba & Associates – Mental Health Counselors (+503) 987 0337 | philipkolba.com


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This article first appeared in the June 2017 edition of Expat Living. You can purchase a copy or subscribe so you never miss an issue!